“Why is it important to have more alcohol?” asked a man who brought his young daughter to the meeting. “Why not have healthier foods?”
“We’re being flooded with alcohol. How will this change improve public health?”“With all the gentrification, we’re just opening the door to more boutique, high-end places. My Brownies don’t go to Bi-Rite.”
“I don’t feel like I’m at a point where I can make changes to the legislation,” [Supervisor David Campos] said. “There remains the question, should anything change?”
These were the concerns brought up at a recent community meeting regarding calls to lift some of the confines in the Mission's and La Lengua's ban on new liquor licenses (as known as the “Mission Alcohol Special Use District”). Sounds bad, right? Lifting restrictios means more gentrification. Less room for healthier foods. Increasing damage to our public health. Why would we ever consider loosening up restrictions on bringing liquor licenses into the Mission?
And people in favor of keeping our strict moratorium in place have a point. After all, a funny thing has happened since the 1996 ban went into effect: 200 new businesses have been permitted to sell liquor in the neighborhood. That shouldn't be surprising to anyone—in the past couple of years alone, Pica Pica, Mission Cheese, Grub, Mosto, Tacolicious, West of Pecos, and Wo Hing General Store have opened with booze to sell in locations on Valencia previously not permitted to do so.
But therein lies the problem. In the 18 years the ban has been in place, 195 restaurants have received licenses (39 of which have full liquor licenses), but only two bars and three grocery stores have. In other words, 97.5% of new liquor licenses in the Mission are being gobbled up by predominately fancy, high-end restaurants catering to people from outside the neighborhood who can afford a premium for dinner.
If we really care about “gentrification” and “healthier foods” and The Public Good, shouldn't we be making it easier, not harder, for new, innovative, cheap, diverse establishments to open?
The reason you mostly see high-end restaurants opening is a due to a tangled web of bureaucracy, inflated costs, and bad public policy.
When the ban went into effect, restaurants were not deemed to be the problem—corner stores and seedy bars were. Back then, the Mission was 'overrun' with violent drunks and vagabonds who subsisted on a diet of corner store malt liquor and cheap vodka. The thinking was that with a ban on new liquor licenses and license transfers in place, corner stores and bars would go away as their owners moved on and the Mission, in effect, would become less “saturated” by liquor. Since full-service restaurants (defined as restaurants that see more than 50% of their income come from food sales) and commercial grocery stores (think Safeway and Whole Foods) were not the problem, they were exempt from the ban.
Of course, this has had the unintended effect of accelerating the influx of high-end businesses with “concepts” and “trained mixologists” and increasing the homogeneity of our nightlife.
Because of the excessively limited scope of what types of businesses are allowed in the neighborhood, existing and aspiring business owners alike are burdened with getting the law changed. First in 2000, when the Brava Theater wanted to serve beer and wine, an amendment was made to exempt non-profit theaters from the ban. More recently, the Roxie Theatre successfully lobbied to get non-profit single-screen cinemas exempt (even after getting the legislation passed, they've still been forced to wait over a year to get their license approved). Then Mission Bowling Club lobbied to have bowling alleys exempt. Now Supervsior Campos is working with Alamo Drafthouse and Local Mission Market to have commercial multiplex movie theaters and small, organic grocery stores allowed in the neighborhood.
This is a downright insane way to tackle local policy. Instead of freeing our creative minds to open up new businesses such as breweries, bowling alleys, and concert venues, we've limited our pool of potential new business owners to those deep-pocketed entrepreneurs that can afford to navigate our city's turbulent political process.
What's worse is the effect this nonsense is having on the existing businesses. Valencia Whole Foods has been fighting for a license for the last ten years, to little avail. If the small grocery was allowed to sell liquor, they could be able to afford to stay open later. However, has chosen to prevent this on the grounds that Valencia Whole Foods isn't a full-sized grocery. The owners of Shotwell's would certainly love to serve gin and tonics (and we're certain their customers would love that too), but they are forbidden to upgrade to a full bar because they don't sell food. And the very inner-Mission corner stores that the ban was designed to make go away? Because the ban forbids the sale and transfer of licenses within the Mission, owners of corners stores remain open because there is no way for them to “cash out” and sell their license to a new grocery store or similar establishment.
Supporters of the ban claim that any respectable business, be it an organic grocery store, bowling alley, or venue should be able to survive without a liquor license. But realistically speaking, many restaurants need liquor licenses in order to stay competitive, fully serve their clientele, and make enough profit to stay afloat. Similarily, Local Mission Market and Valencia Whole Foods believe licenses are necessary to become more viable small, local grocery stores that can compete with the likes of Bi-Rite, Trader Joes, and Whole Foods.
Beyond the grocery store and bowling alley hullabaloo, the supporters of this failed legislation want to keep it in place to curb the menace of today: gentrification—big scary gentrification! In their twisted train of thought, restricting new licenses in the Mission will protect the vibe of the neighborhood. But, in reality, the very opposite is happening.
The only way to open a new bar in the neighborhood is to acquire an existing bar, either through evicting the bar by refusing to renew its lease (as was the case with Kink.com taking over Ace Cafe on 14th and Mission) or buying a bar outright (such as Dr. Teeth did to Bissap Baobab). Often, this comes at the expense of Latino establishments—in the past year alone, El Rincon and El Mexicano were gobbled up by 'Hipster Joints'.
Moreover, because selling a license to a new business in the Mission is seen as a riskier investment, as the ban makes it easier for SFPD and ABC to regulate new businesses with licenses (see the mandated limited hours of Mission Cheese, West of Pecos, and Dear Mom), licenses are sold for a highly inflated price to neighborhood businesses. Existing Mission bars and restaurants with licenses are flipped on the market for exorbitant prices for the exact same reason.
Effectually, cheaper restaurants that want to serve alcohol can no longer afford to open in the Mission and we're left with restaurants that only cater to a wealthier crowd. After all, they need to recoup their investment.
Supposedly, Campos is in favor creating a taxpayer-funded program to fiscally sponsor Latino entrepreneurs who wish to open an business with a liquor license in an effort to combat these rising costs. Essentially, he's admitting there is a problem with the current system. So why not fix the problem, rather than allocate funds for people of particular ethnicities to navigate the bureaucratic chaos?
It's this kind of thinking that forces our business leaders to spend valuable months and fiscal resources schmoozing City Hall into amending a law, rather than opening a new business. Instead of serving customers, pouring beer at an independent movie, having people bowl, or opening a grocery store, this legislation is forcing businesses to squander valuable time maneuvering around bad policy. And after spending tens of thousands of unnecessary dollars just to start the business, is anyone really surprised that new restaurants are charging $15 for a hamburger?
(If you're interested in seeing this bad legislation go away, Campos is hosting another meeting to debate the matter Wed., June 13th at the
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts [2868 Mission at 25th] Plaza Adelante [2301 Mission at 19th])