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Hamburger Mary's -- Con position


By ixia - Posted on 20 May 2014

Hamburger Mary’s - Necessary and Desirable?

By Gary Weiss, Owner IXIA on Market Street

[Editor's Note: There has been some confusion as to the definition of the Planning Department's CU process for Formula Retail: "necessary AND desirable" or "necessary OR desirable." While both terms have been used on department documentation, a review with the San Francisco Planning Department Senior Policy Advisor, AnMarie Rodgers revealed that the accurate term is "necessary OR desirable" per Section 303(c)(1) of the Planning Code requiring that "the proposed use...will provide a development that is necessary OR desirable for, and compatible with, the neighborhood or the community." We apologize for the confusion].

15 years - that’s how long the enormous Patio Cafe space has sat in a state of abandonment - in the middle of one of the busiest and most expensive business districts in the city. Many have been incredulous as to how or why anyone - regardless of his bank account - would continue to leave this space vacant, despite the anger and frustration experienced by everyone in our community.

Several times there were signs that something would possibly happen. There were a few occasions during which Les Natali, the owner since 1989, approached the supervisor and several of our neighborhood associations for help straightening out some permitting issues. We gladly gave our support. We were desperate to get the Patio open again.

The Patio Cafe was an establishment that was truly loved. It was an important fixture on Castro Street - especially through the 70s and 80s. It became more than a restaurant; it was a place to gather, and Sunday brunch was the most popular show in town!

Hamburger Mary’s was an iconic institution - it opened on Folsom Street in 1972. It was owned, operated and patronized mostly by gays and lesbians. It was fun, it was cheap and everyone loved it. For several reasons it shut down 20 or 25 years later.

In 2007 a group of businessmen decided to open up a worldwide chain of restaurants using a suburban knockoff of the old Hamburger Mary’s as its theme. As of now, there are 12 open in the US and one in Berlin. Many more are on the way. Half of the company’s website is dedicated to enticing businesspeople to purchase a franchise.

Do we want a chain restaurant taking over one of the largest retail spaces in the Castro?

According to the San Francisco Planning Dept., someone applying to open up a formula retail (chain store) business in the city must prove that it is both “necessary and desirable”. [See Editor's note above.]

Currently we have Sliders, Slider Bar, Orphan Andy’s, Super Duper, The Cove, and I would venture to say that the majority of all of the other restaurants in the neighborhood offer some form of burger.

The argument most often made in favor of having Hamburger Mary’s open has to do with wanting desperately to have anything open there. After all of these years of living with Mr. Natali’s huge ghost ship sitting idle, bringing down property values and damaging neighboring businesses, the feeling is “anything is better than nothing.”

But is it?

What would you like your neighborhood to be? People still come from all over the world to experience what history there is left. People envy us for having this neighborhood, this city. Would they feel that way if the same businesses they drive by every day in their home towns are also on Castro Street? Chipotle? Chevy’s? The Gap? How about a “boutique” Bed Bath and Beyond? Each one of these corporation-run, ubiquitous chains acts to dilute what makes our neighborhood so special - worth going out of your way to visit. Is there a tipping point when suddenly we realize that too many of our businesses are mainstream. Suddenly you could be anywhere and see the same stuff.

Many property owners prefer renting to formula retail businesses. Most people are under the impression that a chain store can not only afford to pay higher rents but sign a longer lease.

If one of Home Depot’s new smaller neighborhood hardware stores opened on the street and underpriced Cliff’s, would Cliff’s be long for this world?

So is Hamburger Mary’s “necessary”? That would be a hard one to prove.

Is it “desirable”? Maybe in Pleasanton.

I’m stunned that five people on the Planning and Land Use Committee are trying to block the opening of Hamburger Mary’s at the Patio--and doing it for the flimsiest of reasons!. The opening of Mary’s is both desirable and necessary for our community. It’s desirable because the vast majority of people in the community want it to open—I have yet to meet someone who opposes it (whether they be residents or visitors of the community). And it’s necessary because it’d probably be successful (it’s a good business model—and that would mean that consumers would generally love it), it would create about forty GOOD PAYING jobs, and it’d bring more money into the community—and this could all potentially happen within a matter of months, if not for the PLUC! What the PLUC is doing relying on an arbitrary definition for a retail formula chain (why 11, and not 14, 29, or 112? Look to WHY the law passed, not just to the arbitrary definition set), and an arbitrary definition of “necessary”. What they ought to be doing is looking to: whether the business is likely to treat their employees well (will the employees be making good money, for example?), whether the business is likely to bring a lot of money into the community, whether people in the community will like what the business has to offer, and so on. Don’t just shut it down, and cross your fingers and hope that something else will open up there--someday.

ScottHerbst391119's picture

As a 12-year resident of SF (6 in the Eureka Valley area), I oppose any conditional use authorization that would allow the opening of a "Hamburger Mary's" (a burgeoning franchise in the US and abroad) in the former Patio Café space.

A new restaurant at 531 Castro (anything but Thai, please) would certainly be welcome. No doubt, Les is simply trying to dodge what he proposed and agreed to before, because he'd stand to make more money if he opened a franchised restaurant (maybe Hamburger Mary's is giving him the slice of bar receipts he's been waiting for all these years?).

I'm against rewarding that approach. In my humble opinion, any vote in support of Mr Natali's latest bait-and-switch plan is a vote that it is OK for someone to go back on a clearly-stated position in order to make more money. He's had AMPLE time to open something and he will be laughing all the way to the bank if we endorse him opening anything other than that which he already told us he'd open.

Scott Herbst, Esq.

Thanks all,
Scott

Mike Vanni's picture

Although Scott’s is relative newcomer to San Francisco, his participation in local affairs might become more effective if he purchased and used a dictionary. He could begin by looking up the word “burgeoning”.

sch75's picture

Because there is two too many Hamburger Mary's restaurants in the entire United States, otherwise, it would have been a done deal and maybe there would be one less shuttered storefront on Castro Street to endure the construction pain of the Castro Street streetscape reconstruction. (I hope everyone is doing the best to support Castro Street businesses during this time).

Many of those who oppose the granting of this CU for formula retail are against Hamburger Mary's because they are against ANY formula retail of any type without applying basic logic "is this good or not good" for our neighborhood. Is Hamburger Mary's really a burgeoning chain that will soon be seen at every strip mall in America? Probably not. But as one of the more "gay identified" businesses i the US, I wonder if that unlikely outcome would be bad thing. Yes, the Hamburger Mary's today isn't the same people as the original, but it certainly is the offspring of the original and still a very gay business. Is attracting gays into the Castro not a good thing?

As I talk with my neighbors who are not politicos, I have found bi-polar responses of excitement or anger that this is taking so long. But NO ONE on my block or other close friends who live within the Castro with whom I have spoken is against the opening of the Patio.

Brian Key's picture

We love the uniqueness of SF, and it is why we live here. The uniqueness of SF is not lost upon us. Choose your metrics: a world of 200 countries, a country of 50 states (3,141 counties of which 58 are in CA), how do you define "formula retail"? SF neighborhoods have chosen a standard of 12, which by any measure, is inappropriately low. Moving here, we were inspired by the tolerance and freedom that SF inspires. Hamburger Mary’s has 13 locations (12 U.S., 1 Germany) and does not remotely resemble McDonald's (14,000 U.S., 33,000 total) by any measure. We want this future Hamburger Mary’s to reinforce the values of the Castro, which it will do with local ownership and local employees, promoting the tolerance and freedom which inspired us to move here.

Mike Vanni's picture

I purchased my home at 19th and Castro in 1987. As I watched merchants come and go through the years it has always annoyed me the way people selectively complain about what others wished to do with their personal property. Now we have people whining because Les Natali wants to reopen the Patio using a name belonging to 12 other restaurants scattered somewhere throughout the United States. Give me a break! Where were the cries of anguish when Bank of America, Citibank, and US Bank moved in? Where was the outrage when Walgreen’s set up shop? How did Starbuck’s get into our neighborhood? Where did the vigilantes have their attention focused when L’Occitane and the Body Shop took up residence across the street from Mr. Natali’s building? Does anyone remember Diesel in the old BofA building or the Pottery Barn in the old Pacific Stereo building? To borrow a morsel from the late William Safire, I see these nattering negativists primarily as hypocrites who spend more of their time criticizing the innovators and contributors than they spend innovating and contributing themselves.