In yet another argument for why San Francisco neighborhoods can not afford to be too picky about what kinds of retail and restaurants they get in the midst of a retail apocalypse, the first U.S. location of Hinoya Curry in the Marina was forced to close just weeks after opening in order to go through a special permitting process.
The popular Japanese chain, Hinoya Curry, opened to immediately long lines last month at 3347 Fillmore Street, offering their versions of karaage (fried chicken) and pork katsu curry. But because it's a chain with more than 10 locations worldwide (it has upwards of 60 locations outside the U.S.), and because it's in a neighborhood with no formula retail allowed, it was required to go through a conditional use permit process that it did not go through before opening. And, so, less than a month after opening, Hinoya Curry SF has closed its storefront, and a message on its website says it is "officially launching soon." The message further explains that the company is now seeking its permit from the Planning Department.
The restaurant has covered over its logo, but it still says "Curry SF" on the storefront, and the message cryptically says, "Please be assured that we will continue to operate and serve our customers during this process." It's unclear if that means delivery food is still happening, or what this means.
As the Chronicle confirms with the Planning Commission, there has been no pandemic exception made to standing formula retail laws in the city — which outright ban chain stores and restaurants in Chinatown, North Beach, and Hayes Valley and require a six-month approval process with public comment in other neighborhoods (except Union Square and Stonestown). However now would probably be the time to start talking about loosening the rules, especially as neighborhoods like North Beach, the Castro, the Marina, and Hayes Valley are looking at streets lined with empty storefronts. It's not like small-scale businesses are clamoring to fill these spaces anytime soon.
As Laurie Thomas from the Golden Gate Restaurant Association tells the paper, "I think now is a good time to re-look at what San Francisco needs and what types of thoughtful reevaluation can happen. As smaller restaurants and independents have been financially decimated, it begs the question: Who will be able to continue to operate, let alone start a new restaurant without access to significant capital?"
The topic of loosening formula retail rules following pandemic decimation was taken up six months ago in the SF Business Times, given what real estate agents and landlords across the city are seeing.
As commercial realtor Pam Mendelsohn told the Business Times, "When I have 15 vacancies on a street, I don’t know how we can’t be more relaxed." She added, "I don't want my neighborhoods full of chains either, but there are good uses and bad uses."
The existing formula retail rules were championed by SF supervisors and many residents when they were passed between 2004 and 2007, including the voter-approved Proposition G. They were later expanded and solidified, making sure that the 10-location limit applied worldwide, so that foreign chains couldn't skirt the rules and take over local-business-dominated retail districts.
But as much as many of us don't want SF neighborhoods turned into heavily branded districts full of Jack in the Box and Ross Dress for Less stores, Hinoya Curry is a good example of a non-U.S. chain that many San Franciscans would likely be thrilled to have nearby — and making the restaurant wait six months to reopen now seems stupid.
"It’s one thing to make things harder for the McDonald’s and Starbucks of the world, it’s another thing to create a bunch of extra hoops for places opening their first US spot, in a long vacant storefront, and with a cuisine unavailable in at least a mile and a half radius," says neighborhood resident Eric Kingsbury on Twitter.
And if you asked most SF residents if they'd rather start making exceptions to the rules quicker and easier or to walk down blocks deadened by empty storefronts for years to come, what do you think they'd say?
Last year, right before COVID changed things for everyone, voters in San Francisco approved Prop D, the Retail Vacancy Tax — which penalizes landlords for leaving ground-floor spaces empty for months or years on end. But it's hardly fair to start enforcing that law when more businesses are failing than succeeding, and when landlords will likely have a difficult time filling spaces for the next year or two — unless some floodgate gets opened for chains that still want to do business here. Even that may yield more of a trickle than a flood, given all the retail closures around Union Square where chains are totally welcome.
Is this going to have to wait for another ballot measure? We shall see. But the Board of Supervisors has their work cut out for them.