Do San Francisco’s Restrictions on Chain Stores Violate the First Amendment?
Whether San Francisco’s restrictions on chain stores will allow a local burrito business to open another restaurant might hinge on what the owners decide to call their new location. That, in turn, raises some troubling First Amendment implications.
For close to four decades, local favorite El Farolito has made a name for itself serving up Mission-style burritos that are, per Eater, “roughly the size of a neck pillow.” The business currently has 11 locations throughout the Bay Area, and is in the process of opening up its 12th in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.
“We hope that we are received like we have been received (and) accepted in the other places we’re at,” said Irene Lopez, the daughter of El Farolito founder Salvador Lopez and the restaurant’s current CEO, to the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month.
If they’ll be received at all in North Beach, however, depends on whether El Farolito meets the city’s definition of “formula retail” (a.k.a. a chain store).
Since 2004, San Francisco has placed restrictions on formula retail businesses like bars, restaurants, and gyms to try to preserve the viability and character of local businesses. To that end, the city’s planning code requires any business deemed a formula retail chain to get a special conditional use permit in order to operate in some areas of the city. In a few Neighborhood Commercial Districts—including North Beach—formula retail is flatly prohibited.
Determining whether a business is formula retail, and thus subject to these restrictions, is normally a pretty cut-and-dry process, says Dan Sider, chief of staff for the San Francisco Planning Department.
“The vast majority of applications that we get for new stores, restaurants, what have you, very clearly fall into the ‘yes, this is a nonformula retailer’ or ‘no, this is a formula retailer’ bucket,” Sider tells Reason. “Every now and then, one comes along that makes us sc
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