S.F. small business owner barely hangs on with little help from City Hall

Kinani Ahmed can still hear customers laughing and talking. He can picture them packing tables inside Sextant Coffee Roasters, his South of Market cafe, and filling the back patio under green umbrellas. He remembers when he employed 15 people to staff a business that often stayed busy for 11 hours every day.

All that’s gone now for Ahmed, who founded the Folsom Street cafe in 2014. Now the shop and patio sit empty, the tech workers who served as his customer base working remotely. Just a slow trickle of people purchase a to-go cup at the front counter.


Load Error

But like coffee with no cream or sugar, City Hall is doing little to take the bitterness off his misery. On top of struggling to stay afloat, Ahmed is dealing with graffiti, vandalism and attempted break-ins.

His phone is filled with photos of puddles of shattered glass and tagged exteriors. Security camera footage caught a man trying to light his door frame on fire.

And help from City Hall is nowhere in sight.

“The city is not really helping small businesses,” Ahmed said. “It’s just talk.”

And he needs a lot more than talk.

Previous big customers, including Twitter and Facebook, aren’t buying his coffee for their cafeterias because there’s nobody in the office to drink it. Revenue is down about 50%, he said, and it would be worse if he hadn’t pivoted to online sales, coffee subscriptions and signing up with delivery companies like Uber Eats.

In 2016, Starchefs Magazine named the native of Ethiopia, who imports coffee beans from his homeland, a “rising star.” Five years later, he’s stuck.

While city officials acknowledge it’s a bad time for small businesses and announce grant and loan programs here and there, there doesn’t seem to be an all-hands-on-deck effort to try to save them — even though they’re a crucial part of the city’s beloved neighborhoods and its future economic recovery.

Ahmed applied for the city’s African American Small Business Revolving Loan Fund, which Mayor London Breed announced last year on Juneteenth, pledging zero-interest loans of up to $50,000 to Black-owned businesses. He didn’t get it.

Gloria Chan, a spokesperson at the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said Ahmed didn’t score high enough to secure a loan. Applicants were prioritized for being in business for at least 15 years, if their business was ordered shut due to the pandemic, which coffee shops weren’t, and for being in a historically African American neighborhood, which SoMa isn’t.

Joaquín Torres, director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said the need among San Francisco’s small businesses is acute — and that the federal, state and city governments need to do more. He said it’s also confusing for small business owners to navigate the applications for various loans and grants, and his office tries to answer questions in multiple languages through webinars.

“We’re trying to give information so you’re not losing your mind,” he said. “The last thing we want people to do is give up.”

Ahmed’s cafe was included on a list of Black businesses, and around that time he started getting racist, harassing phone calls from a stranger calling him racial epithets and telling him to go home. He said he called the police, who told him to block the number.

He received a $10,000 grant from Salesforce in December — one of 180 grants to small businesses in San Francisco. Ahmed praised Salesforce for the help, but regretted having to spend some of the money on repairing shattered windows. Replacing the glass in one door cost him $800, he said.

“Salesforce did a really good job in my opinion seeking out these small businesses they could help,” he said. “I haven’t gotten anything from the city. Period. Nothing. In fact, what I’m getting from the city is bills.”

Aside from all the regular tax bills, he’s referring to the Nov. 8 notice from Public Works that he was responsible for cleaning a vandal’s huge amount of graffiti on the side wall of his shop within 15 days or he’d face at least $400 in city cleaning fees and up to $1,000 in administrative fees. Rachel Gordon, spokesperson for Public Works, said Ahmed didn’t clean the tags within 15 days, but that the department sent him a courtesy reminder and waived all fees after he cleaned it.

Gordon said the department waived graffiti fees for property owners at the start of the pandemic, but implemented them again as businesses re-opened and complaints about tags spiked. The department has cleaned graffiti for free in some particularly hard-hit neighborhoods including Chinatown, the Mission, the Haight and the Tenderloin.

“We are always willing and eager to work with property owners to combat graffiti,” she said.

Sharky Laguana, president of the city’s Small Business Commission, said he’s heard a constant stream of reports of criminal activity from small business owners since the pandemic started. He attributes it to a number of factors. Tourists, usually easy pickings for thieves, are gone, so local businesses are more of a target. More people are out of work and desperate. And the city has failed to address the drug and mental health crisis on its streets.

And, he acknowledged, City Hall and the criminal justice system are busy blaming each other rather than solving the problem. He invited District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Deputy Police Chief David Lazar to the last small business commission meeting so they could hear from small business owners themselves. They attended but were too busy to stay for public comment, he said.

“What should be clear to everyone is this isn’t just a case of small businesses feeling like crime is higher — it is higher,” Laguana said, adding a lot of crime isn’t reported. “We see that reflected throughout the city with people giving up and losing hope.”

San Francisco’s crime during the pandemic is a mixed bag, with some categories up and others down. Burglary has increased by 50% compared to a year ago, and 571 reports of burglary were made to San Francisco police in the first 3 ½ weeks of this year alone.

The city doesn’t even know how many of its small businesses have shuttered for good. Laguana launched a survey to track how many small businesses have closed during the pandemic and hopes to have data soon. He said he’s grateful for a new round of federal assistance for small businesses and believes the city’s business outlook will improve this year as more people are vaccinated and tourists and customers begin to return.

“If businesses can find a way to hold on, they’ll be glad they did,” he said, adding he’s more optimistic about neighborhood commercial corridors rebounding than downtown.

And he’s especially worried for businesses like Sextant Coffee that relied on tech companies for their customer base. A recent report from sf.citi, a San Francisco business group representing tech companies, found 63% of tech companies had already downsized or plan to downsize their Bay Area office space and that 76% had changed their plans for Bay Area growth due to the pandemic.

For now, Ahmed is determined to hang on.

“I’m a fighter,” he said. “I’m hopeful that I’ll survive. My heart is here.”

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight usually appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hknightsf Instagram: @heatherknightsf

Continue Reading