Big Pretzel

ConAgra, Trader Joe's Allegedly Conspire to Corner Peanut-Butter Filled Pretzel Market

As if keeping a steady supply of peanut-butter filled pretzels in your office kitchen wasn’t difficult enough already, ConAgra may have seized control of the preservative-free, marginally nutritious delight and with it the fundamental health of California’s economy. Because if the people powering our great state’s engines of innovation don’t have something to modulate their serotonin and blood sugar at the office they’ll no longer be able to work the ten hour days and six day weeks that have become commonplace and productivity will suffer across the board.

Aliso Viejo’s Maxim Foods originally invented the recipe for the savory-and-slightly-sweet snack and began selling the product to retailers including Trader Joe’s, headquartered in Monrovia. To produce the marvels of food science, the company contracted with Anderson Bakery in Pennsylvania, which was then blended into National Pretzel in 1999, which in 2011 was stuffed into Nebraska’s ConAgra before being liberally salted.

Coincidentally! Now that ConAgra owned the means of peanut butter filled pretzel production almost exclusively, it started fulfilling Trader Joe’s orders directly last year—leaving nothing but crumbs in the bottom of the big, business-sized jar, alleges Maxim. The lawsuit accuses ConAgra of violating confidentiality provisions in contracts with the original production contractor, delivering a product to Trader Joe’s in the same packaging, which the latter then sold to customers as the same price (currently $3.79 for a one pound bag, up from $2.39 when Ruth Reichl at the LA Times gave it a stellar review in 1990). Including treble damages under state anti-trust laws, Maxim is seeking $60 million.

People are already looking for alternatives if evidence of comparison shopping between the H.K. Anderson brand available form Costco (definitely ConAgra) and the Herr’s brand (pretty sure also ConAgra) is any indication. Snyder’s of Hanover, a subsidiary of North Carolina’s Lance, Inc. offers a peanut butter filled mini-pretzel sandwich, which looks messy and therefore work-inappropriate.  Good Health Natural Products, another North Carolina company, sells a whole wheat version that’s available at local Safeway stores, but good luck convincing your office manager to spend nearly twice as much when they’re already gone before the next delivery every week.

No Love

Pissed Off Pete's is Mildly Irritated at Rich People Snubbing Excelsior

If you ever ride the bus down Mission and up-n-over Bernal, you get to this alternate universe known as Excelsior.  It looks, feels, and smells much like Mission Street in Mission proper, but without all the people debating where to eat oysters and white buses prowling about.

But it’s just that lack of shuttles that has Excelsior businesses miffed.

“It just sort of hopped right over us,” Pete Whitcomb of Pissed Off Pete’s bemoaned of the tech boom to the Chronicle. “We’re the Siberia of San Francisco. People think we’re Daly City.”

And that has left the neighborhood struggling.  8% of the neighborhood’s retail spaces sit vacant, real estate prices are suppressed, and the unemployment is three points higher than the city’s overall rate.

The situation to the south is so grim, the neighborhood is having to promote itself on the back of Oakland:

Less than 3 miles away in the heart of the Mission District, new condos sell for $2 million. In the Excelsior, the average home price is $580,000, or 32 percent lower than the San Francisco average, according to Excelsior boosters have even launched a campaign to lure new blood with the slogan: “Alternatives to Oakland.”

Now the neighborhood finds itself warming up to corporate chains like Starbucks in an effort to become “more like 24th Street.”

It’s natural, of course—businesses rarely protest a more affluent clientele.  But it seems bizarre given everything else that’s happening in town.  As Pissed Off Pete’s enthusiast and local stand-up Jeff Cleary tells us over email, “It is a different world down there.  Everyone in the Mission is annoyed with the techies and down there, they’re wondering why they haven’t showed up.  That’s like a Chicago being jealous of NYC because of 9/11.  ‘Doesn’t anyone want to bomb us?’”


Democracy is Boring

Tenants Take Field Trip to Sacramento

State Senator Mark Leno believes that there just might be the political will to reform the Ellis Act. At least, that’s what he told the audience assembled at the California State Capitol for the Tenant’s Together Renters’ Day of Action yesterday.

A coalition of tenant and affordable housing advocacy organizations across the state, Tenant’s Together was also there to lobby for the restoration of funding the Renter’s Rebate for low-income senior and disabled tenants in California and show support for SB-391, otherwise known as the California Homes and Jobs Act, which would levy a fee on real estate filings to fund affordable housing construction.

A lot of familiar faces from the San Francisco Citywide Tenant Convention held recently at the Tenderloin Community School were joined by activists from Fresno, Merced, Oakland, Berkeley and host Sacramento for a turnout that numbered around 300 or more by my count — including media and elected officials.

Why is a statewide organization lobbying against the Ellis Act, which nominally only applies to a few municipalities including San Francisco? Nevermind that it effectively undermines any future local efforts to prevent the loss of rental stock across the state, it clearly seemed relevant enough to the legislature in 1986 to take action to undermine rent ordinances being passed in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. So ask them.

Ellis, and the entire affordable housing debate, is a lot bigger than San Francisco. Rents (and home prices) across the state have been outpacing real wages for decades. And many of the issues tenant activists have been organizing against are not new, it’s just that conditions have gotten so bad on the ground that campaign donor landlords may not be able to buy incumbents enough votes to stay in office—according to the annual San Francisco Chamber of Commerce public opinion poll, housing issues emerged as the top concern among San Franciscans—especially if the people who actually bother to show up at the polls during off-year elections get evicted from their respective districts before November.

The Renter’s Rebate, which was defunded after decades of helping tenants by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008, could put up to up to $347.50 in tax credits into the pockets of elderly Californians across the state sooner rather than later now that the state has a budget surplus again. Endorsed by both business and labor lobbies, SB-391 is meant to raise funds to build affordable housing now that city and county redevelopment agencies are gone. More importantly, the ultra-right Pacific Research Institute absolutely hates it, which is usually more than enough to garner any bill my critical support.

From the sound of things, Leno’s effort seems to have the most traction, especially after last month’s visit from Mayor Ed Lee indicating maybe pragmatism, or at least protectionism, from the real estate and business lobbies locally. Even SPUR’s Gabriel Metcalfe is calling for efforts to preserve rental stock these days. “I don’t know if there’s the political will to eliminate the Ellis Act. But can can amend it,” said Leno. He framed it as trying to hold the bill accounting to the language about protecting landlords who buy rental properties and later want to the leave the business. “If you’re a speculator, you don’t want tenants. So the Ellis Act doesn’t apply to you.”

The proposal to keep rental units from being converted into Tenancies-in-Common for five years through an Ellis amendment was again floated to combat the evict-and-flip, an increasingly common practice among landlords like The Dirty Dozen. Assemblymember Tom Ammiano followed Leno and took a harder line. “I have a limp wrist, but I’d rather punch with that limp wrist than compromise with the likes of Wells Fargo.” Which? Love you, Tom!

Assemblymember Phil Ting, who represents the west side and Daly City, and State Senator Leland Yee who also represents the west side as well as San Mateo County couldn’t be bothered to attend. San Francisco Supervisors David Chiu and David Camposwho are competing for Ammiano’s seat once he vacates due to term limitswere joined by John Avalos, who subtly promoted his in-law amnesty plan and Jane Kim, who largely supported Leno’s position by framing the Ellis Act issue in similar terms.

Both Ammiano and Leno have until Friday to introduce bills, and while they might seem rather far apart on this and other issues, Ammiano’s principled stance at least make anything Leno proposes seem even more moderate by comparison. It also makes clear the stakes in the race to replace him between the pragmatist Chiu versus the idealist Campos. After all, Ted Gullicksen from the Tenant’s Union (where I volunteer as a counselor) pointed out at the Tenant Convention that buyouts backed by the threat of an Ellis now outnumber the evictions five to one. Meaning any amendmentments might not even ultimately slow displacement or the removal of rental stock from the market entirely. So we’ll probably need more legislation if we’re going to paper over the inequality gap long enough to get us to the next real-estate downturn.

I’ve been in and around left activism circles for far too long to every really get my hopes up, but on the ride back to San Francisco with friends from the The League of Young Voters, I’ll admit to some cautious optimism that some progress can be made on tenant issues amidst the most recent Rentpocalypse, which is now trending into its third year.

Park Life

Dolores Park: A Capitalist’s Utopia?

We hear people spouting off every so often about how the soon to be renovated Dolores Park is capitalist’s wet dream, with the invisible hand of party positivity letting folks buy and ingest whatever they damn please.  However, Priceonomics’ recent piece is the most thorough argument in favor of this we’ve yet read.  A peek at their findings:

You’d never know it from experiencing a Saturday in Dolores Park, but there exists a tireless set of park rules and regulations in the San Francisco Municipal Code. Smoking is prohibited, public drinking is prohibited, and vending food and/or alcohol is strictly defined as illegal. Add to the mix city violations — drinking in public, peddling without a permit, marijuana possession (albeit the lowest priority of the SFPD) — and it’s a wonder that Dolores Park continues to function as it does. […]

So, is Dolores Park truly a free market economy? Not entirely — but it’s probably as close as you can get in San Francisco. The forces of supply and demand are minimally impacted by laws and regulations; goods are sold at freely set prices, adjusted based on desirability. The vendors are more often at the mercy of sunny skies and generous crowds than legislation and police. By most accounts, Dolores is a capitalist’s utopia, and both the vendors and their clientele intend to keep it that way.

Read the whole piece for insight into the park’s history, and analysis on the various sellers the park is host to.

Feverish 2br Valencia Apartment Listing for a Gut-Churning $10,500/Month

“With the hottest micoclimate in San Francisco,” reads the latest vomit-inspiring apartment listing, “[the] Mission is caliente and this brand new boutique building at 19th + Valencia has only 3 rare rentals in the mix of 17 condominiums that were sold out for over $2.0 million per unit.”

That's right, chicos and chicas! Slap on your your favorite sombrero and shake your maracas over to 19th and Valencia, because the Mission is caliente.

Mild offensiveness aside, this listing transcends the bounds of absurdity and enters the realm of piggish extravagance.  Posted by Mark Venegas, a “Corporate Relocation Specialist for Employees Moving to San Francisco” for SF Dream Rental and Sales, the 1575 square foot apartments are listed for a modest $10,500 for a single month.  Those dollars buy you a lot: “billowing views,” “Italian-designed interiors,” close access to Tacolicious, and an optional “full concierge” package.  Plus, we're told by a neighbor that the building boasts private security guards to protect tenants from the local rabble.

But who could even afford such a thing?  We imagine that the average Joe Shuttlebus the realtor targets could never find a way to afford $126,000 in yearly rent.

We emailed Venegas over the weekend to get the story on this prized pad, and who owns these units and expects such a lavish monthly return.  We're yet to hear back.

Below, the original listing, which has been flagged off Craigslist:

Proposed Legislation Requires Landlords to Subsidize Rents of Evicted Tenants for 2 Years

San Francisco Supervisors have been railing against the Ellis Act for some time now, without much success in cutting down the eviction rate. But Supervisor David Campos' latest piece of legislation aims better compensate victims of the often-abused state law that allows landlords to evict tenants by getting out of the rental business entirely.

Via a press release sent out this morning:

The ordinance will require landlords who evict using the Ellis Act to pay the difference between the tenant’s rental rate prior to eviction and what would have been the market rate for that unit for two years. This ensures that relocation payments adequately represent true market costs and allow displaced tenants who would face dramatically higher rent costs the opportunity to stay in San Francisco.

Currently, landlords are required to pay relocation assistance amounts of approximately $5,261 per tenant capped at $15,783 per unit. Landlords must also pay an additional amount of approximately $3,508 for each displaced elderly or disabled tenant. The Campos law would keep the current law as a minimum, but in most cases, would make relocation reflect market increases.

“Almost every renter in San Francisco is just one eviction notice away from being displaced from our city,” said Supervisor Campos. “It is time that we recognize that tenants must receive assistance that is commensurate with market increases in rent if we are to truly address our affordability crisis and check the rampant growth of Ellis Act evictions.”

Campos added that he's working with Sacramento on “placing an outright moratorium on Ellis Act evictions in San Francisco”—a goal we imagine won't gain much traction up-river—and he sees this as an interim solution.

Of course, the San Francisco Apartment Association has already come out against the plan, with Association director Janan New suggesting that the proposal is “just clear theft.”

“It is very creative - and he is acknowledging the ultimate policy goal of transferring wealth from building owners to tenants, so at least they are clear,” she told the Chronicle. “The issue we have is how do you establish a definition of what these criteria are? How do you define what a comparable unit is, what a comparable neighborhood is? How do you define current market rate?”


Elbo Room at Risk for Demolition to Make Way for Condos

Valencia Street continues its turbocharged tailspin into terrible as developers and landlords club the last shreds of tolerable into a permanent state of soothing unconsciousness.  The latest victim is poised to be the undeniably important two-story venue Elbo Room, which SocketSite reports the owners have “quietly drafted plans to raze the bar and construct a new five-story building in its place.”  The grim details:

Early plans for the development include nine (9) residential units, three one-bedrooms and six two-bedrooms, ranging in size from 500 to 1,000 square feet over a 770 square-foot commercial space and parking for six (6) cars on the ground floor.

While the existing building at 645 Valencia Street wasn’t deemed to be historic when reviewed as part of the Inner Mission Historic Resource Survey in 2011, the Planning Department has since “received additional information that suggests that the subject property may have associations with the history of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals in San Francisco.”

After SocketSite's story broke, Elbo Room quickly shot it down, writing on Facebook:

Once again, despite what the real estate blog says, Elbo Room is Not Going Anywhere, Anytime Soon! But thanx so much for the concern, the kind words, and the support! We appreciate you!

Of course, “anytime soon” is subject to interpretation.  “Our report isn't based on rumor or speculation,” SocketSite fired back. “But rather the Preliminary Project Assessment for the development which was submitted to San Francisco’s Planning Department for review.”


We all agree building more housing is important, and landowners have the God-given right to cash out when the market is drooling over Mission real estate like a starved dog.  But not like this.  Nine units is a drop in our drought-stricken bucket, and won't move the housing cost needle anywhere.  And what do we get?  The undignified death of another venue and stripping away of one of the very institutions that make people want to move here in the first place.

At least the bus stop is nearby…

Golden Era Loses its Lease

I found myself up in the Tenderloin the other night, hungering for Golden Era's vegan drumsticks and the warm glow of cult propaganda on the television, but the restaurant had gone kaput.

I was hoping there might be something good to the closure—perhaps the owners going on to bigger and even better things?—but, sadly, it's just another verse in San Francisco's sad song:


Golden Era will be closed permanently at this location starting Monday, November 25, 2013. We thank you for your patronage in the past 15 years. We will miss you all. Love, Love….

We reached out to the restaurant over Facebook and are yet to hear back.  But according to some folks on Yelp, the landlord jacked their rent when the lease was over and were economically showed them the door.

On Facebook, they announced, “we are working very hard to find our new home in SF.”  We'll update if we hear more.

[Photo by Jovan J]

Mission Local's Egregious New Conflict of Interest: Pimping Tech Shuttles

“Genentech Joins Mission Local to Turn Buses Into Art!,” read Mission Local's giddy headline yesterday morning.  While protesters were blocking a Google bus for illegally using a Muni stop and the rest of the city was dumping napalm on the burning debate over technology's impact on San Francisco, UC Berkeley's neighborhood “news lab” was shilling for silicon shuttles.

“Mission Local is still giving a $500 reward for the best entry into our unofficial contest to turn the tech buses into art, [but] what’s better is that it is no longer completely unofficial.  Apart from our prize money, Genentech wants to bedazzle its buses and will select one winner whose art will adorn the side of one of its buses in 2014!”

Okay, fine.  There's nothing fundamentally wrong with dressing-up a bland bus, even if it seems like a completely off-mission initiative for a non-profit “quality journalism” outlet.  However, it's Mission Local's tactical legitimization of the controversial shuttles that grows our suspicions:

Genentech’s interests are similar to ours: community mindfulness. And sustainability themes might also play well.


Doesn't partnering with tech companies create a conflict of interest for the site, especially given those companies' increasing impact on the neighborhood?  We put the question to Lydia Chavez, Mission Local's co-editor and site founder, who emailed back a one-line non sequitur:

I would welcome all of the tech companies to join the contest and hire artists.

Okay, well, does this contest align with the non-profit's original mission of “covering a neighborhood fairly and thoroughly”?

Probably not. But I see the buses every day and I could not stop thinking about how they could be filled.

We're still scratching our heads. Chavez's comment to SFist seems to be her most articulate statement on the matter:

I returned from a year away from the Mission and was surprised to see how many buses were going through the neighborhood, but going through in an oddly anonymous way. But of course they are not anonymous at all. I see the benefits — fewer people in cars and the buses are often getting workers to places where public transportation fails to reach. But they’re so void of beauty and they’re such great canvases.

Those are your two choices? Really?

This is lame.  Mission Local is now giving cover to the very companies they should be holding responsible.  The reason seems unclear—beauty?  The contest was, obviously, poorly thought out; and Chavez herself acknowledges it “probably” doesn't align with the site's mission.

The whole thing stinks of a cynical play to squeeze out some donation dollars from companies worth 47.3 billion dollars 99.9 billion dollars, all on the backs on local artists fighting over a pathetic $500 prize.

Community mindfulness, indeed.

NY Times Blames Public Transportation for Gentrification Crisis

As many San Francisco residents have noted, the New York Times recently 'pivoted' away from lamenting The Death of Paris to join San Francisco's opinion page funeral precession.  And while their usual spiel explores known conclusions such as high rents pricing out the poor, yesterday, the Times' Timothy Egan pointed fingers at our terrible transit system.

Egan gets off on the right foot…

San Francisco still has its Hitchcock moments — the Mediterranean light, the Golden Gate Bridge poking out of the fog, the allure of possibility, all there in a film like “Vertigo.” But of late, the city named for a 13th century pauper from Assisi serves more as an allegory of how the rich have changed America for the worse. […]

The texture of inequality can be felt, and seen, in the rise in private transportation — the fleet of buses giving tech workers a bubbled commute between the city and the social media campuses to the south. At the high end, Google’s top executives are building an $84 million private corporate jet center at San Jose International Airport.

… but then he snaps his brittle ankle and falls to the floor:

While New York’s subway system boasted of moving 5,985,311 people on a single day in October (an all-time record), the Bay Area’s trains, buses and light rail cars limp through technical failures and labor strife. They’re old, dirty, slow and prone to “system-wide breakdowns,” as the euphemism goes.

In New York, at least, rich and poor are more likely to rub elbows, and even make eye contact while getting around. The commute is a daily reminder to the very wealthy that not everybody can afford those new condos overlooking Central Park, just listed at $53 million.

Here, transportation segregation is on the rise because you can’t rely on the public system. And when you put the working poor and middle class out of sight, you put them out of mind. The sleek fleet of Google-bound buses and black über-taxis is a market response to a costly, unreliable, unpleasant transit system.

Outta sight, outta mind.  The Peril of the Bay isn't the obscene concentration of wealth, the indifference to the poor and starving, the unsympathetic beliefs that the poor are that way because they're too lazy to program, companies extorting tax breaks from their paid-for mayor… No, it's that the cyber nobility aren't forced to smell the riffraff on the bus, so they forget that not everyone can afford to live in mansions atop Pac Heights.

If only we could be more like ungentrified New York…

This isn't to say that Muni is a beacon of perfection, or BART doesn't occasionally try to poison its passengers with toxic dust.  But blaming the one transportation network that doesn't discriminate is pure bullshit.

Luxury shuttles aren't a response to Muni's slowness—Muni doesn't go anywhere near Mountain View.  It's not BART's fault that Apple is building its new headquarters 30 miles from the nearest station. And let's not pretend that Uber passengers are disgruntled ex-bus riders, especially given that the company justifies its existence because of a “broken” taxi system.

Transportation segregation is all about the money.  Companies seeking cheap land and low taxes, proximity to transit or population centers be damned.

[NY Times | Photo by Cisco Kid]