Our 2012 Small Business Awards

Pub date May 16, 2012



In a tech-obsessed society, our hands navigate today’s gleaming gadgets more often than those of yesteryear: a sewing machine, say, or a manual drill. DIY goddess Kelly Malone has spent years trying to change that — and in so doing has created a business that serves as a cultural touchstone for the budding Divisadero Street corridor.

Malone’s brick-and-mortar shop is named Workshop (1798 McAllister, SF. 415-874-9186. www.workshopsf.org), and it’s a place where aspiring crafters receive hours of instruction in oft-neglected skills like sewing, knitting, and terrarium-making — all while drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and meeting new friends. After receiving an enthusiastic response from her Indie Mart (www.indie-mart.com), a handmade craft fair she started six years ago in the backyard of her Mission digs, Malone saw a need for a hub for would-be crafters.

“I wanted to create a space that was super ‘hit it and quit it,'” she says. “Where you could come in and take a class, but you didn’t necessarily need to become some expert knitter. A place for people to sit down and get their hands dirty, learn to make something, and get inspired.”

Malone started Workshop on scant funding. Instead of relying on bank loans, she looked to her immediate community for investors. “I’ve started every business without money, which has forced me to really put myself out there and grow my businesses by meeting people and being super-passionate about what I do,” she says.

Malone says having a big budget to open her businesses would have been fun, but saving her pennies and having flea markets and garage sales to pay for sewing machines gives her more street cred, DIY all the way.

And like our favorite kind of businesspeople, Malone hardly sees her enterprises as a sterile way to make a quick buck. “I’m never going to get rich off these businesses, but if I get to the point where I can have a couple people on staff like I do now, and have enough to pay bills and go get some beers, hey, that’s good enough for me.” (Mia Sullivan)



Although based locally, Sports Basement (www.sportsbasement.com) is technically a chain, as it now boasts four locations: an 80,000 square-foot building at the old commissary in the Presidio, SoMa’s brick-and-wood location, a store in Sunnyvale that once mimicked the inside of a computer (look for the remaining “ESC” keyboard sign), and another nearing Mount Diablo in Walnut Creek. But beyond the fact that it offers the only real alternative to national conglomerates when it comes to one-stop athletic and outdoor gear, the retail company is fiercely dedicated to its Bay Area community. Plus, its cozy, with hand-painted cardboard signs detailing specials, comfy couches, and super-friendly staff.

Founder Eric Prosnitz came up with the Sports Basement idea in an effort to create a more personalized experience in an off-price retail outlet, something tailored more closely to Northern California’s environment. Products change every week, discounts rule, and employees are encouraged to treat customers as individuals with a continuum of outdoor lifestyle needs. And the Basement recognizes that it’s an expansive company with the power to affect various neighborhoods. Last year, its locations hosted more than 2,000 community groups at 7,000 events, averaging around four events per store per day. Ten-15% of the retail space serves as free community space. Examples: Walnut Creek holds a fundraiser in the form of a kid apparel fashion show, Sunnyvale hosts ASHA for India, an organization dedicated to providing education for underprivileged children in India; Bryant St. houses the AIDS Lifecycle organization, and Presidio is the meeting spot for Golden Gate Mother’s Group — just to mention a few.

Aaron Schweifler, Director of Operations at Sports Basement, says the staff is encouraged to be creatively autonomous, and hopes each store will provide a shopping experience that can “wow” local residents. We are wowed! (Soojin Chang)



In 1975, Greg Markoulis of American Industrial Center (2345 Third St., SF. www.aicproperties.com) was scouring San Francisco to find a new home for his family’s 25-year-old shoe manufacturing company. When American Can Company, one of the city’s oldest and busiest industrial complexes, offered an attractive deal on a vacant Third Street building, Markoulis gladly took them up. The new abode reinvigorated the company, transforming it from a street corner location to a community space housing more than 285 businesses — now including graphic designers, commercial photographers, architects, light industrial manufacturers, a winery, a yoga center, a martial arts studio, and a medley of Web-based companies and art collectives. That expansive spirit soon spread, helping to reinvigorate the entire Dogpatch area, which had suffered a lengthy period of industrial decline.

Thirty-seven years later, AIC still keeps the family ethos alive. When making executive decisions, Greg Makoulis says the company’s priorities align much more with how relatives interact with one another rather than those of a typical business. “The ideas of the oldest generation with the most experience are considered first,” says Markoulis.

As this side of town is rapidly undergoing gentrification, he could very well have sold the building to a corporation. But he sees his tenants as valuable community members, not just paychecks. Markoulis thrives on finding working solutions to accommodate his tenants, and respects the fact that people’s needs are ever-changing. Markoulis describes AIC’s priority to be “giving everyone a stable place to operate in.”

In Markoulis’ experience, one of the biggest challenges that AIC has faced over the years has to do with the cost and time for newly opening businesses to acquire permits. He hopes to see changes in San Francisco’s building and planning department, because he thinks a faster turnaround would help foster employment opportunities. (Soojin Chang)



“I think the challenge for San Francisco is to take care of the venues that its got,” says Don Alan of the ever-shrinking live music scene here. Alan has contributed enormously to the preservation of live rock in the City by the Bay with his raucous Hemlock Tavern space in Polk Gulch (1131 Polk, SF. 415-923-0923, www.hemlocktavernsf.com) on the site of former gay bar the Giraffe. He’s also a preservationist of dive bar ambiance, opening Mission District favorite Casanova Lounge, full to the brim of attractive indie young ‘uns on the make.

Alan got his rock start in the on community radio in Madison, WI, soon coming to SF and opening storied live bluegrass and jazz cafe Radio Valencia. “We opened the Casanova while we still had Radio Valencia and we realized that a bar format would work better for live entertainment than a cafe format,” Alan says. “We opened the Hemlock in 2001 after we closed Radio Valencia. I was really excited about having a space like this. I was very interested in having a kind of old Wisconsin tavern feel because that’s where I grew up. It was perfect for me, finding a space that had a small venue so we didn’t have to be concerned about getting 200 people in every night, so we could book the kind of music that we wanted and to have a big enough bar to support that.”

“But basically this is a subsidized entertainment operation. The money is made at the Hemlock’s bar and the culture happens in the back room with the shows. The culture wouldn’t happen without this up here.” So go buy a beer or eight, already, and then take in one of those rarer-and-rarer raging shows. (Mirissa Neff)



“In high school, all I wanted was there to be a place to find fruits and vegetables,” says Mandela Foods Cooperative (1430 Seventh St., Oakl. 510-452-1133, www.mandelafoods.com) worker-owner James Berk. “I never thought I’d be the one that could provide that. It’s an interesting place to be in.”

Before the store opened, Berk’s native West Oakland was a food dessert. A dependence on convenience stores for nutrition was leading to rampant bad health in his community, so when the opportunity arose to be a part of a for-profit, organic-heavy grocery store in Mandela Marketplace, he took it. Responding to the neighborhood’s request, the shop employs and is owned by community residents. These worker-owners make all the shop’s decisions in group meetings, aiming for consensus when it comes to many essential issues.

Now, nearly three years after opening its doors, Mandela Foods Cooperative is a neighborhood staple. The majority of customers live within a radius of a few blocks and come to snap up bestselling items like orange juice, coconut water, and kale (a vegetable Berk said he had never heard of before working at the store.)

Ready-made food is also popular, from full plate meals to sandwiches that neighbors drop in to buy, despite a Subway next door. Though the shop’s focus continues to be on organic, naturally-produced foods, worker-owners see a need for a greater diversity of products: cheap staples alternating with more spendy products geared towards sustainable foodies. Business is stronger than ever right now, too — Berk says the small shop is on pace to break even this year.

So how is it banding with your neighbors to bring the rest of the block ingredients for a healthy diet? About as positive as you’d imagine it to be. “There’s a unity here that I’m not accustomed to,” says Berk. (Caitlin Donohue)



Cheryl Burr has no idea why her first bakery boss left her 16-year old self in charge of the pastries. “I would never have let a teenager do that at my business!” she chuckles. But really, the guy was showing prescience — Burr and business partner Chris Beerman, who originally shared space in a bakery-bento retail window in Potrero Hill, opened the doors of their Pinkie’s Bakery (1196 Folsom, SF. 415-556-4900, www.pinkiesbakerysf.com) in SoMa nearly three years ago and have been tickling sweet teeth with their skills there ever since.

“I’ve always been a super-strong personality,” Burr tells us, sitting in the sunny table area of Pinkie’s. Though the Asian American breadsmith built a respectable career in high-class kitchens around the city, there came a moment when she wanted to be able to execute her own vision. “I’ve gotten to this point in my career where I didn’t want to answer to anybody.”

So she took control of her own trajectory, renting space in a commercial kitchen, starting her own hustle. Burr supplied pies to wholesale accounts, mainly friends of friends she’d met through her years in the restaurant business. Her commercial space is part of a culinary reinvigoration of the neighborhood around Seventh Street and Folsom. Pinkie’s is a stone’s throw from Bloodhound Bar, Sightglass Coffee, Radius restaurant, Terroir wine bar and more. “There is definitely a sense of community and partnership around here,” says Burr, who will sometimes refer to the strip as “Folsoma.”

Pinkie’s is also a room away from Citizen’s Band, Beerman and Burr’s freshly-sourced diner. The same customers that come for Burr’s famous levain bread and apple butter morning buns can now also order a dinner of poutine with wild mushroom gravy and crispy pork belly right next door.

“We want to continue to refine what we’re doing here,” Burr says when asked about her future business plans. Did that young woman on her first baking job envision the success of her own bread basket? She smiles. “I’m not entirely sure what I envisioned, but it’s different.” (Caitlin Donohue)



During World War II, Phil Sidari was commissioned to make artificial limbs for disabled US veterans returning home. The shortage of finished goods during wartime also prompted Sidari to begin constructing small appliances out of spare parts. Thus, 61 years ago, Phil’s Electric (2701 Lombard, SF. 415-921-3776, www.philselectric.com) was born.

Sidari passed away at the ripe old age of 103, but his friends Vicki and Bob Evans took the reins in the 1970s when Phil decided to retire. Vicki says the store has gone through quite a few changes over the years, including a relocation 28 years ago from Fillmore Street to a quiet corner near the gates of the Presidio.

The shop is intimate, homey, and entirely a family affair. Bob and Vicki’s sons Tom and Ken help their parents run the business and provide excellent customer service to their patrons. Phil’s Electric specializes in the repair of vacuums and lamps but also sells coffee makers, blenders, vacuums, razors, and a host of other small electronic items.

Yet the rise of cheap, disposable electronics has made it difficult a business that’s founded on, well, fixing things. “In the past, almost everything got repaired, but that’s changing,” says Vicki. “For example, you can buy a Cuisinart coffeemaker that, after its warranty, there are no parts for it. So you throw it out. Whereas, say 12 years ago, we would have had a part for that and fixed it for you.”

Phil’s Electric also faces stiff competition from the Internet and larger stores. But it does have some advantages. “Internet companies are working out of a warehouse somewhere, so they don’t really have any commitment to the neighborhood or the city or the community,” Vicki says. And the unique thing about San Franciscans, according to Vicki, is our interest in supporting neighborhood businesses. “If we moved this to a suburban area, I don’t know if we’d have that many loyal customers.”

Vicki’s favorite part about the business? The human aspect and her autonomy. “You can interact with your customers and really try to be flexible and meet people’s needs.” (Mia Sullivan)



Two years ago, during the climax of the police and regulatory crackdown on San Francisco nightlife that we dubbed the “War of Fun,” the California Music and Culture Association (www.cmacsf.org) was formed to advocate for all the club owners, promoters, DJs, and other creatures of the night who create our urban soundtrack and culture.

Since then, CMAC has become powerful advocate on behalf of nightlife, demonstrating an influence on Mayor Ed Lee and other city leaders and promoting an understanding at City Hall of the important role played by nightlife, which a recent Controller’s Office report found accounts for $4.2 billion in annual economic activity.

“As the recent Controller’s report demonstrated, the small businesses that make up the nightlife economy have a huge impact on the overall economy, and we’re happy the city is starting to realize this,” Alix Rosenthal, co-chair of the CMAC board, told us.

Now, with the help of newly hired Executive Director Laura Hahn, CMAC hopes to move from playing defense against crackdowns and punitive legislation to playing offense by expanding its membership and developing a proactive agenda that will help nightlife and its purveyors flourish.

“Now that we don’t have our back against the wall, we’re trying to expand,” Hahn told us. “We want to bring it to even smaller business owners like individual DJs, promoters, and individual musicians — the backbone of nightlife in San Francisco.”

But not matter what new realms CMAC gets into, small business advocacy will always be at the core of its mission. As Hahn said, “We want to focus on standing up for the little guys who don’t have people fighting for them in City Hall.” CMAC will host the 2012 San Francisco Nightlife Awards, Thursday, May 31 at Mezzanine, doing even more to bring local nightlife to the fore. (Steve Jones)



“People always ask me if I ever consider expanding,” Shannon Amitin, owner of farm:table (754 Post, SF. 415-292-7089, www.farmtablesf.com) says over the phone, although I swear I can hear his eyes twinkling. “I usually laugh and say, ‘Yes, but only if I can find a much smaller space.'”

The joke — or rather the good fortune — here is that Amitin’s bustling Tenderloin cafe and restaurant squeaks just shy of 265 square feet, with a large communal table for sharing some of the best gourmet dishes in the area. Those dishes are delectably evanescent: the three-year-old resto’s changing daily menu is Tweeted each morning for your rising and shining appetite. Featured as I write this: polenta cake + yukon potato hash + soft egg, asiago + rooftop herb frittata.

“Rooftop”? Yep, farm:table harvests most of its herbs and many greens from its roof, adding a bit of green to the neighborhood. Coming soon, another bit of green in the form of a farm:table parklet, whose funding was secured via, what else, Kickstarter. Farm:table itself has become a community hub for nightlife characters, nonprofit advocates, and office workers.

And yes, there is delicious coffee. Amitin cut his teeth dripping cups of Blue Bottle behind the original’s counter, but became disillusioned when Blue Bottle tipped from a friendly experiment into a chain-aspirational juggernaut. “I saw what I didn’t want to do,” he says. “That’s what led me to something small and personal. I have really good people working for me, in a vibrant area, with a crowd that’s open to new flavors. I want to keep that magic.” (Marke B.)



It’s been open less than a year, yet Marina luxury erotic goods boutique Pink Bunny (1772 Union, SF. 415-441-7399, www.pinkbunny.biz) has hopped into our readers’ hearts — and possibly other parts as well. Founder and CEO Serene Martinez showcases quality adult toys from the likes of Jimmyjane and gorgeous lingerie in a lovely, well-curated space. Union Street, get kinky!