"I’ve owned ten bars and restaurants in SF for more than a decade, and I need you all to hear me: We are dying," writes Ben Bleiman.
Bleiman posted an opinion piece to KQED's website Wednesday aimed squarely at the mayor and Board of Supervisors, saying what many local restaurant and bar owners have been saying for several years. Much like speakers at a recent hours-long hearing at City Hall, Bleiman raises alarm bells about the current cost of doing business in SF, and the various fees and permitting hassles that make it difficult and often unprofitable.
"How’d things get so bad? It’s a boomtime, right?" Bleiman writes. "People blame greedy landlords and Millennial buying habits, but I don’t. I blame City Hall."
Bleiman goes on to say that "Restaurant payrolls alone have gone up 52% in the last five years on average," and he says you add to this "a permitting process and planning code that rival the Soviet Union in complexity and irrationality."
Bleiman is a partner in Tonic Nightlife Group which owns a shrinking number of popular bars around town including Tonic, Soda Popinski's, and Teeth (formerly known as Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, named for the Muppets' house band). After having to close for an earthquake retrofit project in its building in 2018, Tonic reopened in a new location at Hyde and Post back in March. And the group has had to shutter Bullitt (in August 2019), and Nokturnal (earlier this year). Wild Hare was sold to new owners (and closed in November 2018), and the group sold Lightning Tavern/Hollow Cow on Union Street in 2017, and Mission bar Cease & Desist in 2017.
"Walk down once bustling Union Street on a Thursday night at 8 pm and it’s as creepy as a zombie movie," Bleiman writes, suggesting that the growing spate of retail vacancies in the Marina/Cow Hollow, Castro, and North Beach is all the fault of local legislation and red tape.
During a Q&A four years ago at SF Small Business Week, Bleiman said, "We are competing against a city that continually forces us to raise our prices by jacking us our cost of doing business. This then, forces us to compete with other cities such as Austin, Seattle and Portland that are offering better business climates, and thus lower costs for consumers. Their lower cost of living is attracting young and talented people and puts us in real jeopardy here." And that was four years ago!
Bleiman is preaching to the choir among local restaurateurs and bar owners. Max Young, the owner of the recently closed Mr. Smith's in SoMa, said some similar things in an open letter to City Hall, discussing the pain of paying high taxes and fees coupled with the lack of basic services that have left the streets, as Bleiman says, "filthy and dangerous." Che Fico chef-owner David Nayfield said at that September City Hall hearing, "My partners and I have started to consider new projects. But we’ve started to see San Francisco as a non-viable market."
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, to his credit, got some legislation passed in July that partly addresses some of the red-tape issues for restaurants on the Market Street corridor. But expect to hear more laments like this one.