Real Food Noe Shuts Real Fast
By David Lazarus - Wednesday, September 3, 2003, San Francisco Chronicle
How's this for timing: Thirty workers at the Real Food Co. store in San Francisco's Noe Valley were laid off the night before Labor Day weekend.
The popular natural-foods outlet on 24th Street will be closed for as long as six months while a more upscale interior is installed and more "gourmet" items are put on shelves.
If the Noe Valley Real Food thrives in its reincarnated form, two other branches of the Bay Area chain -- which began as a funky neighborhood shop providing healthy eats for hippies -- will receive similar makeovers.
But modernization can be rough.
The Noe Valley store's manager, Conal Wildow, said Tuesday that all of Real Food's nonmanagement employees were told Thursday night that they were out of jobs and were handed checks for two weeks' worth of pay.
Customers only found out about the move when they showed up the next morning and found locked doors and a sign saying the store is closed for renovations.
This didn't sit well with Georgia Schuttish, a Noe Valley resident who has shopped at Real Food for the past 17 years, often stopping by daily for fresh produce.
"I've never heard of anything like this," she said. "Not giving your workers any notice and not even letting customers know in advance. You just close one day and say you'll stay closed for six months? That's not the right way to do business."
It's certainly not how Jane and Kimball Allen envisioned things when they opened the first Real Food on Stanyan Street in 1969. Six other Bay Area branches followed over the years, scaled back to a total of five when the Allens decided to sell off the chain last year.
Three of the stores, including the Noe Valley outlet, were purchased for $2. 7 million by Fresh Organics, a subsidiary of Utah's Nutraceutical International Corp., a leading maker of vitamins and nutritional supplements.
The other two were bought by Los Angeles businessman Stephen Hong, who, according to the terms of the deal, shares the Real Food name with Nutraceutical.
Sergio Diaz, Nutraceutical's marketing and sales director, said the company never intended to sack 30 Real Food workers right before Labor Day. It just worked out that way.
Similarly, Diaz said the company decided it would be better to spring the closure on employees and customers, rather than give them advance warning.
"There's no easy way to do something like this," he said. "It was an internal decision, and that's how we did it."
He said the Noe Valley store will serve as a prototype for Nutraceutical's other Real Food branches on Stanyan and in Sausalito.
Nutraceutical produces supplements under a variety of brand names, including Nature's Life, NaturalMax and VegLife. The publicly listed company reported quarterly net income last month of $3.2 million.
Real Food co-founder Jane Allen told me that she had no advance word that staffers in her former store were getting the ax. She still owns the building that houses the Noe Valley branch.
"I heard right after it happened," she said. "I was shocked. It's always been a real good store."
Maybe soon it will be even better. Or if you used to work there, maybe not.
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