San Francisco hates chains. Jack Spade and Chipotle tried to move into the Mission and the Castro, respectively, only to be thwarted by community discontent. But what replaced the check-cashing place on Seventh and Market that moonlighted as the stolen iPhone emporium? CVS.
Still, the city pushes formula retail out whenever it can. Gas stations, ugly but necessary, are quietly disappearing. Bi-Rite Market encountered stiff resistance from its Divisadero Street neighbors — and that was only its second location. But if you told someone an In-N-Out was opening somewhere between the Wharf and Daly City (it's not), they'd tell you about when they achieved nirvana upon discovering the secret menu — or possibly how they found the Lord through the Scripture on the bottom of their cup.
So what's the deal? For starters, the formula-retail ban is complex, a product of top-down policy decisions to perpetuate the city's visual texture, inflected with suspicion about corporate conduct. We're still Walmart-free for a reason. And of course, there's a bit of that good old NIMBYism that seems to outmuscle most other considerations the way dark energy outmatches gravity to keep the universe expanding forever. The Planning Department defines "formula" as any company "...with eleven or more other retail establishments located in the United States, [that] maintains two or more of the following features: a standardized array of merchandise, a standardized façade, a standardized décor and color scheme, a uniform apparel, standardized signage, a trademark or a servicemark."
Certain businesses (salons, gyms, medical offices) are exempted, but local zoning districts may still apply — to keep Chinatown Chinatown or redevelop Mission Bay, for instance. So although we could theoretically be inundated with Crunch Gyms and Gentle Dentals while always shoring up the dike against Sam's Club, what San Francisco really tolerates — adores, even — are its homegrown, food-and-beverage mini-chains.
Usually, these are multiple projects all centered on one personality or aesthetic. Celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck have long since opened gigantic, flagship eateries in Las Vegas, but the Bay Area is home to its fair share of empire-builders. Dennis Leary's gastropub, Terminus, is the latest in his greater Financial District portfolio, including the House of Knives, the Sentinel, Trocadero Club, the Golden West, and the recently shuttered Canteen. Futurebars, the company that produces noirish speakeasies housed in historically relevant buildings, opened Bourbon & Branch, Local Edition, Tradition, Rickhouse, and Swig (plus indispensable liquor store Cask) and will soon expand to Berkeley with Tupper & Reed. Bullitt, Tonic, Soda Popinski's, Lightning Tavern, and at least four more bars are all projects of the same three-man team.
Power couples wield clout, too, as Shelley Lindgren of the three A16's (the Marina, Rockridge, and Tokyo) is married to Greg Lindgren of Rye and 15 Romolo. This is hardly like the divisions of Viacom or the unsettling breadth of consumer products Proctor & Gamble manufactures, but they're not exactly stand-alone mom-and-pop joints operating for decades as neighborhood fixtures, either.
The consolidating oligopoly of food and drink follows capitalism's prime directive: grow. Austin's Alamo Drafthouse is coming to the Mission. Danny Bowien's been in Manhattan, shepherding the slightly troubled follow-up to Mission Chinese Food. New York's Artichoke Basille's Pizza, beloved but hardly an institution like Shake Shack, is now up and running across the street from UC Berkeley. Who would have thought, even five years ago, that something as humble as a neighborhood pizza place would have the oomph to slingshot across the country? Insofar as such businesses qualify as chains, they'd easily evade the formula retail ban's clutches — although every Artichoke Pizza has a Christmas Story fra-gee-lay-must-be-Italian lamp in it — because their business model is completely dependent on concealing anything corporate from public view, placating the cool kids along with the Planning Commission.
Among the more recognizable chains, L.A.-based Umami Burger has four Bay Area locations. There will be seven Super Dupers by the end of the year, from Mill Valley to San Jose, all of them serving Niman meat — just as the dreaded, 1,500-strong Chipotle does. (For its part, Niman went corporate in 2009, booting Bill Niman out. Today, the company exemplifies the idea of "Big Organic," arguably hollowing out the term even as it's become synonymous with it, and a go-to for aspiring food businesses to boast about their commitment to sustainability. Niman himself isn't even allowed the commercial use of his own name and shuns his former company's products, having become an advocate for reduced meat consumption.)
Is the difference that Super Duper is "ours," while Chipotle is "other?" Sure, McDonald's was a major investor during the burrito chain's adolescence, but even after divesting in 2006, its taint remains an indelible Mark of Cain, repelling foodies in perpetuity. Were Super Duper to partner with Yum! Brands — the awful-sounding corporate parent of KFC/Taco Bell — and embark on a major expansion blitz, would S.F. turn on them in a second? Could a homegrown business enjoy such love that it opened 10 locations in S.F. alone and nowhere else, yet collide with the retail ban if it attempted an 11th? Maybe, maybe not.
It could be that the burgers are simply delicious, but Super Duper — which composts everything and blends its shakes with Straus ice cream — thrives by serving slow-food values right alongside the quintessential fast-food meal.