Grub Street broke the news last year that Chipotle had inked a lease for the prominent former Home restaurant at the intersection of Church, Market, and 14th Streets. We immediately anticipated that the chain, being considered formula retail, would face an uphill battle with the Castro neighborhood, and nearly eight months later that has proved somewhat true, with a petition drive launched to oppose the company moving in, and a Planning Commission hearing still two or three months away. Chipotle is trying its damnedest to play nice, though, launching their own petition, hosting pop-up events at the site, and rallying support from 29 local merchants as well as the Castro merchants association. Today Grub Street caught up with Chipotle communications director Chris Arnold about the proposed design of the space, and their community outreach efforts. He admits, "San Francisco is pretty unique," and moving in here has been a bit tougher than it was with any of the other 1,430 locations the chain has opened.
Chipotle, as you may know, was founded in Denver by former S.F. chef (he once worked at Stars) and Mission burrito enthusiast Steve Ells. Arnold stresses that the chain "is not like other formula retail," and "It’s kind of funny because we were never supposed to be a chain. We started as just one restaurant, and all of these formula retail issues were entirely moot." He says that they still treat the design and management of each restaurant as if it were its own, standalone business, and despite the chain’s huge nationwide expansion, "We remain committed to serving high-quality ingredients, and to sustainability, and to acting like a chef-owned restaurant. We want people to know that not all formula retail is created equal." (You may recall the ad campaign they first aired in 2011 touting their anti-industrial-farming stance, which obviously plays well in the Bay Area.)
There are already nine Chipotle locations in San Francisco, and this location will be a first for the chain locally in terms of it being a sit-down, urban neighborhood location serving margaritas, beer, and wine. Some neighbors are understandably concerned, however, that small local taquerias, of which are there are four within just three blocks, might suffer if Chipotle moves in.
It is likely, though, that the space is not going to get snapped up by an individual chef-owner or small independent operator, as many in the neighborhood probably want, because of the costs involved in bringing it back to life. Arnold says that though there was not much competition when they signed the lease for the property — which closed in 2011 because of a liquor license issue relating to the outdoor patio that the owners of Home could not afford to solve — they have since been approached by a few interested parties looking to take over their development rights should Chipotle’s bid fail to win approval. He won’t name any companies, but he says, "They’re not independent local operators — they’re national or regional concepts or restaurant groups."
As one neighborhood resident, Jonathan Foulk, who signed the pro-Chipotle petitions says, "I would rather see a chain restaurant that has respect for animals, farmers, and the environment than a restaurant that is hit or miss or may close in six months. A lot of that has been going on in the Castro and store fronts stay empty because of high rent." On the anti- side, the petitioners say that "the prominent placement of such a large chain restaurant sets an unfortunate precedent" for the neighborhood, and they would rather see the property generate revenue for a local entrepreneur.
San Francisco leads the nation in resistance to chain retail and fast-food chains, and Arnold says that of the 1,200 or so Chipotles that have opened during his tenure there, this has so far been the most contentious process. "We’ve faced some design issues going into historic districts in places like Boston and D.C.," Arnold says, but nothing quite like this, because no other cities have such stringent ordinances against chains. As of right now, 241 people have signed the anti-Chipotle petition, and 272 people have signed the petition supporting Chipotle.
Arnold assures us that the company is not trying to create animosity with the neighbors, or "force this thing through the bureaucracy," but that they want to "partner with the community."
"We’re optimistic," says Arnold, "that as people learn a little more about who we are, and how we run our restaurants, and how we design and build them, that we are not like any other formula retailer that might be interested in that space."
And speaking of the design, check out a few renderings and a floor plan by clicking below. The new location would feature a more open patio than at Home with about eighteen seats, as well as a public art mural, and 76 seats indoors with about 22 of those being stools along a dining counter facing the Church Street windows.
Chipotle expects to be scheduled for a Planning Commission hearing over the summer, and construction would then take about six months after that. So we are likely looking at a 2014 opening if it’s approved.