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The Hard Truth About Shopping Local: Opinion

Dear Readers,

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ben Bleiman, and I own a bunch of small businesses in San Francisco. I’m also the President of the Entertainment Commission, but my thoughts and opinions are my own. I’ll be writing a column here on the plight of small businesses in SF, and what we can do collectively to save them.

First, some peace on earth and goodwill toward humanity:

On behalf of the entire San Francisco small business community – if I may be so immodest – I hereby publicly thank our residents and leaders for promoting a “shop local” message this holiday season. From Shop & Dine in the 49 to messages from Supervisor’s offices to viral Facebook posts asking small business owners (somewhat creepily) to “identify” themselves, we praise San Francisco residents who support our beleaguered mom & pop shops. The additional revenue could not come at a more desperate time for our community, and it is truly appreciated.

Now, for some Grinch:

Shopping local won’t save us. At best, these campaigns will add a pittance toward our mounting debts, rents, payrolls, cost of goods — and let’s not forget the SF Fire Department, which has been going door to door to small businesses in the past couple of weeks. Are they singing carols and spreading holiday cheer? Nope. They’re demanding $375 for outdoor heat lamp permits under the threat of severe penalty.

At worst, shop local campaigns give the public a false sense that our problems can be solved with a few more well-meaning customers. And somehow even worse, these campaigns can distract from unpopular decisions that would actually address the fundamental threats to our community, which existed way before COVID-19.

In the following months, I’ll take a deeper dive into the specific issues that must be addressed to save mom & pop shops. But for the meantime, it’s helpful to put them into two categories: immediate needs and long-term needs.

Immediately, we need money, and we need a lot of it. I’m not talking about selling a few more gift cards this December: Small businesses need grants, federal stimulus, and low interest loans from the City, State, and Feds. Many of us will not survive until vaccine o’clock without tens of thousands of dollars of cash — now.

Longer term, our leaders must address the fundamental issues that were crushing SF small businesses before the virus. For the past decade, SF has been ranked among the worst places to open a small business in the United States, and it is no big secret why: The combination of permitting & zoning, wages & employee mandates, commercial rents, taxes & fees, and competition from predatory online & gig economy businesses, have placed crushing burdens on local shops and restaurants for years.

In the spirit of the holidays, allow us to end on a note of hope.

Just this week, a bipartisan group of US Senators agreed on another stimulus relief package which has a chance of passing the lame duck session. The state of California has announced a $500 million dollar relief package for small businesses, which includes tax deferrals and small grants. And here in SF, Mayor Breed sponsored the popular Prop H, which fixes planning and permitting issues in a meaningful way. Supervisor Peskin has led on a bevy of remarkably helpful legislation including permanent caps on restaurant delivery app fees and significant commercial tenant protections. Supervisors Ronen, Mandelman, and Haney have also been hard at work crafting (and may soon release) substantive legislation to address other real issues. These measures represent real progress, but they are just a start.

So, by all means shop local this holiday season. Buy gift certificates, fresh flowers, chocolate boxes, and way too much takeout food. Treat yourselves to some new shoes, shirts, and jackets, holiday cards and knickknacks. If you’re doing relatively well, adopt a family in need and buy them a truckload of stuff from local mom & pop shops. It is really helpful. Thank you.

But once the frenzy of the holidays has subsided, we must demand that our leaders address the root causes of SF small businesses’ woes to give us a fighting chance to recover.

-Ben Bleiman is a small business owner, President of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, and founder of SF Bar Owner Alliance


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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