It ain’t easy bringing a fried chicken chain to Mission Street — even when it’s Pollo Campero, Central America’s most popular fast-food chain.
That’s what Carlo Divita, vice president of Los Angeles-based ADIR Restaurants Corp., is finding as he goes through the process of applying for a permit to put San Francisco’s first Pollo Campero into the former Payless store at 2740 Mission, near 24th Street.
Divita’s experience has all the elements of a neighborhood drama: upset residents, a high-strung realtor and some real issues, including noise, hours and the smell of fried chicken. Oh, and there’s the Central American Resource Center’s concern about fast food’s impact on health — more specifically, Mission waistlines and tendencies toward obesity.
After some two dozen Bartlett Street neighbors attended a Planning Commission hearing in March and wrote letters objecting to the planned open-air patio that would butt up against their backyards, it appeared for a brief period that the plans might have been shelved.
But Divita wrote in a recent e-mail that he’s still trying to open up and “bring 65 local jobs to the Mission District.” He added, however, “We are weighing all options.”
One thing for sure, he said, is that the company cannot move forward under the conditions the Planning Commission tried to impose at its March 3 meeting, and he worries they may still resurface.
The failed motion would have required the restaurant to limit hours on the patio from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and to decrease the number of patio seats.
Planner Diego Sanchez said he believes the motion was made “in response to all the testimony.”
The commission will continue the hearing on May 19, and instructed project sponsor Ron Wallace of Wallace Architects to organize meetings through Supervisor David Campos’s office to negotiate with opposing community groups.
Neither Sanchez nor the neighbors have heard of any negotiations.
Divita said that ADIR restaurants, a privately held company that became a franchisee of Pollo Campero in 2001, has spent “substantial” money on the application process.
“We are self-funded and have had a challenging time like everyone else in this recession,” he said. “Doing business in San Francisco is substantially more costly than almost anywhere else where our customer base exists.”
Pollo Campero originated in Guatemala and is so popular that people returning to the U.S. from Central America often carry buckets and boxes of the fried chicken on the plane with them. There are 13 Pollo Camperos in Los Angeles.
Whether one will open here is very much up in the air. The neighbors, who have spent money hiring a lawyer and ordering a sound study, remain opposed to the project.
For a brief period, until about two weeks ago, neighbors thought that ADIR was withdrawing its application, according to neighbor said Jeff Cluett.
A representative from Wallace Architects had said that it looked like the restaurant was pulling out. Neighbors had also read a letter written by realtor David Blatteis to a planning commissioner in mid-March. “Pollo Campero has given up on our city and canceled the lease,” Blatteis wrote, informing the commissioners that “you are the ones that are ruining our city.”
In the same letter, Blatteis called the neighbors “pigs” and claimed their backyard was “a fancy garden” partially on the owner’s property. Cluett said the neighbors had never had any contact with Blatteis.
The Planning Department’s Sanchez said he received “e-mails of frustration from people in the Pollo Campero camp that were upset with the result of the hearing and made [intimations] that Pollo Campero was walking away.”
But project sponsor Wallace said the chicken chain isn’t out yet.
He explained the “For Lease” sign in the window as giving ADIR a way to opt out of its lease if it loses at the next hearing.
The neighbors on Bartlett remain solidly opposed to the project, mainly because they fear the 30-seat back patio will be loud, smelly and bright — all elements that could affect the security and value of their homes.
“Some people are adamantly opposed to a fast-food restaurant moving into that space, but I’m not a stakeholder to disapprove it on those grounds,” said Cluett, who lives kitty-corner to the planned patio in a house with his partner and dog and cats.
Cluett said that none of the other Pollo Campero locations in the United States have outdoor patios, and the planned Mission Street outlet is ADIR’s only sit-down restaurant.
The company applied for a full-service restaurant from the beginning, Sanchez believes, to avoid being classified as a large fast-food establishment. “They changed their business model to be a full-service restaurant,” Sanchez said. “They’re saying it’s more similar to their original restaurants in Central America.”
According to the city’s planning code, no additional large fast-food establishments are allowed on Mission Street from 14th to Randall, near where it intersects San Jose Avenue. Large fast-food establishments are defined as those with more than 1,000 square feet, where customers pay for the food before eating it, are given disposable wrappers and containers, and order and are served at a counter.
The Bartlett Street Neighbors met with Wallace twice before the first hearing. They want the restaurant to consider a closed patio, or extending the building out. At one meeting they discussed the sound study ordered by Wallace, and he described the small changes recommended by Charles M. Salter Associates.
But Cluett and other neighbors didn’t believe the sound study “held water.” Cluett said it only took into account the noise levels of face-to-face conversations, not considering music, machinery, parties or the clinking of silverware.
They also think the noise barrier around the patio won’t be effective for neighbors living on higher floors, and that foliage between the yards doesn’t really block noise.
The neighbors hired their own sound consultant, who found that sound levels generated by the proposed project would cause annoyance, speech interference and sleep disturbance.
Though the majority of letters on the permit are opposed to the new restaurant, a few offered support. Phillip Lesser owns the Bank of the West down the street and wrote that the restaurant “would be a boon for the neighborhood shopping corridor.” Divita and supporters of the project argue that the restaurant will bring jobs to the Mission and will put a business in an empty space on a street with 20 vacancies.
However, Cluett said that Divita never answered the commissioners’ questions as to whether the franchise had looked into any other vacancies that may be better suited for their plans.
Cluett said that he can’t speak for all his neighbors, but for his household, the problem is the patio.
“We’re happy with any restaurant, any store going in there. We’d prefer it not be a chain, not be fast food. That’s not a benefit to the community, but we wouldn’t fight that. We want a business in that space. We encourage businesses to open on Mission Street.”