Much like Walgreens before them, Amazon-owned Whole Foods may be scapegoating San Francisco's petty crime problem and feeding into a narrative in order to avoid talking about the economics of the store they just shut down.
I don't think anyone will argue that opening up a "flagship" Whole Foods location at Market and Eighth streets was ever going to be anything but a major gamble. And it could be that the April 10 announcement that the store was closing "for the time being" was just that — maybe after some period of regrouping and perhaps some interior layout changes, and/or some sort of forced concessions from the city, it will in fact reopen.
But many of us have suspected that Whole Foods was using the same gambit as Walgreens did a couple years back, crying about the conditions of San Francisco's streets and the crime problem while, in actuality, making some shrewd business moves and cutting some dead weight.
The Chronicle has now spoken to a handful of former employees at the mid-Market store — on condition of anonymity because presumably some were given jobs at other stores — and they have painted a likely picture that Amazon/Whole Foods didn't really do their due diligence before opening this store. This is despite the fact that it had been planned for years, as part of the enormous Trinity Place project, before its March 2022 opening.
"If I had to guess, I’d say that no one from global or regional took the time to walk around the neighborhood [before opening the store]," says one former employee, speaking to the Chronicle. And, this person adds, "Sales weren’t too great for the supposed flagship store of the region."
Employees cite multiple missteps on the part of the company, including the placement of a liquor section near the exit doors, and "hiring poorly trained guards who tended to escalate confrontations into violence."
Yes, apparently someone OD'd in the Whole Foods restroom, but the pure fact that the store had unlocked or unattended restrooms in that neighborhood shows a high degree of naïveté, or just lack of local knowledge.
The Chronicle — the piece is co-bylined by former food critic turned columnist Soleil Ho and Nuala Bashiri, whose work often focuses on homelessness — suggests too that the store was just a poor fit for the immediate neighborhood, given the high level of poverty in the nearby Tenderloin and Sixth Street areas. But it was also one of the closest-situated, full-service grocery stores serving all of SoMa, which doesn't have a lot of grocery stores, and there are plenty of well-off people residing in new and expensive apartments and condos in SoMa who shop at Whole Foods — not to mention the 3,000 or so people living in Trinity Place, right above it.
Those people might order a lot of delivery, but they also might just not have wanted to shop at this store because of the stretch of Market and/or Eighth Street that they'd need to walk to get there. (The people who live upstairs? Who knows.)
The point is, many people noted how very empty this store felt a lot of the time — not overrun with crazed addicts, but actually just empty. Would Whole Foods have made the decision to curtail hours last fall, closing the place at 7 p.m., if they were doing gangbusters business and regularly had long lines at checkout at 7 or 8 p.m.? That was also framed as a decision about "safety."
The great gentrification wave on Mid-Market that city leaders promised back when Twitter was given their infamous tax break never really happened. Things certainly look different, in spots, with the Line hotel/Serif condos between Fifth and Sixth, the mall across the street that will soon be home to IKEA, and the now six-year-old, Kelly Wearstler-designed Proper Hotel a block up. But UN Plaza is still a hub of drug and stolen-goods sales, and the pandemic brought with it more inequality, more desperation, and a worsening fentanyl crisis.
Governor Gavin Newsom announced Friday that he's deploying the National Guard and CHP to the Tenderloin, to "disrupt the drug supply." But, regardless, if anything shifts people's perceptions of SF's streets, or if the reality of conditions on the streets change, this Whole Foods location might remain a poor business decision in a city that already has eight locations with another on the way at Geary and Masonic.
And maybe, possibly, it'll just reopen and at some point, like the CEO of Walgreens did in January, we'll be hearing Whole Foods execs admitting that maybe they "cried too much" about crime.