The local branch of a statewide activist group has posted fliers around the Mission District asking residents to boycott the restaurants and stores operated by the Local Mission Group.
The boycott is the latest development in a long-brewing conflict between the Mission/Bernal Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, known as ACCE, and the owners of the Local Mission Group. It is one that erupted more than a year ago when Sandy Cuadra, a long-term local resident who has since died, said she was denied service at Local’s Corner.
So far, it’s not clear how widely the boycott is being supported.
ACCE, a five-year-old statewide organization with chapters in the Bay Area and Southern California that has been active in protests against gentrification and housing issues, alleges the upscale establishments have discriminated against local residents. The group wants Yaron Milgrom, co-owner of the Local establishments, to sign an agreement that includes demands for sensitivity training and a local hiring program. (See the full list of demands below.)
“I have agreed to these items, which they know,” Milgrom wrote in an email, referring to the demands for local hiring and sensitivity training. “They are persisting, because I will not sign their document, with their language, on their terms, without any commitment on their end…”
Milgrom said business at Local’s Corner is down by 20 percent compared to last year and that business at the Local Mission Market, which opened in the fall, is “below its potential and has grown slower than it should have, which is partially due to ACCE’s efforts.”
ACCE member Anna Slavicek said that Milgrom’s recent initiatives to remedy their complaints against him are insufficient.
“It’s not enough at all,” said Slavicek. “I’m glad he’s doing it, but as far as I’m concerned, we don’t know anything about it.”
That appears to be true as the standoff has been complicated by a decided lack of communication. The two sides are not talking to one another. Instead, they are negotiating through a third party, a group of community leaders that includes Jim Salinas, a longtime labor leader, and Erick Arguello, the head of the business association.
“I really don’t want to comment on this issue right now,” said Arguello, when reached about the boycott. “It’s very sensitive.”
The Local Group Becomes the Focus of Neighborhood Tensions
The disagreements between Milgrom and ACCE have been aggravated by changes in what was once a working class, immigrant neighborhood—changes that have been so swift that some residents feel they are on the outside looking in at an upscale neighborhood they hardly recognize.
In their view, the Local Mission Group—which includes the Mission Local Eatery, Local’s Corner, the Local Mission Market and Local Cellar—has come to epitomize these changes.
To be sure, Milgrom is hardly alone in his efforts to reach the new tech residents. The 24th Street corridor of 130 businesses has long been dominated by Latino businesses. Some 77 of those in the 12-block area are still Latino-owned, and many of those are making their own changes to appeal to a broader, more upscale clientele.
In addition to these businesses, 24th Street has also become home to record shops, pricey paper stores, a Jewish deli and an assortment of more expensive cafes and restaurants.
None of the other new owners, however, have clashed as Milgrom has with a neighborhood already on edge about change.
One prominent businesswoman, who declined to have her name associated with the conflict, called Milgrom “a really horrible communicator” who is his own worst enemy.
“He is a poor manager,” she said.
Salinas, the longtime labor leader who is helping negotiate the conflict, said in early June that he felt Milgrom was sincere in wanting to work something out. “What I hear the most is that he loves the Mission District and he lives here, but he has to learn how to connect with the community,” Salinas said. “If I came into Pacific Heights, I would say I have to learn how to operate.”
Salinas declined to comment on the boycott.
For his part, Milgrom acknowledged that he had made some mistakes and he acknowledged that his establishments could be expensive for some. When he goes out with his wife and
two three children, he said, he often opts for a place like El Metate because it is more reasonable for families.
Nevertheless, he said, his restaurants offer the Mission different choices and the incidents at his restaurants boil down to a hospitality problem—his staff sometimes failing in graciousness—not racism.
A quick expansion
In part, Milgrom is more exposed than other new owners because he’s expanded quickly across a four-block radius, and within a district where gentrification has been so rapid that city officials recently made it a Latino cultural district. The Calle24 distinction is an effort to encourage city planners to take the area’s history into account in future planning decisions.
After opening the Local Eatery in 2010, Milgrom opened a second restaurant, Local’s Corner in 2012, Local Mission Market in late 2013, and Local’s Cellar, a wine and liquor store, in 2014. They’ve won kudos in places like The New York Times for their local sourcing and cooking, but they’ve had less success in community relations.
Sandy Cuadra feels unwelcome
Milgrom’s recent problems can be traced back more than a year, to Cesar Chavez Day in April 2013. That was when Sandy Cuadra, a respected Mission resident who helped her nephew and his low-riders with a major toy drive every Christmas, felt she was refused service at Local’s Corner. (Cuadra died of cancer last fall.)
That morning in April, Cuadra and family decided to try breakfast at Local’s Corner. It was a new place, and she hadn’t been there yet. She entered with her family, dressed in their “Frisco finest” of Giants jerseys and low-rider T-shirts, and asked for an inside table. The waiter was like a “deer caught in a headlight,” she recounted at an October protest in front of Local’s Corner.
The waiter, Cuadra said, told them, “‘No, we can’t accommodate you.’” Cuadra and her family offered to wait while the staff moved tables together, or perhaps they could sit at separate tables, she said, but the server suggested that they go to a restaurant on 24th Street. “At first I didn’t get it,” she said. But then, she did. They were being turned away.
In response to her complaints, Milgrom paid a visit to Cuadra’s family shortly after the April incident and published an apology in El Tecolote. Six months later, however, Cuadra was still distressed by what had happened. On October 12, just 17 days before her death, she spoke at a demonstration organized in front of Local’s Corner. She suggested that she and her family had frightened the servers, perhaps because they didn’t look like the restaurant’s usual customers.
Ray Balberan, a community activist and videographer, caught Cuadra’s talk on video. What becomes clear in watching it is the impact the experience had on a proud woman accustomed to living in a neighborhood once owned by Latinos, he says.
Milgrom said recently that he understands how devastating this must have been. “She felt that she was discriminated against,” he said. “It is important to make sure my staff stays respectful and accommodating. We did not do the best we can do that day.”
The server who dealt with Cuadra no longer works at Local’s Corner and could not be reached for comment. A current employee, who asked that her name be withheld, said she could completely see Cuadra being offended by the server who could sometimes be off-putting.
Cuadra, members of ACCE and others, however, did not accept Milgrom’s apology. ACCE continues to question his sincerity and his willingness to take responsibility and make meaningful changes in his business operations.
New Incidents or Tests
An incident in December inflamed distrust and increased tensions. Local Corner staffers asked a large, boisterous and ethnically diverse party from San Francisco City College to move from the 26-seat Local’s Corner to the larger Local Mission Eatery on 24th Street.
The hostess at Local’s Corner insisted that the group grew as the night went on, making it difficult to seat them comfortably. She offered them the opportunity to move to the Local Mission Eatery on 24th Street, but they declined and instead went to a popular Latino restaurant.
Mike Ponce, a student and one of the last in the group to arrive, said they were testing the restaurant to see if its employees would treat him differently. The hostess, he said, failed the test. Others in the group declined to speak to Mission Local.
On a later date, Slavicek from ACCE, who is also a public school teacher, arrived with five white diners at Local’s Corner. “We just went in…six white people,” she said recently. “We told them that we might have two more, so they put together three small tables and laid a place setting, so it was clear they were accommodating. It was empty and we were treated wonderfully.”
The SF City College crowd turned away earlier had been told they were being too loud, she said, “so we purposely talked loudly and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ loudly. And the server was lovely, and we got good service.”
The hostess said that the group could be accommodated because there was space.
The Incidents bring new demands
After these incidents, the Mission/Bernal Alliance of ACCE began demanding that Milgrom agree to local hiring, sensitivity training and a complaint process.
Slavicek said the group advised him to have someone from the neighborhood at each of his establishments to welcome people. “We have a lot of people coming from outside who don’t understand what multiculturalism is,” she said. “They don’t understand the community they are in, and the attitudes they are bringing in are very unsophisticated.”
Milgrom said he objected to ACCE’s tactics—which he called confrontational and personal. They were “organizing a protest saying I was racist,” he said of his experience earlier in the conflict. “They never had contacted me prior to the allegations.”
At the same time, vandalism incidents at Local’s Corner and the other Local establishments picked up. In late May
April, vandals tucked a spray can through the mail slot and spray-painted Local’s Corner inside, then returned to tag it outside with graffiti and a “Fuck! This place.”
ACCE immediately disavowed the vandalism calling it “counterproductive,” and to help diffuse the tension shelved its immediate plans for a boycott.
In May, a day before someone smashed a window at his Local Mission Market, Milgrom told Mission Local, “I am putting in lights and cameras at Local’s Corner, because too much of my time and the time of my staff is spent cleaning up.”
Arguello and Salinas also stepped in to talk to Milgrom about making some changes. Tensions ebbed and the vandalism died down. Milgrom said this week there have been no recent incidents.
Concessions and then a boycott
As part of the negotiations with Arguello and Salinas, Milgrom said he began to look for ways to do more local hiring. In early June, he visited the Mission Language and Vocational School, which has a culinary program, and discussed several collaborations—including internships and hiring—with the director Rosario Anaya.
Anaya said that Milgrom “was very open and asked questions about the school. He seemed interested. He sent us some requests [job listings] for two to three positions he had. Then we took a tour of the market.”
Milgrom said he would be offering a kitchen position to one applicant from the vocational school. The school has confirmed the hire for a part-time kitchen position, and said the new employee could start as early as this weekend.
For ACCE, however, it’s too little, too late.
Slavicek asserted that, because Milgrom has refused to sign the document agreeing to ACCE’s demands, they don’t believe he’s following through with any of these efforts. “If he can make a public declaration and commitment we would be very happy, but as far as we are concerned this is all talk,” she said.
ACCE wants Milgrom to commit to several mechanisms by which community members can report cases of potential discrimination.
The document of demands also includes a provision for Milgrom to commit to working with the upstairs neighbor of Local’s Corner to mitigate the restaurant noise that travels up to her apartment.
Milgrom said that the latter is an issue between him and a neighbor, and that he will not negotiate it through ACCE.
Milgrom wrote in an email: “…They have organized protests and boycotts (the first of which was outside Local’s Corner and was advertised with a picture of me, calling the restaurants discriminatory and racist), which have negatively impacted the businesses, instigated multiple counts of vandalism, and led to threats against me and the staff. Because of placing my face as a discriminatory racist, people have spit at my feet.”
“It’s not the same if he’s talking to people all spread out around the neighborhood,” said Slavicek, who said ACCE is unlikely to cease the boycott if Milgrom does not meet with them directly. “We’re representing the community and he doesn’t get to pick and choose who the community is.”
Milgrom added that he was still working with Arguello to resolve some concerns. “Among the areas of contact with Erick is his initiative for all 24th Street Corridor businesses to post an anti-discrimination policy, and a means to report those claims,” Milgrom wrote in an email to Mission Local.
Milgrom believes the initiative should cover all of the businesses instead of singling out his establishments.
Already, Milgrom said, 40 percent of his employees come from the Mission’s 94110 zip code, and 25 percent are Latino. Calle 24 district planners said that within the immediate area, 49 percent of the residents self-identify as Latino.
Milgrom said that when he first opened the Local Eatery in 2010, he had hoped for a more diverse clientele and priced the lunch items at $10—the price of carne asada at local Mexican restaurants, he said.
What he discovered was that some found even the architecture uninviting. The Local Eatery is designed so that at lunchtime, customers walk to the back to order. This, he said, made some diners—whites as well as Latinos—feel ill at ease and confused because they are accustomed to being greeted at the door. He added that he was thinking of changes that would make the experience better for everyone.
Leslie Gratiano, a Latina and Milgrom’s chef de cuisine, said that they will be making more changes at the Local Mission Market to bring down prices. “Originally we wanted no outside products, just locally-sourced products, but we also want to make it more accessible to the community,” she said.
Gratiano, who is one of the highest paid people on staff, said the majority of her employees live in the neighborhood and walk to work. The attacks on the market, she said, have been disheartening and scary. In June, someone threw a rock through the window at the Local Mission Market, she said.
The attacks have clearly impacted business. A woman came in recently, Gratiano said, and picked up a basket full of items to buy. Once at the counter, however, she saw a card for Local’s Corner and put her items back. The woman apologized, but explained that she couldn’t shop here, Gratiano said.
Keli Dailey also contributed reporting to this article.