San Francisco officials have made headlines this week with a plan to support small businesses struggling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, including delays for mandated fees and a relief fund. But one local restaurant owner says that the city’s support isn’t as full-throated as media coverage might suggest, and that a San Francisco agency is threatening to make their business worse, not better.
According to KPIX, Mayor London Breed announced Wednesday that since “many of our small businesses are feeling the economic impact of people staying home and not shopping or going out to eat” the city is “working to provide relief and support for our small businesses and the workers who rely on them for their livelihood.” That’s why her office has announced that, effective immediately, small businesses will be allowed to delay SF tax payments to February 2021. In addition, the SF Business Times reports, the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development will offer $10,000 grants to up to 100 local businesses that “can show a loss of revenue due to the virus’ outbreak or compliance with the city’s emergency guidelines.”
Breed’s plan joins one proposed by the city’s Board of Supervisors that would establish a multilingual workers rights hotline “to educate workers about their rights on the job,” Supe Gordon Mar says, and a soon-to-be-proposed credit line “of at least $20 million from a bank” that would be offered to small businesses like restaurants, which have suffered a 50–70 percent drop in business in March, according to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.
Rica Sunga-Kwan, the owner of Portola District ice cream shop Churn Urban Creamery, says that her business has dropped, too — and that one of the biggest threats she’s faced hasn’t come from fears of the sickness, but from workers with the city’s Department of Public Works.
According to Sunga-Kwan, her business — which began as a pop-up before moving into its Portola spot following a protracted renovation — has been an annual participant in DPW’s annual “SF Public Works Arbor-Eco Fair” event, which is typically planned for mid-March. “About a month ago,” she tells Eater SF, a representative from DPW contacted her to request her participation in the 2020 celebration, which was scheduled for Saturday, March 7.
This was shortly after the department was rocked by a federal corruption investigation that resulted in the arrest of then-head Mohammed Nuru (as well as Lefty O’Doul’s owner Nick Bovis). So she understood, she says, that there were delays in confirmation and payment for the event. “We didn’t lock things down until four days before,” she says, “then we had to scramble to make product and staff up for the day.”
On March 6, the day before the event, the DPW called it off, an understandable move given the social distancing recommendations that prompted the city to cancel large scale gatherings. What’s less understandable, Sunga-Kwan says, is what followed: According to Sunga-Kwan a DPW supervisor told Sunga-Kwan that Churn would have to fully refund the city agency, even though the money had already been spent to prepare for the celebration.
Sunga-Kwan declined to provide the exact amount of the payment from DPW, which she says was “a preferred rate” for 300 servings of Churn’s ice cream, which she notes is made from from scratch with organic ingredients. But, she says, “I told them no, that we have a seven-day cancellation policy and that we couldn’t afford to give them money that we’d already spent on product.” In response, Sunga-Kwan says that the supervisor told her that the payment to Churn had been made on a DPW staffer’s personal credit card, and that the agency “wouldn’t pay [the worker] back.”
“I didn’t like that they were trying to guilt me into this, but then it got personal,” Sunga-Kwan says, as she says that the DPW supervisor told her that “we don’t even know what you and your husband did with the money,” and told her that if she didn’t provide a refund, the city will “never do business with [Churn] again.”
When contacted by Eater SF, DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon said that “I want to apologize on the behalf of the Department if threats were felt” and said that that “Churn has always been a good partner” of the DPW. Gordon admits that the agency did indeed request a refund, “which is just good fiduciary responsibility,” and said “If the owner of Churn felt threatened that that was not our intent.”
In a subsequent email to Sunga-Kwan on which Eater SF was ccd, Gordon reiterated that “If you felt threatened by something our employee said or wrote in the ensuing conversation, I apologize for that. Everyone, whether a vendor or a resident, should be treated with respect and courtesy by our staff.”
In response, Sunga-Kwan told Gordon “I found it terribly unprofessional of an employee of the city to threaten to never work with us again because we are enacting our return policy. We would love to work with Public Works again, but not if this is how small businesses are treated. I hope this is not something that occurs in your department often.”
Update: March 12 1 p.m.: This article was updated to include additional responses from DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon