A Tale of Two Tenderloin Businesses

Small businesses in the Tenderloin face a unique set of challenges and rewards, which vary, block by block.

On Larkin Street, there’s a spot that sells Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches for $3.95. On Jones Street, a bar conceals a secret doorway in a bookshelf. In an old auto garage on Eddy, bathers soak in a meticulously designed Japanese bath. One-dollar bills line the walls, ceiling, and doorways of a divey, cash-only joint on Geary.

The Tenderloin is home to hundreds of small businesses, from the cheap to the exorbitant, but their owners face a unique set of challenges: Drug dealers sell their wares on the corners, and a lack of public bathrooms results in people using the streets to do their business. A plethora of resources for those experiencing homelessness, drug addiction, or working the streets cause some to call the neighborhood a “containment zone.” The extra work required to run a business in the neighborhood is different from, say, doing so in Cow Hollow.

Brett Walker of George and Lennie, a coffee shop on Golden Gate Avenue between Leavenworth and Hyde streets, has a regular crew of artists who hang out. Records are always spinning. A photo printer can be used by customers, if they ask (nicely). Original artwork changes out regularly, and sometimes there’s even a photo booth. In its three years in business, George and Lennie has established itself as a place to wile away the hours writing poetry or sketching portraits, and last year Walker and his girlfriend, Katie Gong, opened up the art studio collective Get High on Mountains across the street. By all appearances, business is booming. But behind the counter, a different battle plays out.

“I come in to the cafe every morning, and the first thing I have to deal with is ‘How do I get this shit off the corner?’ ” Walker tells SF Weekly. He’s dealt with regular drug deals taking place in front of his shop, illegally parked cars blocking the loading zone, theft, and people passing out on the benches he placed on the sidewalks. Recently, the city installed a trash can on the corner of Golden Gate and Jones, which is constantly surrounded by bags of garbage, ripped open and scattered all over the street.

The day-in, day-out situation is exhausting, and Walker has the cops, the sheriff, and the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development on speed dial. But, as he points out, “The police can only take care of one kind of thing at the end of the day, and there’s a wide variety of things going on out here. The police just can’t handle it, for one reason or another. There needs to be some other agency.”

Despite the struggle to keep his business going while people freebase crack in cars outside, George and Lennie has made a significant difference on a block that sees little foot traffic, and only three other  businesses (AllStar Donuts, Morty’s Delicatessen, and Le Petitt’s Kitchen). Walker’s efforts to pick up trash daily have resulted in a cleaner street. The benches add life to the often-vacant block. Cops more frequently usher away the drug dealers, and Walker supported the creation of a mural across the street, brightening up the gates to a family shelter. While skeptics might call George and Lennie’s presence a gentrifying one, it’s undeniable that it’s brought much-needed life to a sad stretch of Golden Gate. But the struggle to survive takes its toll.

Five blocks away, on a very different Tenderloin block, is the large, two-theater venue PianoFight. Nestled in the middle of a mostly residential block of Taylor Street, the venue’s three-year tenure looks much different than George and Lennie’s. Owners Rob Ready, Dan Williams, and Kevin Fink first signed the lease for 144 Taylor St. in 2011, and spent three years renovating it. During that time, the trio got to know the neighborhood well before opening their doors.

“We had a long runway,” Fink says. And from the get-go, the neighborhood welcomed them.

“When we first signed the lease, we put up a giant wall and had a graffiti artist come in to paint it,” he says. “People across the street walked over and shook our hands to thank us for giving them something good to look at.”

But five years ago, the 100 block of Taylor Street was not the relatively calm stretch it is today. In 2014, seven people were injured in a massive drive-by shooting on the corner. The violence caught the police and the city’s attention, and eventually, SFMTA removed parking spaces on the first block of Turk in an attempt to quell drug dealing. Unlike the 200 block of Golden Gate Avenue, which has only recently begun receiving support, several city departments have focused on keeping Turk and Taylor clean and safe for years.

Because of this, Fink, Ready, and Williams have a much different business experience than Walker does. 

“There are these stories that are always out there about the Tenderloin — that it’s seedy, and a no-go zone — the community then has to be its own reservoir of help and service and care,” Williams says. “We’ve found it incredibly rewarding and enriching.”

That means many things for the trio, who’ve become the end for Del Seymour’s walking tours, and a home to CODE Tenderloin, a job training program that uses PianoFight’s theater as a classroom during the day. Williams has joined the board of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, and Ready, who regularly smokes on the street outside the door, has made friends with the people who live on the block.

“The neighborhood takes care of itself,” Ready says, “and assuming you plug into that, you’re going to be taken care of as well.”

But not all is sunshine and flowers at PianoFight. Thefts do occur, and there are mental-health breakdowns in the middle of the street outside. Occasionally, turf wars between drug dealers create tension.

“Police will round up a bunch of dealers, and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, that’s nice,’ but an hour later there’s a whole new set of people that have come in from outside the neighborhood that are fighting each other for territory,” Williams says. “And then you realize there were all these truces before, and we knew who everyone was. It’s nice that the police are active in that way, but it creates another issue.”

But the challenges the venue faces are less about what’s actually happening in the neighborhood — and more about what people think is.

“There’s such a poor impression of the Tenderloin. We have to constantly be thinking innovatively about how to bring people in here,” Williams says. “We lose a lot of business to people deciding not to come, because they look it up on a map. Or they’re staying at a hotel, and the concierge draws a triangle over the Tenderloin saying ‘Don’t go here.’ ”

Nevertheless, business is good: The recent comedy festival Sketchfest drew in large crowds. And that in itself is doing the Tenderloin a service.

“One of the biggest things that I think businesses do is they draw people in,” Williams says. ”Really, what the neighborhood needs is to change the mix of sidewalk activity. A vibrant business is one of the best ways to do that. It draws customers, it draws vendors, it dilutes the activity. That’s what I feel most proud of, is how we’ve impacted the neighborhood on that front.”

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
nsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

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