Noe Valley Up In Arms
By David Lazarus - Wednesday, September 24, 2003, San Francisco Chronicle
Looks like the heat is being turned up on Nutraceutical International, the Utah vitamin giant that sacked 30 employees from its Real Food Co. outlet in San Francisco's Noe Valley and closed the store for up to six months without any warning to customers.
Federal labor authorities are investigating former workers' claims that they were unlawfully fired because of efforts to unionize the staff. Multiple complaints have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
The San Francisco Department of Building Inspection is investigating whether Nutraceutical began remodeling work at the 24th Street store without obtaining necessary permits.
The Board of Supervisors' City Services Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on Nutraceutical's business practices. The full board will subsequently vote on a resolution calling on all relevant agencies to "investigate thoroughly any alleged violations that have occurred as a result of Nutraceutical's actions."
Last, but not least, members of the community will meet Oct. 2 at the Noe Valley Ministry to discuss a unified response to Real Food's closure. Peter Gabel, the organizer of the meeting, said a boycott of the store is possible if Nutraceutical does not rehire its former employees and address the neighborhood's concerns.
"There's a lot of people who are very angry," he told me. "Nutraceutical's strategy is obviously to wear down the community and hope that everyone forgets. I'm one neighbor who won't forget about this."
That's no idle threat. When Gabel learned this summer that a struggling local bookstore, Cover to Cover, was in danger of going under, he pulled the community together and raised $200,000 to keep the store afloat. Now he wants to apply the same grassroots activism to the neighborhood's main health food shop.
"This means not allowing an out-of-state corporation to conduct itself any way it wants," said Gabel, president emeritus of San Francisco's New College. "In Noe Valley, respect for employees and respect for customers is central to the philosophy of the neighborhood."
Nutraceutical clearly has a lot to learn about doing business in the Bay Area.
The company purchased four local health-food stores last year -- three Real Food outlets and Thom's Natural Foods on Geary Street. It also made failed offers for at least three other regional shops, primarily, store owners say, as a way to boost sagging vitamin sales.
Workers at the Noe Valley store were told at 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 28 that they were suddenly out of jobs. Longtime customers were surprised to discover the next morning that the store would be closed for as long as half a year, ostensibly for remodeling.
However, city records show that Nutraceutical has yet to apply for any permits for interior work at the site, a process that can take weeks or even months. The only permits sought by the company -- issued a week before the firings -- were limited to exterior modifications.
The Department of Building Inspection confirmed Tuesday that it is investigating whether any unauthorized interior work is now under way. An inspector said it appears that much of the interior already has been demolished.
In three separate complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, former Real Food workers charge that they were fired and the store closed not for remodeling but because of their union organizing. They confirmed that the NLRB is investigating the case.
Two former workers, Simon Knaphus and Jonathan Burkett, told me that they'd explicitly informed Nutraceutical executives of the staff's union plans several weeks before the firings.
But Sergio Diaz, Nutraceutical's marketing and sales manager, insists that the company had no inkling of any union activity on the part of employees.
In a phone interview from Utah this week, he described the meeting with Knaphus and Burkett as nothing more than "two employees who wanted to talk about concerns that they have. There was nothing related to a union."
In fact, Knaphus and Burkett said they handed to management a list of demands from the store's staff and openly discussed workers' union activity. They were told by the Nutraceutical execs that a follow-up meeting would be held this month -- after, it turned out, everyone was shown the door.
Diaz said he hadn't heard that the Board of Supervisors planned to look into the matter but was not troubled by the prospect.
"We have nothing to hide or be afraid of," he said. "There was no malpractice by this company."
However, Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who represents Noe Valley and chairs the City Services Committee, said Diaz was personally informed of Thursday's hearing by e-mail and fax.
"This is a big deal," Dufty said. "Real Food was a major stakeholder in the neighborhood. The way this whole thing was done was a real slap in the face to the community."
Joining him on the committee are supervisors Fiona Ma and Gavin Newsom -- the latter, of course, being the frontrunner to become San Francisco's next mayor.
I asked Nutraceutical's Diaz if he had any worries about bad blood between his company and customers in the Bay Area. He said Nutraceutical "will explain all this to customers at the right time." He did not elaborate on when this might be.
He also maintained that Nutraceutical has "a great relationship with current employees and employees we had before." Diaz declined to comment on the probe by federal labor authorities.
As for the way in which the Noe Valley workers were fired and the store closed, he said it was all part of a deliberate strategy to limit the spread of rumors prior to the start of remodeling work.
"It was a decision that unfortunately hurt some people," Diaz said. "But we have no regrets about it."
Like I say, these guys have a lot to learn.
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