When the Mill Valley City Council earlier this month, the decision drew a burst of applause from a standing-room-only crowd mostly full of vehement opponents to the sandwich shop.
But when longtime Mill Valley resident and co-owner Mark Fong learned of the decision, particularly the council citing Subway’s status as a chain and its potential impact on locally owned businesses as a basis for its decision, he was confused.
“It bothered me, and it has bothered a lot of my customers,” Fong said.
That’s because five months before Subway’s appeal was rejected, the Planning Commission , the 43-store chain owned by Strawberry resident Michael Levy, to open an approximately 4,500-square-foot Mill Valley store in the Alto Plaza shopping center. The store opened last week.
Fong said he doesn’t understand why city officials said they wanted to protect local businesses like and from a powerful chain while not doing so for his business, which has been on Miller Avenue for 31 years. Critterland is a longtime supporter of , and the , Fong said.
“I just don’t get the difference,” he said.
Mill Valley native Brian Murphy, who recently moved back to town, on Mill Valley Patch: “Must we break the news to the NIMBYs that was a national chain, as well? A town must provide varied services to varied tastes, not just what fits your 1 percent tastes.”
For Sylvia "Chipps" Newsom Barsky called out for leadership from city officials.
“It is time that City Hall defined what constitutes a chain and then stand by it when a chain store wants to come into the downtown area of Mill Valley,” . “Yes, there are chains already here. How many more do we need? And at what cost? It is time for City Hall to step up and make a clear decision so that the citizens and merchants don't have to continually defend the unique culture of Mill Valley.”
Though he voted to reject the Subway appeal, Councilman Ken Wachtel said he found it curious that those people who opposed Subway because it was a chain and would negatively impact local businesses never raised an objection to Pet Food Express.
“While I am not generally a fan of protectionism, I am in favor of consistent policy -- especially when it impacts on our small locally owned and local serving businesses,” Wachtel said.
The distinction, according to the council’s decision, is two-fold:
- Geographic. The city’s 1989 General Plan, which is in the midst of an update, calls downtown “the primary commercial and civic center for the community” that has a “number of small businesses operated by independent proprietors who are actively involved in the community.” That priority is not explicitly extended to shopping centers like Alto Plaza.
- Size. Councilmembers called out the difference between Subway’s 37,000-plus locations and those of smaller chains.
Geographic distinctions exist elsewhere like San Francisco, where chain businesses face strict regulations in some neighborhoods but much less so in some retail developments.
“My sense is that if we had tried to open in downtown (Mill Valley) it would have been more difficult,” said Levy, who founded Pet Food Express in 1980. “Alto Plaza is a shopping center and it’s distinctly different than downtown Mill Valley.”
As for the size distinction, the Planning Commission met again last month to continue its tweak of the city’s zoning regulations, including . In the latest iteration of those proposed changes, chain businesses were defined as those having seven or more locations and standardization of design, services and products.
Levy said the size distinction is a particularly subjective measurement. He said a locally owned business shouldn’t be penalized for having great success and expanding beyond the seven-location chain trigger.
“It’s a real balancing act in defining a chain,” Levy said. “In Mill Valley, I don’t want to see local businesses chased out by Burger King and McDonald’s either. But , for instance, is not the same thing as McDonald’s.”
As for Fong, his business has survived the continued economic downturn of the past several years and he hopes to continue to do so. He said there isn’t much overlap between Critterland and Pet Food Express, as he focuses less on dog and cat food and offers supplies for a wider range of pets beyond dogs and cats.
Levy agreed, saying he was confident that his new Mill Valley store won’t take out Critterland, in Strawberry or in Tam Junction. Instead, he expects to grow the local pet market by encouraging pet adoptions and allowing customers to choose from a diverse range of independent pet supply retailers.
“It’s not like we want to beat each other’s brains out,” he said. “We’ve never pushed anybody out of business - we’ve expanded the market,” he said.
Fong is hopeful but said he’d like to see some clarity from the city regardless.
“I’ve been here my whole life,” he said. “If you say you want to protect locally owned businesses, be consistent with it.”