Break the chains! From a spunky salon to a 100-year-old speakeasy, our annual salute to small business highlights local entrepeneurs who blow away the competition
The mallification of America continues apace, with faceless conglomerates training new generations of shoppers to look for the cheapest deals at bland big box outlets, regardless of what "cheap" might actually mean in terms of pollution, transportation, labor, and the local economy. (For starters, out of every $100 dollars spent at a big box, only $43 remains in the local economy, compared to $68 if you buy local.) But in San Francisco at least, the little guys keep on swinging, maintaining unique shops and service companies with a vibrant local feel and contributing to the patchwork of optimism, individuality, and community effort that make the city great. Each year, we honor several of them for sticking to their guns and pursuing their visions.
"The higher the hair, the closer to God," a wise Southern drag queen once said. Here in San Francisco, one of our own heavenly salons, Glama-Rama, is about to get a whole lot more divine, expanding from its homey kitsch digs in SoMa to a new 2500 square foot space on Valencia Corridor, creating 16 new jobs. The driving force behind that expansion is owner Deena Davenport, who combined her hairdressing talent, natural business acumen, and deep connection to the local arts scene into a formula for sheer success when she opened Glama-Rama 11 years ago.
"My dream was not to have a business, but a community space," Davenport told me. "I wanted a place for all my gifted friends to express themselves. Not just our excellent stylists, but artists, designers, musicians, event producers — we all came together to make this happen. I think that's the key to our success. We work with all kinds of styles and we don't price ourselves out of the nonprofit sector. That allows a great mix of clientele, and an element of comfort for everyone."
Davenport, a creative blur, plans to kickstart a Valencia Corridor merchants association once she gets settled in, and dreams of a future in politics. (She currently hosts a show on Pirate Cat Radio and appears onstage in local productions.) "I'm fortunate to have always had great friends and great landlords — and to be in a business the Internet can't compete with," she says.
"By the way, the new space will be two shades of cream with gold accents," Davenport adds, ever the stylish professional. "We're taking off our Doc Martens and putting on some heels." (Marke B.)
304 Valencia, SF
CAFÉ DU NORD
It's no secret that nightlife in San Francisco has taken a big hit lately. A combination of economic woes and persistent crackdowns by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and local police, a.k.a. the War on Fun, has taken its toll — even on 100-year-old live-venue mainstays like Café Du Nord.
"It's been tough for us and for everyone out there," says Guy Carson, who took over the space with Kerry LaBelle in 2003. "They don't call it 'hard times' for nothing. But we love what we do, and we know how to run a quality business. I've been promoting live shows since I was nine years old, so you know it's what I love. You have to be willing to weather the storms."
The intimate basement space retains its speakeasy vibe and velvet-curtained, cabaret-like setting, while playing host to mighty big names and burgeoning local upstarts. As a "venue with a menu" that serves food and puts on all ages and 18+ shows, Café Du Nord has been specifically targeted by the city and ABC for what Carson calls "differing interpretations of the law." He looks forward to the upcoming launch of the new California Music and Culture Association, which will bring together several local venues and nightlife activists to fight the tide of local nightlife repression. "When we all work together, we can return the city's nightlife to its former glory," Carson says. (Marke B.)
CAFÉ DU NORD
3174 Market, SF
Eric Weaver put his first nonprofit loan package together in 1995. His small startup, called Opportunity Fund, helped brothers who wanted to expand their pet shop borrow $17,000 for aquariums and fish. The deal worked out well; the pet store prospered, the money got repaid, and Opportunity Fund was on its way to becoming one of the most successful microlending outfits in California.
Weaver, a Stanford MBA and the fund's CEO, now oversees a staff of 35 that makes loans to small businesses, most of them minority owned, that might have trouble getting financing from a traditional bank. And the nonprofit continues to grow by helping entrepreneurs in the Bay Area get the financing they need to create jobs and build community businesses. "We just made our 1,000th loan," he told me. "We're on target to make 200 loans this year, more than ever."
Unlike most banks, Opportunity Fund sees its clients almost as partners. The staff takes time to help borrowers work up a successful business plan and learn how to manage their finances. "We do one-on-one business counseling with almost all of our clients," Weaver said.
The group also helps finance affordable housing developments and offers individual development accounts (IDAs)— special savings accounts that come with financial training and grants — for everything from education to home purchases to putting aside the cash it now takes to become a U.S. citizen.
A recent study showed that Opportunity Fund has created or retained 1,200 in the Bay Area. "With a median loan size of $7,000, and a focus on making loans to people who have historically been underserved by banks, Opportunity Fund has been a particularly valuable resource for women, minority, and low-income entrepreneurs," Weaver noted. He added that 73 percent of Opportunity Fund borrowers are members of an ethnic minority, and 90 percent of borrowers have incomes at or below 80 percent of area median income.
Imagine a traditional bank making a statement like that. (Tim Redmond)
785 Market Street, Suite 1700, SF
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION
Independent booksellers are a wonder. Up against giant chains like Wal-Mart, facing technological changes like Kindle and online behemoths like Amazon.com (which doesn't even have to pay state sales taxes), it's hard to believe they can even survive. Yet they do — in fact, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association keeps growing.
"The mainstream press wants to write about bookstores closing," Calvin Crosby, NCIBA's vice president, told me. "But actually, stores are opening. We have two new members this year."
The booksellers group keeps the small, community-based stores in the public eye, with promotions, events like the annual NCIBA awards (see page 28) and political lobbying (NCIBA is a big supporter of a bill by Assembly Member Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, that would force Amazon to pay sales tax).
One of the group's biggest tasks is education — reminding the public that local bookstores serve a critical function. "I was at a book-signing recently with a major author, and a bunch of people showed up with books they bought on Amazon and they wanted to trade them for signed copies," Crosby, who is community relations director at Books Inc., recalled. "I had to explain to all of them that Amazon doesn't pay taxes and hurts the locals."
And with 300 bookseller members, NCIBA is helping preserve the notion that buying a book from someone who actually cares about books is an idea whose time will never pass. (Redmond)
1007 General Kennedy, SF.
"Money spent in a small business — far, far more of it stays here in the neighborhood than with a chain store," says Keith Goldstein, president of the Potrero Hill Association of Merchants and Businesses. A Potrero Hill resident since 1974, and owner of Everest Waterproofing and Restoration, Inc., Goldstein has spent the last six years with the merchant's association promoting a sense of community in the inclined blocks of Potrero.
He's overseen the growth of the Potrero Hill Festival from what he calls "a small affair" to a yearly event that's "great for residents and businesses," and also serves on the Eastern Neighborhood Advisory Committee, where he works on issues, like new transit plans, that affect local businesses.
Somehow he has found the time to start SEEDS (www.nepalseeds.org ), a group that provides infrastructure and health support to underserved Tibetan villages, and is involved in Food Runners (www.foodrunners.org ), an organization that links homeless shelters to food sources.
The superlative community member incorporates the 'buy local' mentality into every aspect of his life, even placing the administration of the health care plan for his 50 employees into the hands of a fellow Potrero Hill Merchant's Association member. "It's all richly rewarding," Goldstein says of his hands-on role in his neighborhood's economic viability. "I like to walk around the hill and be able to chat with my neighbors about quality of life issues." (Caitlin Donohue)
Potrero Hill Association of Merchants and Businesses
1459 18th St., SF.
RED VIC MOVIE HOUSE
"Once it got going, it was like a perpetual-motion machine. And I have to say, I think it was the collective nature of the thing that's kept the Red Vic going this long," says Jack Rix, long time worker and cofounder of the Red Vic Movie House, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
The Red Vic's employees put a lot into the neighborhood theater's showings of unique and classic flicks. Each worker-owner does a little of everything, from sweeping the lobby floor to washing dishes. "We're all utility players here, this is very much a labor of love," Rix says. Launched in 1980 by community organizers, the theater's focus has not only been on providing great movies but doing it sustainably, installing solar paneling on the roof and eschewing paper products. "Back then I don't think the phrase 'green' existed," Rix recalls. "We were trying to be 'green' and we didn't even know it!"
The Red Vic's workers aren't the only ones with a certain affection for the theater's bench seating, environmentally friendly ceramic coffee mugs, and wooden popcorn bowls. Rix says some Upper Haight residents will wait for blockbusters to make their way out of "corporate" movie cinemas to the Red Vic's second-run screen. "We're very much a community theater," he says proudly. (Donohue)
RED VIC MOVIE HOUSE
1727 Haight, SF
Nestled in a part of the city best known for its tiny pastel homes and bracing sea breezes, Ocean Beach's Other Avenues is everything you could desire in a neighborhood grocery store: Warm atmosphere, vast swaths of bulk food bins, and a well-edited health food selection, including vitamins, medicines, and cheery shelves of produce. Plus health insurance for all its knowledgeable employees.
Trader who? No need for big box stores near Other Avenues, which has earned a loyal clientele in the 36 years since it first opened its doors. "Since we're a co-op, I like to think of us as a giant organism," says Other Avenues worker Ryan Bieber. "Occasionally we lose parts and regrow them. A lot of customers have been coming here for 10, 20 years." Their loyalty might be in response to Other Avenues' commitment to keeping its beachside clientele healthy and well. "The aim is to make sure that people have access to things like this," says Bieber.
Asked what he thinks would happen if one of the chain grocery behemoths encroaches on the shop's territory, Bieber is unconcerned. "I think people will come here regardless. [We] have been doing this forever and we take pretty good care of ourselves. I think our customers really respond to that. We wouldn't want a world where there was only Whole Foods — that'd be too boring!" (Donohue)
3930 Judah, SF
ARTHUR JACKSON DIVERSITY IN SMALL BUSINESS AWARD
Raymond Ow-Yang tends to downplay the impact he's had on the North Beach-Chinatown artistic landscape. The owner of New Sun Hong Kong restaurant, Ow-Yang put up the funds to have the iconic Jazz Mural painted on the Columbus and Broadway walls of his Chinese restaurant. The artist Bill Weber approached him in 1988 — securing an approximately $70,000 aesthetic gift to the community that Ow-Yang has never sought public recognition for.
"Back then you're young, you have no brain. I thought, this is nice — it's something you do because you feel like it," Ow-Yang recalls dismissively.
"Nice"is an understatement. The mural, which depicts famous San Francisco figures and scenes, has become one of the neighborhood's visual joys, stopping tourists in their photo-snapping tracks. The gift reflects Ow-Yang's commitment to the streets he grew up on
He immigrated to Chinatown from Canton in 1962, at age 13. A lifelong entrepreneur, Ow-Yang owned a photo studio, a floral shop, and a restaurant in Oakland's Chinatown (the original Sun Hong Kong) before opening at 606 Broadway in 1989. The restaurant is open until 3 a.m. every day — a timetable residents can appreciate for more reasons than just Ow-Yang's post-bar won ton soup. "Before, people were afraid to walk through this area," says the businessman. "Now there's a lot more foot traffic — the city even put up traffic lights. With the bright lights [from New Sun Hong Kong], it's a lot safer in this area." (Donohue)
New Sun Hong Kong
606 Broadway, SF