If you walk into Surfside Liquors for a bottle of water and some chips, be prepared to walk out with a life lesson. “Uncle” Bob Pinkard, who has owned and staffed the Hunter’s Point institution for 46 years, provides one of San Francisco’s most unique shopping experiences.
Pinkard’s adages range from the hard-boiled: “The reason people kick you when you’re down is that they don’t have so high to kick. If they had to kick over their head then they wouldn’t kick you.” To the upbeat: “It takes about 13 muscles to smile and about 72 to frown. It’s so hard to frown.” To the philosophical: “If you’re going to Sausalito and he’s going to San Jose, should you be in the same car?”
Not all of San Francisco’s 1,000 or so corner stores boast an Uncle Bob behind the cash register. But they are all keepers of the city’s culture, barometers of its mood, and on the front lines of its economy. All it took was a global pandemic to prove that they’re “essential.”
Corner stores are a quintessential feature of San Francisco’s landscape, dotting what seems like every other block in some neighborhoods. They’re often the only business in an otherwise purely residential area, located in front of a bus stop or near the crown of a hill. San Francisco might be famous for having the highest number of liquor stores per capita in California, a figure some would trot out as evidence of delinquency. But to do so would neglect these stores’ roles as community centers, and the wide variety of products, from guilty pleasures to household staples, that they proffer.
In fact, San Francisco’s neighborhood markets carry everything from fortified wine to high end pinot; farm fresh produce and imported cheese to Backwoods. Whether you’re looking for a cutty bang mixed drink, a thick sandwich on Dutch Crunch, or an It’s It ice cream bar, the corner stores have got you covered.
While these businesses have fared better than others, thanks to their essential status, plenty are struggling, especially those in and around downtown. Even before the pandemic, these San Francisco icons faced many challenges, from rapidly rising rents, to outdated anti-crime regulations, to a seemingly endless litany of tobacco bans and other health-related laws. But if their long history says anything, it’s that they will persist, no matter the adversity.
Ups and Downs
Most of the dozen store owners and cashiers contacted for this story saw a major spike in sales in the early days of the pandemic, as people stocked up on groceries and household essentials, and many were wary of the crowds at large grocery stores. Business has tapered off since then, or else proceeded in fits and starts.
Samir Soud, who owns Richland Market on the backside of Bernal Heights, says food is sometimes expiring on the shelves — something that rarely happened before — adding that his business is down around 25 percent. “If it stays like this it’s not good. We’re worried about rent,” he says.
For other stores, getting enough inventory of the right products can be a problem. COVID-related supply chain disruptions have made certain goods more expensive, or harder to obtain from distributors. Even stores whose business has been relatively strong have had to absorb these higher prices with lower profit margins.
Safety and security issues have also been a challenge for corner stores since the beginning of the pandemic. “The streets were quiet, and we were some of the only places open,” says Miriam Zouzounis, owner of Ted’s Market on Howard and 11th. Several stores reported dealing with increases in theft.
The lack of nightlife in the city is also hurting stores’ bottom lines. “We used to be bangin, man” says Akhenaten A (A is his last name) son of the owner of K&H Liquors on 16th and Valencia. “It was really the bars that brought people here.”
In San Francisco, bars and clubs feed a wider nightlife ecosystem that spills out on the streets and into parks. Corner stores often do their best business late into the night. But these days, most of them have reduced their hours, which is further limiting their business. In fact, between the beginning of the pandemic and June 19, the city’s stay-at-home order forced all corner stores to close at 8 p.m., while exempting grocery stores.
Not all news is bad news for the corner stores, however. Some semblance of San Francisco’s old party spirit returned after the outcome of the election became clear. “Business picked up a little after people found out Donald Trump is not going to be president.” says Sam Salfiti, owner of Save-More Market on Divisadero and McAlister. “People got a little peace of mind.” On the day Biden won the electoral college “People were splurging, buying drinks for the homeless,” says A.
Fuad Ateyah, owner of Fred’s Market on Valencia and Duboce, and the president of the Arab American Grocers Association, a trade group that represents 400 corner stores in the city, says there are pretty clear geographic divides in terms of how business is going for different corner stores. Those located in purely residential areas have been the least affected, he says, while stores on once-busy commercial corridors have seen business decline 30-40 percent, and downtown stores have seen business decline as much as 60 percent. Full sized grocery stores, by contrast, are doing record-breaking business.
In residential areas, where many people continue to work from home, corner stores’ best-selling products reflect new needs. Of course, toilet paper is an ever-present concern — when all of your, erm, trips, to the bathroom are taking place at home, you’re going to have to buy more TP than usual. Frozen and canned food have been big sellers, too, as people stock up in the face of uncertainty, and, perhaps, look for quick, easy, replacements for their favorite fast-casual eateries in the Financial District. And then of course, there are the snacks.
Tina Omar, co-owner of Shufat Market in Noe Valley, says Pepperidge Farm cookies, chips and ice cream have become particularly popular. She suspects techies are looking to supplement the types of food they used to get for free at their offices.
But even as more people work from home, plenty aren’t home at all. “A lot of our customers moved out of the city,” Ateyah says, “A lot.”
This isn’t just a hunch: Most regulars who move away stop by Fred’s Liquor to say goodbye. Many insist they’re coming back, but Ateyah thinks they might just be trying to be polite. “I don’t know if it’s going to be true or not. I hope it will be true, because the city cannot go on like this.”
‘Pulse of the Neighborhood’
Corner store proprietors are able to develop deep levels of trust with their customers, because customers, “are counting on us to be there,” Ateyah says. “We have the milk, we have the toilet paper, we have the cereal, the diapers, we have the things that they need on the spot. And we are there from eight o’clock in the morning until two o’clock in the morning.”
Corner store owners have always known their regular customers by name. But during the pandemic, when there are few opportunities for socializing, owners might be getting to know their customers too well. “People come in to complain about their spouses and other personal issues,” says Samir Soud of Richland Market.
“We know the pulse of the neighborhood,” Zouzounis says of corner store owners. These are among the few spaces in the city where people of all ages are equally welcome. Kids and teens will come in to buy candy and snacks. Corner store owners will ask “if they did their homework,” Zouzounis says. Elderly people rely on these stores, too. “The people who don’t have cars, the people who are older would have a really rough time without the neighborhood shops,” Ateyah says.
That’s especially true in neighborhoods that don’t have grocery stores, like the Tenderloin and Bayview, where corner stores are often the only place to buy food and other essentials. Now, essentials include personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As part of a partnership with UCSF, select city corner stores — including Surfside Liquors — have become hubs for free PPE.
Located on a sleepy stretch of Innes Avenue, with breathtaking views of the downtown skyline, Surfside is something of a community center. Most days of the week, a group of older men gather outside with folding chairs and tables, playing dominoes and shooting the breeze. To Uncle Bob, they’re the younger generation. “Those are kids of people I’ve known for 46 years. I knew their mothers, their fathers, their kids.”
On weekends they bring out a big, old-fashioned barbecue smoker. “We do babyback Saturdays, we take it and marinate it for a whole week, get some hickory wood and go from there,” Pinkard says. In non-COVID times, the cookouts can draw more than 100 people.
Something about Surfside’s role as a center of community life makes it a force for peace in the neighborhood, contrary to stereotypes about liquor stores being magnets for crime. “In 46 years I’ve never had to call the police,” Pinkard says. “Name another store like that in the United States. Name a Walgreens, name a church, name a service station.”
A Storied History
Fuad Ateyah hasn’t been so lucky. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, there were times when he wondered to himself, “How am I going to survive this one, and get home to see my kids… It was super rough at one time.”
But for Ateyah, who immigrated from Palestine in 1969, the 14-hour days and the challenging working conditions have been worth it — so much so that he’s helped many of his friends and relatives open up their own corner stores. These mutual support networks have long helped immigrant communities enter this business. “The fact that they didn’t need English language skills,” has helped encourage immigrants to open corner stores, says Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis who is researching the Yemeni-owned corner stores in the Bay Area. “Another thing is this idea that they could work for themselves and be entrepreneurs and not have to work for a corporation.”
Yemenis are only the latest immigrant community to have a major presence in San Francisco’s corner stores, following Palestinian immigrants, and Greek immigrants before them. It was the first generation of Palestinian corner store owners, however, who really organized this sector.
In 1974, the same year he opened Fred’s Liquor, Ateyah’s young business had a problem: Corner stores across the city were being boycotted for selling one of their most popular products, Gallo wines, as part of a strike organized by the United Farmworkers and Cesar Chavez. For a brief moment, Ateyah and his fellow corner store owners were on the wrong side of the picket line.
Ateyah and a group of corner store owners met with labor leaders, and told them, “You guys are boycotting in the wrong spot. We are with you, we support you.”
The two sides hashed out a deal, and the corner stores joined the strike. Out of this mobilization, the Arab American Grocers Association was born. This largely Palestinian trade organization quickly became a political force in the city.
“You name any candidate who made it in the ’80s and ’90s in the city, we were the number one endorsers,” Ateyah says. “The best publicity, free cheap publicity for candidates is the corner stores… we had 700 stores and each corner has the two windows on it.”
At a time when supervisors ran citywide, getting your sign on all of those windows in virtually every neighborhood was a huge advantage. But at-large supervisorial elections ended in 2000 and the power of the Arab American Grocers gradually diminished. Their numbers declined, too, to around 400 member stores today. While some of the closed stores turned over ownership, the vast majority of them were converted to another kind of business. High rents and inflexible landlords are always an issue, but city regulations hurt too.
In the mid 2000s, there was a flurry of legislation targeting corner stores, including moratoria on new establishments selling alcohol in several neighborhoods, and a 2006 ordinance that holds corner stores accountable for crime that happens within a few feet of the storefront. It was the beginning of what Zouzounis describes as a period of “disproportionate regulation” for the corner store sector.
“The last several years have been an uphill battle, because we’ve faced an onslaught of regulation in our sector without any means to help transition or compensate for our losses,” Zouzounis says. That includes the soda tax from 2016, the city’s flavored tobacco ban which took effect in 2018 (the separate, statewide ban will take effect on January 1), and the vape ban from 2019.
“We’re always the shortcut to trying to solve a public health issue,” Zouzounis says. “Let’s just pick on the corner stores, that will solve it. That’s the kind of rationale we’re fighting.”
Pinkard says the flavored tobacco ban hit his business particularly hard, reducing sales as much as 30 percent. He believes the ban has simply forced the flavored tobacco market underground. “You got a lot of stores that sell menthols, let’s call it like it is. And they sell single cigarettes. But you won’t find me doing that.”
Yet another challenge, for at least some stores, has been the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. Besides the adverse local effects of Trump’s travel ban on several Arab and Muslim countries, other recent policies have specifically targeted Yemeni immigrants. At a time when Yemen is at war with Saudi Arabia and experiencing a devastating famine, “there have been a lot of challenges and obstacles to money transfers, and to remittances from Yemeni Americans,” Maira says.
Since the start of the pandemic, thousands of Yemeni Americans have been stranded in Yemen, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “I’ve heard stories of relatives of some of the store workers and owners being stuck in Yemen, and not being able to come back,” Maira says.
While immigrants of Yemeni and Arab descent continue to face unique challenges, the Arab American Grocers Association is looking to broaden its constituency, and strengthen solidarity across the sector. This year, the association created a new group called the Neighborhood Business Alliance, which will serve as an advocacy organization for all corner store owners, regardless of background.
“We’re working with a lot of the Chinatown merchants, the Black corner stores, the Indian and South Asian corner stores. So we’re all trying to centralize,” says Zouzounis, who is leading the group. (The Arab American Grocers have always included non-Arab store owners. Pinkard, who is Black, says he has been to “60 or 70” weddings at Ramallah Hall on Ocean Avenue, the Palestinian cultural center.)
One of the Neighborhood Business Alliance’s goals is reforming the “broken windows era policies” that are still being applied to corner stores, including fines for graffiti and loitering, Zouzounis says. As a member of the Small Business Commission, she helped develop a list of policy recommendations for assisting the corner stores. Among them: eliminating a $272 annual fee from the aforementioned 2006 ordinance, and streamlining the process for adding cafe seating outside.
Owners are also looking at new business opportunities that might help compensate for lost tobacco revenue. November’s Proposition H could help, allowing corner stores to operate more flexibly. Owners have expressed interest in selling art and CBD, as well as improving their deli offerings. Zouzounis hopes the city will expand its Healthy Retail program, which has so far enabled 11 corner stores in low-income neighborhoods to stock produce and other fresh foods.
Delivery apps are another promising development that have helped many stores weather the pandemic, although there are equity issues there, too. “You’re talking about a sector that’s immigrant and senior heavy, and you can barely get someone on the phone to help troubleshoot or set up an online platform,” Zouzounis says.
At the end of a 14-hour work day, it’s the little things that keep these San Francisco icons up and running. For the past year, one of Pinkard’s two refrigerators has been out, forcing him to cram all of his perishable goods into the one that still works — and sell a whole lot of lukewarm drinks. If he could get some help to replace his old fridge, “That would change my business probably 10 percent or better,” he says. “That would be like a blessing from God.”