San Francisco

Falafel Shop Wins Narrow Victory Over San Francisco's Bizarre, Broken Permitting Process

By one vote, the city's planning commission denied a business's request to stop a competing falafel shop from opening up down the block.


The San Francisco Planning Commission has stopped a restaurateur's crassly self-interested attempt to use the city's planning process to stop a competitor from opening up down the street. But it was close: Sanity prevailed by a razor-thin one-vote margin.

Flying Falafel intends to open a fourth location along the city's famed Castro Street. But the owners of the nearby Gyro Xpress asked the commission, which has sweeping powers to grant or deny permits, to prevent the possible rival from setting up shop down the block.

Four planning commissioners were present at Thursday's hearing about the issue, and three out of four voted to deny Flying Falafel and its owner, Assaf Pashut, the permit he needed to convert the Castro Street site from retail to "limited restaurant." But official acts of the seven-member commission require at least four votes, so the effort failed. After months of delays and added expenses, he will be able to proceed.

A cadre from the pro-growth YIMBY movement—the acronym stands for Yes In My Back Yard—showed up at the hearing to support Pashut and his falafel shop, helping to ensure a happy ending.

But the fact that it was so close—the fact that it's possible to try to sabotage your competitors this way at all—shows how San Francisco's broken planning and permitting regime forces businesses to operate under a cloud of uncertainty.

That's certainly the case for Pashut, who nearly had months of careful planning upended by a single vote.

"We've been looking for about a year for a good spot. We found landlords that were fairly welcoming to us, and who gave us a fairly competitive rent," he told Reason last week, adding that "we expected the process to go very smoothly."

Pashut says that he spoke with city planners multiple times before deciding to rent the Castro Street spot. They in turn assured him that because the site was already zoned to allow for restaurant use, the Planning Department would be able to issue him a permit quickly.

"They gave us assurances that even though a DR is technically possible, it is very unlikely and certainly very unlikely to pass," he said.

A DR, short for Discretionary Review, is a request for the Planning Commission—which has the authority to approve, deny, or put conditions on most building permits—to review a permit application that would otherwise get a simple green light from city staff. These requests can be filed by any member of the public for essentially any reason, usually for the cost of a few hundred dollars; they are frequently used to delay or stop projects that otherwise comply with all city rules.

That's what happened in the Flying Falafel case. In August, Gyro Express co-owner Cem Bulutoglu asked that the commission deny Pashut's request for a change of use permit. This added months to what should have been a very straightforward process. (While his Castro Street location was being wrapped up in red tape, Pashut says, he was able to secure permits for and renovate a new Flying Falafel location in the city's Financial District in a little over a month.)

The Discretionary Review for the Castro Street location ended up taking even longer than expected when a Planning Commission hearing that was scheduled for October 3 was postponed to last Thursday, something Pashut viewed as cynically motivated.

"We lose thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars in rent waiting for a permit," he says, noting that he was paying $4,900 in rent each month on the site. "Then, of course, it's the delay. We were supposed [to open] a month, two months ago. Now we are looking at opening in the middle of December, not a great time to open a business."

This situation is unfortunately common in San Francisco. Everything from an apartment complex to a home renovation can be held up by the city's insane planning process, and by the power it gives neighbors and competitors to stop projects they don't like. This raises the cost both of opening businesses and of building housing, contributing to the city's twin crises of vacant storefronts and sky-high housing costs.

They're also just a huge distraction for business owners who'd rather be plying their trade than begging for permission slips from city hall.

"I'm not into politics," he told Reason. "I'm here to serve great food."

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  1. You ain’t free unless you’re asking permission and obeying commands.

    1. Do you want to live in Somalia? Without these vital rules protecting civilization that is where we would be.

      1. The Thin (bureaucratic) Line!

      2. I bet Somalia has less feces on the streets.

        1. To be fair, Somalia probably doesn’t even have streets. Don’t be blaming San Fransisco for having streets! Besides, the homeless are all the fault of Trump for stealing the election from Hillary.

          1. Good point! You can’t have streets without government.

      3. I know a guy who grew up in Sudan and he says this. He’d rather have a bunch of bullshit bureaucracy and red tape because, he says, no shit, there’s less corruption and more safety. Maybe not allowing a shop to open is safer than allowing it to operate, I don’t know.

    2. I shudder at the thought of living in a world where I’m not free to kowtow to regulatory boards.

      1. BUCS! Hugs!
        Omg, greetings and salutations, how you been, hope things are good, much love and good tidings.

      2. There’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time.

        What Chipper said.

      3. I third the sentiment – nice to see you back!

  2. You’d have to be sick in the head to want be on such a Commission, which is why they shouldn’t exist in the first place.

    1. You have to be crazy to live in SanFransicko…period.

  3. wasn’t the dude in the front part of the Lone Gunmen?

  4. “I’m not into politics,” he told Reason. “I’m here to serve great food.”

    And much like he serves food, San Fran politicians are there to “serve” people.

    1. The San Fran City Council Manual is called “How To Serve Man.”

      1. And it’s definitely a cookbook.

        1. “How To Cook For Forty Humans”

          1. 440 Humans?

    2. He may not be into politics, but seeing as how this is San Francisco, I’d still want to know something about how he votes before feeling sorry for him.

    3. He may not be interested in government, but government is definitely interested in him.

  5. He knows who filed the DR. What is to stop him from regularly calling the health commission on his competitor or otherwise using the city’s regs to attack the other guy?

    1. I would. Rules are rules.

  6. I would have to taste the falafel before passing judgement.

    Can’t get good falafel here. The problem is the pita. The stuff around here tastes like round wonder bread. The falafel should come out of the deep fryer hot and crispy on the outside. They don’t use enough spices, coriander, red pepper, cilantro, garlic. Then you can add the veggies. The Lebanese have these pickled turnips you can add to the sandwich. I like the ground red pepper sauce they keep on the counter, not the stuff in a bottle.

    1. Agree with you about the difficulty of finding good pita, and I love Lebanese pickled turnips.

    2. I know a place where you can get a falafel pizza. It’s a shitload of falafel in a layer with all the other stuff on top, like yogurt sauce and whatnot. It’s 6.99, awesome, and I can’t finish it.

  7. OK, so it looks like I am the only one noting that three of the highly paid planning commissioners didn’t even bother to show up?

    1. They were planning to. . .

    2. Saved by the bureaucratic “fuck it, I’m not going in today.”

  8. Now don’t any of you wonderful statists fret none.
    The SF city fathers will make this evil capitalist who makes all these wonderful, tasty and nutritious falafels pay $1 million for a permit to run his business there in Turd Town.
    That’ll teach him think twice about making his ill-gotten gains in a progressive shit hole like SF.

  9. Chickpeas just ain’t my thang.

  10. FASCISM defined:
    government control of private means of productio.

    If the published zoning and use standards allow a given use, the permit should be a quick slam dunk. At five grand a month, I’d be furious… I personally hope Flying felafel simply out-serve and out-class the rival up the block. Using some insie connextioins withCityHall to try and stop the competition is evil and wrong. I’m hoping the public votes with their wallets, and that FF makes a strong go of it, starving out the whinihg cowardly competition. Build a better felafel and the world will beat a path to your door… try and stomp out a rival before he can even open the door, shame on you.

    1. There’s probably room for both. Look at all the cheesesteaks in Philly.

  11. “I’m not into politics,” he told Reason. “I’m here to serve great food.”

    Welcome to the real world skippy.

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