Battle brews over cafe plans
by Matthew S. Bajko
Cafe Flore has been a beloved Castro institution for more than three decades. The Market Street restaurant has served as a living room for countless residents, and visitors the world over consider it their home in the city's gay neighborhood.
But its owner, J.D. Petras, has found operating the business increasingly difficult, and earlier this year he had put the property up for sale. Having taken the business off the market, he is now pursuing plans to serve food 24 hours a day, seven days a week, have amplified music late at night, and extend his liquor license from midnight to 2 a.m.
"It is in a lot of danger if Cafe Flore is not able to extend its hours," said Petras, who bought the business five years ago and employs 30 people. "Cafe Flore is just breaking even. It had lost money the first couple of years; now it is just staying afloat."
Petras said along with increasing his profit margins, the changes in operation are needed to allow for fundraisers to be held at Cafe Flore. Under the current restrictions, any events must end at midnight, which Petras claims is a hamper to hosting successful benefits.
"What we are asking for with Cafe Flore is no different than anyone else in the neighborhood," said Petras, who insisted he has no plans to turn the cafe into a nightclub.
The city's planning commission will hear his application to go to round-the-clock hours at its meeting next Thursday, December 6. If the vote is in his favor, then Petras will seek approval from the city's Entertainment Commission for the change in music policies and the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for the extended bar hours.
Should he be denied the change in his permits, Petras said he likely would sell the business. He has received several offers from national restaurant chains and other businesses but turned down the proposals because none would continue to operate Cafe Flore.
"I couldn't imagine selling this to someone who would take Cafe Flore down," said Petras. "It is a neighborhood institution. This is home to so many people."
The proposal has brought to the surface fissures among nearby residents who variously oppose or support Petras's plans or those who are seeking some sort of compromise between the needs of the neighbors and the business.
"We don't mind Cafe Flore going ahead and doing what it needs to do to thrive as a business. I go there all the time. We consider them a neighbor," said Sabrina Chaw, coordinator of a crime watch group along her block of 16th Street between Market and Castro streets. "We are concerned that they need to create a balance with us between residential needs and commercial needs."
Chaw said she has sought a compromise where the cafe is allowed to extend its hours but not seven days a week.
"On work nights let us have our sleep," said Chaw. "One concern we have in this block is it gets really noisy. Patrons come up from Jet and The Cafe. We are not saying all patrons from Cafe Flore are coming up noisy, but it sets a precedent."
"It is easy for someone to come be a patron and walk away. We are the ones living here. We are left with the crime, the trash, and the cumulative impacts," added Chaw.
"It is the heart of the gay neighborhood," said Tim Ryan, who lives around the corner on Market Street. "There is a little bit of a debate that it may turn too suburban. Pottery Barn is as suburban as I want it to be here."
Gina Hall, a Cafe Flore regular since the 1980s who used to live down the street on Noe but now lives near Collingwood Park, said opponents of Cafe Flore "are speaking the voice of the few, not the many." She bemoaned what she sees as a "shut the party down" attitude gripping not only her neighbors but also city officials.
"It is like a no-fun zone now," said Hall. "This is a famous place and I have been coming here from the beginning. It shows the injustice going on in City Hall."
Brad Villers, owner of KardZone a few doors down from the cafe and a Market Street resident, said he fears a small group of Castro property owners are wielding undue influence on planning issues in the neighborhood.
"I find it very frustrating being a business owner with people who live right next to all the perks we have here â€“ the restaurants, shops, bars and clubs â€“ and want to change things. Those people who have those homes right there need all that to make their property as valuable as it is," he said.
"I live on Market Street. It is noisy, but I chose to live there. I can move if I want quiet," added Villers. "What are they going to do when those businesses close? I don't know why that group has so much voice."
Dennis Richards, president of the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, said the issue has been divisive among his group's members. Some neighbors are hopeful a compromise can be reached, he said, while others are concerned if Petras is allowed the changes he is seeking and then sells the business a bar could then move in.
Richards said other issues that have arisen with nearby bars have contributed to the backlash against Cafe Flore's proposal.
"No one is saying no, don't do anything. People are just saying what can we live with," said Richards, who lives near the cafe and is a frequent patron. "The line in the sand is here because bar owners can't behave. They don't give a shit about the neighbors, can't control their patrons and the neighbors are saying enough."
He said he is hopeful a compromise will be reached and Cafe Flore will remain open.
"I hope we can come to an agreement, I really do. To have it go is honestly a huge loss," he said. "I have been going there since 1990. I can see why people are getting so fired up about this."