What is a Formula Business in Mill Valley?

As the city continues its ongoing efforts to change commercial zoning regulations for "chain" businesses, we'd like to hear your thoughts on what exactly the criteria should be for a chain/formula business.

For the past 14 months, the Mill Valley Planning Commission has been to the city's commercial zoning regulations. Along the way, the commission has made a number of changes to the original set of recommendations from the city's Business Advisory Board "to improve city processes and promote business development consistent with Mill Valley’s character."

Some of the proposed changes (attached at right) have garnered more attention than others, particularly a move to and obtain a conditional use permit (CUP) to open downtown. That proposal, along with one to set a square-footage trigger for a (CUP), have from the , and .

That got us thinking: What exactly is a formula business?

Much of the chain/formula conversation in recent months has centered around the at 29 Miller Avenue. That effort and was and the .

But with more than 37,000 locations across the globe, Subway is a formula business by any definition. There's a lot of wiggle room between a mom-and-pop shop and the Subways of the world.

Where do you think the city of Mill Valley should set the threshold for what qualifies as a chain?

Here's how the city's current proposed changes define a formula eating or drinking establishment: 

  • An establishment which, along with seven or more business locations, is required by contractual or other arrangements to offer standardized employee uniforms, exterior design, food preparation, ingredients, interior decor, menus, or signs; or adopts an appearance, food presentation format, or name which causes it to be substantially identical to another restaurant regardless of ownership or location.

The city's current proposed definition for formula retail businesses is largely the same:

  • A retail business which, along with seven or more business locations, is required by contractual or other arrangement to maintain any of the following: standardized merchandise, services, décor, uniforms, architecture, colors, signs or other similar features. 

Fairfax and Sausalito, the only Marin towns with formula retail ordinances, have taken a slightly different approach. Fairfax (ordinance attached at right) did not set a minimum threshold for the number of locations, making any business with standardized branding and products a chain. Sausalito permits chain outlets in five different sections of town, forbidding a new chain to be close to another formula retail in town. In 2010, the Sausalito City Council denied a request for a Peet’s coffee to open near the waterfront because of concerns it would pave the way for other chains.

In its , the San Anselmo Town Council has looked at possibly defining chains as those  in the U.S.

So where is the line? How many locations must a business have to be considered a chain? Should number of locations matter? Should they be locally owned? And how do you feel about the standardization of uniforms, menus and branding? 

Tell us in the Comments below!

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Jim Welte September 05, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Charuz - You raise a good point. To be clear, although the formula business language and the square footage trigger being discussed only focus on the downtown area, the city is also considering changes that would impact all of the city's commercial areas, including clarifying the permitted uses within them. Click on the staff report at right for more info. Hope that helps.
Beads of Marin September 06, 2012 at 12:16 AM
Ricardo, Lower Miller Ave. is part of the City of Mill Valley not the unincorporated area. This area is the orphan child of the city and does not get treated in the same manner as downtown does, regardless of what is stated elsewhere. Ask any merchant in the area and you'll get a read on what they feel.
Beads of Marin September 06, 2012 at 12:17 AM
Couldn't find the report. Can you please post a link? Thanks.
Jim Welte September 06, 2012 at 12:20 AM
Rico September 06, 2012 at 01:39 AM
Charuz, We all know that lower Miller Ave. is in the City of M.V. Have you seen the Miller Ave. Precise plan ? It was a pipedream to build a bunch of mixed use condos and shops below that went clunk in a big way. They did fabricate the Tamalpais Commons as a mixed use high end condo project, but it went clunk. Nobody in their right mind is going to take out a 30 year loan to inhabit a condo on a busy 4 lane main street near a high school. That was the beginning and the end of the MAPP. They did rent out some shops, but the condo project was "apartmentized". They are now renting those apartments for $4000,00 per month. Even though all of this recent discussion is focused on the downtown (we call it uptown) area, it seems that there are different dreams about the downtown verses any other part of the City of M.V. The problem is, is the people that live here. The developers can come in and take our tax money to pay for studies and plans for anything, but it is truly up to the people whether or not it will ever get built. We are fortunate that these politicians and developers did not succeed in turning the lower part of Mill Valley into another Novato, Petaluma or Concrud.


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