A Game of Tug: Pet Food Express Tries to Be the Most Adorable Franchise in Town

Sometime in the 12th century, St. Francis made the decision to start preaching to the birds — perhaps the original tweet. A predilection for treating animals as humans has passed to the residents of his namesake city. San Francisco, famously, has more dogs than children. In no other American city are there so many animals, and so few babies, in baby carriages.

It is unknown what St. Francis' position was on formula retail. But San Franciscans have weighed in. In 2006, 58 percent of voters approved an ordinance requiring any chain store with 11 or more outlets receive the Planning Commission's approval to open up a shop in city neighborhoods that haven't banned chain stores outright.

So a well-regarded pet-supply store with a history of generosity to animal rescue organizations — which is also part of a large, rapidly expanding chain — seems designed to short-circuit San Franciscans' political sensibilities.

Four years ago, Pet Food Express, a chain founded in West Portal that has since expanded to nearly 50 stores, applied to move into the former Blockbuster Video on Lombard Street in the Marina. A dogfight ensued; highly organized owners of small pet stores pilloried the move, and the Planning Commission handily rejected Pet Food Express' proposal. But the city has changed a great deal in four years. And, on Aug. 8, the commission will, once again, vote on whether to allow Pet Food Express to move into the same Lombard spot.

After being smacked in the nose by the city in 2009, Pet Food Express heads into Thursday's hearing with a pack of influential supporters. The head of the city's Department of Animal Care and Control has been an emphatic advocate of Pet Food Express to her fellow members of the city family. The community newspaper that has formed an advertising "partnership" with Pet Food Express has provided it with fervently positive coverage. And the newly formed neighborhood merchants association aggressively pushing Pet Food Express' cause has ties to a paid lobbyist for the store's attorney.

In the business world, Pet Food Express is a big dog. But it's also a smart dog, and, its proponents argue, a good dog. Whatever the case, it's learned new tricks.

Rebecca Katz is an attention-grabbing speaker — and, all the more so when she's cradling a blind rescue chihuahua mix in a sweater. At a June Small Business Commission meeting, Katz, the director of the Department of Animal Care and Control, toted Tori the sexually abused puppy to the podium to make the case for Pet Food Express.

It's a bit peculiar for the head of a city department to essentially advocate for a private business as it pushes forward development and expansion plans. Katz, however, says she checked with the city's Ethics Commission, and is in the clear. "Those of us in the animal welfare community support [Pet Food Express] and they've supported us and it's been mutually beneficial," she told the commission. "Looking at the number of chains on Chestnut Street, I find it ironic that people say there are too many chains and we need to preserve the character."

That's a statement outside the realm of Katz's expertise. In the field of caring for animals, however, she's a pro. And Pet Food Express provides all the food for the animals of Animal Control, saving the strapped department $50,000 a year (and, Katz says, supplying really good pet food).

Pet Food Express has a well-earned reputation for supporting animal rescue efforts, and it'd be cynical to dismiss it as solely a marketing ploy. But it'd be naïve to blur the line between a benevolent company and an altruistic one. Pet Food Express' generosity is reciprocated. "Their corporate culture and business practices exemplify a cooperative and collaborative spirit, demonstrating care and concern for our community, including customers, neighboring businesses, and the nonprofit organizations which surround them," reads a 2010 letter from Katz to the Board of Supervisors. And, Katz tells your humble narrator, the more business Pet Food Express gets, the more resources figure to flow to rescue animals.

That's good for Katz, but better for cats. There's an Animal Control cat adoption center at the Pet Food Express on Market Street and the nonprofit Pets Unlimited would operate a cat adoption center at the proposed Lombard Street location. In fact, Pets Unlimited has deployed mass e-mails imploring its customers to lobby the city. "I am confident that this new store will not only save lives through the addition of a Pets Unlimited Adoption Center but also generate profits that will be reinvested in this critical, life-saving work throughout our city," reads a template recipients are urged to send to city politicos and the Planning Commission.

This is an argument with ever so slightly more emotional pull than arcana regarding the city's formula retail ordinance.

Pet Food Express' commitment to rescue animals is evident in every edition of the Marina Times. Multiple full-page ads prominently sponsored by the chain implore readers to adopt Cloud the parakeet, Panfilo the bunny, or BoyBoy the kitten from Animal Control; or Swiper, Chloe, or Thelma and Louise from a rescue dog agency.

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Keeping out certain chain stores is a good idea. Walmart would have you think they are there for the community but do many things that prove they are there to please the bottom line. the list of chain stores that have motivated anti chain store ordinances can go on and on. Why should a terrific organization like Pet Food Express be lumped into the same nasty cauldron just because they have more than 11 stores? Their business is not one of conquering a market and obtaining bigger profits. This surely must be obvious with the extraordinary time, effort and expense they go through to give to animals that which we as humans long for. Love, a safe place to live and a friend.


Seems like a win-win for the neighborhood & the rescued cats. After all, Lombard looks just terrible and these Pet Food Express stores are attractive. Anyway, seems like the Lombard St customers would be different than the Chestnut St clientele. That space has been empty and ugly for too long, I say let a local chain that started w/ one store in San Francisco step it up!


@whoanelly21 It has been empty and ugly for so long because Pet Food Express signed a 10 year lease in 2009 and have been letting the building on Lombard Street rot ever since. 

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