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A Game of Tug: Pet Food Express Tries to Be the Most Adorable Franchise in Town 

Wednesday, Aug 7 2013

Sometime in the 12th century, St. Francis made the decision to start preaching to the birds — perhaps the original tweet. A predilection for treating animals as humans has passed to the residents of his namesake city. San Francisco, famously, has more dogs than children. In no other American city are there so many animals, and so few babies, in baby carriages.

It is unknown what St. Francis' position was on formula retail. But San Franciscans have weighed in. In 2006, 58 percent of voters approved an ordinance requiring any chain store with 11 or more outlets receive the Planning Commission's approval to open up a shop in city neighborhoods that haven't banned chain stores outright.

So a well-regarded pet-supply store with a history of generosity to animal rescue organizations — which is also part of a large, rapidly expanding chain — seems designed to short-circuit San Franciscans' political sensibilities.

Four years ago, Pet Food Express, a chain founded in West Portal that has since expanded to nearly 50 stores, applied to move into the former Blockbuster Video on Lombard Street in the Marina. A dogfight ensued; highly organized owners of small pet stores pilloried the move, and the Planning Commission handily rejected Pet Food Express' proposal. But the city has changed a great deal in four years. And, on Aug. 8, the commission will, once again, vote on whether to allow Pet Food Express to move into the same Lombard spot.

After being smacked in the nose by the city in 2009, Pet Food Express heads into Thursday's hearing with a pack of influential supporters. The head of the city's Department of Animal Care and Control has been an emphatic advocate of Pet Food Express to her fellow members of the city family. The community newspaper that has formed an advertising "partnership" with Pet Food Express has provided it with fervently positive coverage. And the newly formed neighborhood merchants association aggressively pushing Pet Food Express' cause has ties to a paid lobbyist for the store's attorney.

In the business world, Pet Food Express is a big dog. But it's also a smart dog, and, its proponents argue, a good dog. Whatever the case, it's learned new tricks.

Rebecca Katz is an attention-grabbing speaker — and, all the more so when she's cradling a blind rescue chihuahua mix in a sweater. At a June Small Business Commission meeting, Katz, the director of the Department of Animal Care and Control, toted Tori the sexually abused puppy to the podium to make the case for Pet Food Express.

It's a bit peculiar for the head of a city department to essentially advocate for a private business as it pushes forward development and expansion plans. Katz, however, says she checked with the city's Ethics Commission, and is in the clear. "Those of us in the animal welfare community support [Pet Food Express] and they've supported us and it's been mutually beneficial," she told the commission. "Looking at the number of chains on Chestnut Street, I find it ironic that people say there are too many chains and we need to preserve the character."

That's a statement outside the realm of Katz's expertise. In the field of caring for animals, however, she's a pro. And Pet Food Express provides all the food for the animals of Animal Control, saving the strapped department $50,000 a year (and, Katz says, supplying really good pet food).

Pet Food Express has a well-earned reputation for supporting animal rescue efforts, and it'd be cynical to dismiss it as solely a marketing ploy. But it'd be naïve to blur the line between a benevolent company and an altruistic one. Pet Food Express' generosity is reciprocated. "Their corporate culture and business practices exemplify a cooperative and collaborative spirit, demonstrating care and concern for our community, including customers, neighboring businesses, and the nonprofit organizations which surround them," reads a 2010 letter from Katz to the Board of Supervisors. And, Katz tells your humble narrator, the more business Pet Food Express gets, the more resources figure to flow to rescue animals.

That's good for Katz, but better for cats. There's an Animal Control cat adoption center at the Pet Food Express on Market Street and the nonprofit Pets Unlimited would operate a cat adoption center at the proposed Lombard Street location. In fact, Pets Unlimited has deployed mass e-mails imploring its customers to lobby the city. "I am confident that this new store will not only save lives through the addition of a Pets Unlimited Adoption Center but also generate profits that will be reinvested in this critical, life-saving work throughout our city," reads a template recipients are urged to send to city politicos and the Planning Commission.

This is an argument with ever so slightly more emotional pull than arcana regarding the city's formula retail ordinance.

Pet Food Express' commitment to rescue animals is evident in every edition of the Marina Times. Multiple full-page ads prominently sponsored by the chain implore readers to adopt Cloud the parakeet, Panfilo the bunny, or BoyBoy the kitten from Animal Control; or Swiper, Chloe, or Thelma and Louise from a rescue dog agency.

In the copy alongside these full-page Pet Food Express ads, coverage of the business' expansion plans by the paper's owner, Susan Dyer Reynolds, reads more like advocacy. A story about the opening of the Equinox Fitness center on Union oddly morphs into a pitch for Pet Food Express: "I don't know where the major community associations stand on the new Pet Food Express store, but since they were so supportive of Equinox moving into the neighborhood, I hope they will give them a fair chance this time around."

A Reynolds column about the June Small Business Commission meeting referred to critics of Pet Food Express as ethically suspect hypocrites; it neglected to note that Reynolds herself spoke in favor of Pet Food Express at the hearing she was ostensibly covering. A story in the current edition of the paper is headlined "The halo effect: How 20 years of giving turned Pet Food Express into an animal angel."

Both Reynolds and Marina Times publisher Earl Adkins denied the paper is simply carrying the water for a major advertiser. Adkins claims the paper actually loses money from offering ad space to Pet Food Express, with whom it has "a partnership relationship."

Reynolds is a devoted animal advocate who has written 56 "chapters" in her paper about her rescued pit bull Jasmine and penned a damning 2009 expose of the San Francisco Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Adkins doesn't deny the paper's advocacy for Pet Food Express: "They do great rescue work. Why shouldn't it be promoted? Why hide it? Why bury it?"

The Marina Times feels it's on the side of the angels. Quite literally, according to its own headlines.

The most ardent Pet Food Express supporter, however, might be the Lombard Business Merchants Association. Since its formation in August of last year — not long before the Pet Food Express battle shifted back onto the political radar — it established a petition in favor of the chain and, in an unusual move, filed ethics charges against personnel at the Small Business Commission for wording an agenda item in a manner it felt detrimental to Pet Food Express. (The long-established Marina Merchants Association and Marina Community Association, meanwhile, have both come out against Pet Food Express moving into the neighborhood).

Numerous Marina merchants report that LBMA president, pizzeria owner Awadalla Awadalla, has been pounding the pavement soliciting members alongside lobbyist Stefano Cassolato. Awadalla affirms this, calling Cassolato a friend; Cassolato did not return phone calls.

At a recent City Hall meeting, Cassolato spoke on behalf of Pet Food Express, identifying himself as "a paid consultant" to "an attorney who has done a lot of research on the Lombard corridor." In fact, Cassolato is listed on the city's lobbyist registry as working for the law firm of Henn, Etzel & Moore. John Moore, who spoke shortly after Cassolato at the City Hall meeting, is Pet Food Express' general counsel.

In June, Awadalla reported he had 19 members. Now, he says he has 40.

At that June meeting, beleaguered Small Business Commissioner Luke O'Brien summed up his body's plight in choosing whether to side with benevolent chain Pet Food Express or the small pet store owners who claim it will muscle them out of business: "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't."

The Small Business Commission managed to sidestep this conundrum by taking no position, continuing the matter to a future meeting, then continuing it again indefinitely. Problem solved.

The Planning Commission can't take that tack. Sooner or later, a decision must be made and someone will be damned.

The adage states that it's not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. Pet Food Express seems to have the edge in both categories.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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