"I was there..."
Members of the People's Food System marching in 1976 demonstration.
It was August, 1995, just after Jerry [Garcia] went down, and then the Mick [Mickey Mantle], that I got the word that Inner Sunset was going too. The world little noted nor long reflected on the demise of San Francisco's Inner Sunset Community Food Store. But I believe its life must be remembered and its death pondered, for these signify something of the birth and passing of a part of a special kind of community. Within those bookends are contained the tale of struggle and joy in transcending the dominant grasping venality of our times, and the ultimate failure to continue resisting its encroachments. This is also the story of petty and self-destructive internal power mongering, and displays of disrespect to the community that gave the store its life. Inner Sunset had suffered slipping sales since the economy went bad in Baghdad by the Bay in the early '90s, but it still did over a million dollars in sales up through 1994. Also in 1994 a statewide survey conducted by Calpirg, Pesticide Watch and the Sierra Club found that Inner Sunset had the largest number of different organic produce items in California, and rated it the #2 "Safe Food" store overall (Rainbow was #1).
But in the end it fell victim, like so many other small businesses these days, to the real estate sharks and tax ripoff bureaucrats that constantly circle from below and above. It also hemorrhaged to death because its participants could not soon enough unite and create community to overcome these obstacles.
I was one of those participants for three years, from 1992 until 1995. (I left Inner Sunset in early June of '95 to come back to my old home town in southeastern Connecticut to investigate the three Millstone nuclear plants there, arguably the worst in the nation.) I write this as a journalist and life-long active member in food conspiracies and co-ops and collectives in San Francisco, Baltimore, San Diego, North Carolina and Connecticut.
Like many such groups, Inner Sunset Community Food Store was a "Food For People, Not For Profit" place, one that grew out of the Bay Area's Peoples Food System in the '70s. It opened in a funky store front on 9th Avenue near Golden Gate Park in May 1976. Community volunteers organized, then staffed it in early days, until the workforce became a hardly paid collective envisioned as steward of the store for the larger community. Cash flow was usually poor, but energy flow high enough to sustain its operation and spirit. All was relatively well until that bane of SF existence, the landlord, reared his unctuous head and ripped his rapacious fangs into the community store, delivering his scummery judgment in the form of an eviction notice.
The community panicked, fumed, regrouped, scrambled and found another storefront. This time, however, it was a good number of blocks down Irving Street across 16th Avenue. Real estate speculation was rampant in the City, entire neighborhoods, races and classes were being displaced, and Inner Sunset's forced move was just one more disjointed dislocation.
The community store survived Feinstein, Reagan and enough of Bush at the new location. Then a new absentee landlord, this one absent even from the U.S., took over the property and promptly doubled the rent. Since this added up to doom for the store, the collective decided to look elsewhere. Space in its original base near 9th and Irving proved to be beyond its means. The owner of one choice long vacant location there refused even to consider any offer. That space sat empty for years until Blockbuster Video put up big time bucks in its futile attempt to bluster into the neighborhood.
Inner Sunset Community Food Store Staff.
The community store finally found another home, this time on 20th Avenue near Irving. The rent was high, as high as that demanded at its Irving site, but the space was twice as big.
The community had found, however, that it was unwelcome, at least landlord-wise, in the neighborhood whose name it bore. Now it would be on the west side of car crazed 19th Avenue, on the eastern edge of the Outer Sunset.
Through another intense community effort the store pulled off a well planned move and beautiful remodeling of the new space. It flourished during its first year there, when community spirit ran high, achieving all time high sales and a comfortable profit for the first time ever.
Things started to go sour, unfortunately, around the time I started working there in the summer of '92. I'd recently finished a five year stint at the Durham Food Co-op in North Carolina, performing reluctantly (due to my anti-authority values) but successfully first as general manager, and then more enthusiastically in helping to create a collective management structure. After I moved to SF I looked for work in other fields, but found the competition ridiculously fierce for every shit job I unsuccessfully applied for.
Volunteering at Inner Sunset eventually helped me to secure a paying job there. I was happy to be a collective drone at first, but grew puzzled by and then disillusioned with its management structure. Officially this was a democratically managed collective, but there was an inner circle in the store, the Board of Directors, which had the real decision making power.
Initially, weary of management dreck from my NC experience, I was only too happy to let someone else make those decisions as I blissfully went about setting up sumptuous produce displays. Foolish me. Soon the BOD started making what I thought were real bonehead moves. For me these problems started with the shoplifting and dirty people crackdown. Sales were decreasing and the BOD decreed that something had to be done about it. They decided thousands of dollars were being lost annually through theft. They devised various actions to stifle this perceived crime wave. People who looked like they didn't have money became targets of this campaign.
In one incident an unfortunate homeless a woman named Trudy was banned from the store after cussing out a worker who objected to her over-long use of the community store unisex toilet and sink. Trudy told me beforehand on the day that this happened that she'd been rousted from her spot in the doorway of a vacant building early that day by the cops, who hauled away her meager possessions.
Another time during this period a woman originally from Eastern Europe was accused of shoplifting in the store and surrounded by zealous BOD types. It turned out she hadn't stolen anything. She screamed in front of everyone in the crowded store that she hadn't been treated this way since the Nazis had occupied her country, and then proceeded to call the cops on her egregiously embarrassed accusers.
The store atmosphere grew more cold and suspicious and caused community people to shy away. I tried to advise BOD people of other approaches to handle shoplifting and communicated what had happened to Trudy the day she was rousted from the street and then the community store. This did no good. The BOD seemed to live in its own insular arrogant world.
The lowest, and for me, turning point was when Keith McHenry was fired. Keith, Food Not Bombs and all round activist, had been working at the store for a number of years. We became friends and then allies while working a produce shift together.
Keith had a lot of gripes about and enemies within the collective and felt isolated and intimidated. I couldn't believe that Keith McHenry, who routinely stood up to all kinds of crap from the SFPD, was made to feel this way in a San Francisco community food store. Together we organized a campaign to get rid of the BOD and reorganize the workforce into a true collective. Our efforts were totally rejected.
In the spring of '93 moves were afoot to carry out an evaluation of Keith. He resisted it, because this had been used in the past as an excuse to try to fire him. I had intervened on his behalf at another attempt to "evaluate" him in his absence at a BOD meeting. This time around I was about to take a leave of absence for the summer, when a co-worker told me he'd heard one of Keith's BOD enemies say, "How can we get rid of Keith after Michael leaves?"
Before I left I requested that the BOD put off Keith's evaluation until my return in a few months, and to investigate the remark that had been reported to me. They did neither, but did fire Keith in my absence after a farcical evaluation.
I was heartsick after hearing of this and wanted to quit. But I needed a job and decided to stick it out for a while after I got back. I sat back and watched as various factions that had attacked Keith squabbled, crashed and burned, quit and left.
Sales kept going down and various schemes were tried to turn things around. But nothing could change the fact that the store had been displaced from its community. Literally by landlord power, and emotionally by BOD disrespect and insensitivity. In addition, many loyal members of the community were affected by the "recession" and were hurting for money themselves, or had to be a lot more careful spending what little their landlords left them.
Having developed some financial management skills in Durham, I'd begun worrying about that aspect of Inner Sunset's operation. Financial reports were invariably late and hastily presented. I pointed out that our sales couldn't support our payroll, that we couldn't afford to pay for all the time spent at BOD and other meetings. But the BOD had its own agenda, and economic reality was way down the list. Nevertheless, it couldn't be ignored forever. At the beginning of'94 the collective agreed to a pay cut of $6/hour, though nobody had been making much more than $7 an hour as it was. Actually we went on a salary that worked out to that hourly wage, based on 35 hours of work a week, but since we usually had to work more than that, we really needed up getting less than $6 per hour.
But this seemed to help stabilize our situation, and our first quarter financial report looked much better. When I left for summer vacation I thought all was relatively well. Imagine my consternation upon returning to find that part of the collective wanted to close the place down. Somehow the store had simply run out of cash over the summer, and racked up a sizable debt to its vendors.
Some other folks, myself among them, wanted to keep the doors open. There were enough of us to carry on. Meanwhile, newer people saw the absurdity of the BOD, and it was eliminated without any dissent. We reorganized the collective and worked out a monthly payment plant with our vendors.
I concentrated my efforts on community outreach and finances. The former task was frustrating because all too often people around town knew the store as "the place that fired Keith McHenry." I should add that during this time Mayor Frank Jordan and his SFPD were carrying out their infamous Matrix Program against the homeless and their supporters, and Keith was faced with life imprisonment due to three trumped up felony charges against him.
Dealing with financial reality at the store put me face to face with its well-entrenched parasites. To begin with, paying $4700 a month rent was outrageous, especially with falling sales and two years of sizable losses. But the landlord refused to lower the rent a penny, though he did graciously put off a scheduled increase!
Then there were taxes: payroll taxes monthly to the feds, quarterly to the state, annually to the City and County. Also city property taxes on our space (as per our lease), and state corporate taxes. I'm sure I'm forgetting some. Inner Sunset was incorporated as a California non-profit, but this entitled it to no tax breaks whatsoever.
Speaking of taxes, there were also monthly obligations to the state Workers Compensation Insurance Fund. On top of these we were slapped with a $4600 bill from that bureaucracy, claiming we owed it from the year before based on our corporate officers' salaries. We explained patiently over and over again that our corporate officers received no salaries and had no duties other than to sign their names a few times a year. I tried to communicate this to the person who made this decision, their auditor, a man with the soul of a microchip, but he said we had to pay it because their rules necessitated him figuring the minimum salary for our two corporate officers at $20,000 a year each.
I painfully and laboriously renegotiated until they relented and said we only owed $2200. But during this time they canceled our workers comp policy.
When we agreed to pay the $2200 in three convenient payments over this summer, they let us have our policy back in effect. But having to pay it over the slowest sales months of the year was one of the money factors that broke the store's back. At the same time, workers who were hurt on the job were unmercifully stonewalled when they tried to access their supposed workers comp benefits.
The following winter a former collective member returned to help me straighten out our financial records, which proved to be seriously, perhaps fatally, messed up. After many tedious hours we discovered that our already considerable losses in recent years had been significantly understated, and that information we'd used to figure our ability to calculate our pay back plan to vendors was likewise overly optimistic. To top it off, we also discovered that there were loan payments outstanding to individual members that had become delinquent during the BOD's reign. We were obligated to start paying these off, including sometimes stiff interest payments.
Until the time I left we managed to somehow stretch our pennies enough to make all necessary payments. But the ice we were treading on grew thinner with each step, and the summer of '95's heat seared away all remaining support. I also have to report that interpersonal problems in the collective did not cease in the absence of the BOD. Over the final year gender problems and male domination took their toll within the collective. As a result, first most of the women left, then most of the men involved. We did do a good hiring of a diverse and talented group of people to replace the departees, and the new collective evolved into a cohesive, cooperative group.
In the spring of '95 we also gave up almost half of our space in return for a $1000 a month rent decrease. We reorganized the store in to a better layout. But the accumulated burdens proved to be too heavy. When it all went down, no one who was responsible for creating the mess was there. The landlords and taxmen were too busy counting their spoils, and the squabblers who'd destroyed the community spirit had long since moved on to spoil other people's parties.
Surviving members of the People's Food System in SF are Veritable Vegetables, a women owned and operated wholesale organic produce operation, as well as the remaining community food stores, Rainbow Grocery in the Mission, and Other Avenues out by the beach in the Outer Sunset.
These survivors are up against burgeoning corporate health food raiders such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Market, the latter occupying a yuppie food palace convenient to Pacific Heights. That location is Whole Foods' most profitable in its far flung national network.
May these survivors and the rest of us left draw wisdom from Inner Sunset's experience and learn how to outwit the forces that brought it down.
In loving memory of Tet, one of Inner Sunset's founders.
--by Michael Steinberg