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Mr. Fillmore moves on

Photograph of Vas Kiniris by Chloe Jackman

By CHRIS BARNETT

After nearly three decades of involvement with the Fillmore Merchants Association — as board member, vice president, president and the last five years as executive director — Vasilios Kiniris, the personable man-in-perpetual-motion known to some as Mr. Fillmore and to all as Vas, is exiting stage left.

For most of that time, he’s been working — sometimes visibly, sometimes behind the scenes — to wrangle the neighborhood’s diverse coalitions into a cohesive and positive force. A lifelong merchant himself, save for a brief detour into architecture, Kiniris, 55, isn’t giving up on small businesses. He’s just crossing the street, so to speak, to a new entrepreneurial venture he calls NextSF, an agency that will offer his marketing savvy to other merchant associations and individual businesses and organizations seeking to build their brands and business.

Timothy Omi of Liberty Cannabis is the new president of the Fillmore Merchants Association. Patti Mangan is the new executive director. Continuing board members are Beverly Weinkauf of Toujours, Victorian Dunham of HiHo Silver and Chandler Tang of Post.Script. 

A candid long-hauler who believes in relationships, the Greek-born Kiniris sees life as a series of “half-empty opportunities,” but he’s no Pollyanna. He doesn’t shrink from the hard facts plaguing San Francisco and the Fillmore in particular. 

“Crimes are happening, no doubt about it,” he said during an exit interview this week. “Fillmore needs to be a safe place for its merchants, their employees and their customers.” The street, battered by the pandemic, has an unprecedented number of empty storefronts. But Kiniris remains upbeat. “Many are currently in contract with new leases,” he says. “They are filling up again.”

Kiniris has been swimming upstream all his life, and not without failures. “I’ve made my share,” he admits. One of his more visible ill-fated ventures was moving his Zinc Details home design emporium south to a huge vacant space on Fillmore near the Geary bridge, where an old dollar store once stood. It didn’t pan out. Zinc Details had been on Fillmore for 27 years when it closed in 2018.

Kiniris was 7 when he and his family arrived in San Francisco from Macedonia in northern Greece. At first they lived in public housing in the Mission “to get our bearings.” His dad Nick was a dishwasher at Nob Hill hotels, including the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins. “My mother was a garment worker,” he says. “Dad quickly realized he had to go into business for himself.”

The family opened one, then another, small corner grocery store. Young Vas went to work there as kid and grew up stocking shelves and checking out customers while his dad made sandwiches. “We worked every Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day for 15 years,” he says. “For me, it was my baptism in retail. Some people call it a sacrifice, but not me. The stores, the business, the customers were my social glue, my family. I didn’t get a chance to party much, and I can’t say it was a pleasant experience. But it was a learning experience.”

So were four years at UC Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in architecture. “But the practice was not to my liking,” he acknowledges. “And frankly, my mechanical skills were not all that good.”

He had a side job waiting tables in the ’80s at Stars, celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower’s once-glittering restaurant near City Hall. Remembers Kiniris: “I waited on people like Walter Cronkite and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and all the socialites and movers and shakers.”

He says he was first exposed to the finer things in life as an exchange student living with a prosperous German family. “Here I was, a blue-collar immigrant surviving day to day by extreme frugality and I was introduced to the extras, the intangibles of life, this joie de vive. Even now I still consider them my second family,” he says. “We all have many parents in our lives.”

In 1990, accustomed to living with no safety net, Kiniris and his wife, Wendy Nishimura Kiniris, plunged into retailing on their own with a small store at Post and Hyde in the Tenderloin, with drug dealers and prostitutes just outside their door. The rent: $500 a month. Their wares: contemporary furniture. The name: Zinc Details.

“We were credited with introducing modernism to San Francisco,” he says. “In those days, you were either old money or you had no money. We appealed to both. Our look was so fresh to the market, which had been dominated by Macy’s.”

From there they were thrust into the public arena. “We were both designers and highly edited curators,” he says. The couple was invited to set up a “store within a store” in Macy’s, created products for the Gap, and launched a wholesale business and private labeled to top retailers in Paris, London and Tokyo.

A recession brought them back to earth, which Kiniris now calls “a great opportunity, if you take advantage of it.” They moved upmarket, from the Tenderloin to Fillmore Street. “We looked at Union and Fillmore,” he says, “and Fillmore was coming up at the time.”

As the years passed, the Kinirises at one point had three Zinc Details stores in the neighborhood, with 20 employees, and he embedded himself as a passionate and engaged merchant. So when longtime Fillmore Merchants Association president Thomas Reynolds resigned in 2015, Kiniris stepped up to the plate. “Thomas left us a very good merchants association and his were very big shoes to fill,” he says.

Kiniris took some big steps in different directions. Using his social media skills, he expanded the association’s communications and membership. Pedaling on his electric bike, he integrated the small business owners on the street with representatives from the corporate and international brands that had been moving into the neighborhood. He reached out to merchants on lower Fillmore and in Japantown.

“My goal was to create a dialogue and potential collaboration among all groups,” he says, “and to help the big chain stores demonstrate good corporate behavior by engaging with the community in a meaningful way.”

Kiniris says he is proud the FMA has built relationships with many sectors of the community. “We have a strong relationship with District 2 supervisor Catherine Stefani and District 5 supervisor Dean Preston,” he says. Indeed, the supes handed him a certificate of honor when he announced he was stepping down from the FMA.

He has worked closely with the S.F. Police Department and the city’s top cops. Kiniris is a graduate of the SFPD’s community police academy, helped secure a two-officer foot patrol on Fillmore, and is co-chair of police chief Bill Scott’s small business advisory forum. Recently he helped organize a small business summit with all 10 captains of the the city’s police districts. “We had breakout sessions where each captain met with merchants in his district.” he says. “I realized the merchants don’t know what the police do, and vice versa.”

More ambitious and still a work-in-progress are partnerships between merchants with mega-companies including Google, Facebook, Uber and Spin, the city’s micro-mobility scooter renter. “We have to demonstrate how they can be true community partners,” Kiniris says. “They can’t sit in their ivory towers.” While many San Francisco streets remain dirty and littered, Kiniris has worked with cleanup groups like the city’s Department of Public Works, Together SF and Refuse Refuse.

During his years as Mr. Fillmore, Kiniris says he has sought to “reach across many aisles” to bring people together who can help Fillmore Street and other merchant corridors.

“The role of the merchants association is to provide three things to its members and the community: security, maintenance and marketing,” he says, repeating his frequent mantra.

Despite San Francisco’s well publicized woes, Kiniris is convinced the city — and especially the Fillmore — is on the verge of a rebirth, or “a regeneration,” as he calls it. 

And not for the first time.

“It’s part of our history,” Kiniris says. “The Fillmore Merchants Association is the city’s oldest, formed 115 years ago after the 1906 earthquake. This neighborhood was the birthplace of the rebuilt city, and the Harlem of the West, and the Summer of Love. It was a hotbed of business opportunities with its big Jewish, Japanese and African American communities over the decades,” he says. 

“It was diverse, an ethnic collaboration, and it is again time to work with many partners,” he says. “It’s the Phoenix rising.”

‘Craziness, just craziness’

Aesop, at 2450 Fillmore, was one of three businesses on its block hit by burglars.

CRIME WATCH

SOME PEOPLE took a holiday over the Labor Day weekend, but not the thieves who have been plaguing Fillmore Street merchants.

At least six businesses — Ruti, Post Script, Velvet, Heidi Says, Aesop and the UPS Store — were attacked over the long weekend, some suffering loss of merchandise, and all rushing to replace broken glass. Pots of flowers on the street were also vandalized.

Amid calls for more police protection, stronger glass and bars over doors and windows, one merchant shrugged: “Craziness, just craziness.”

Post Script, at 2413 California, was also hit in the Labor Day weekend crime spree.

Signs of life on a boulevard of broken leases

A new Italian restaurant, The Tailor’s Son, will soon open in the former Elite Cafe. Photograph by Jonathan Pontell

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

Empty stores, boarded-up windows, people sleeping in abandoned doorways, shoplifting and break-ins all testify that Fillmore Street is going though hard times one year after Covid hit with full fury.

But conversations with die-hard merchants and a reopening for some indoor dining signals an eventual turnaround in the fortunes of the once-booming upper Fillmore commercial district, which is now a boulevard of broken leases.

Vas Kiniris, a longtime Fillmore merchant who is now executive director of the Fillmore Merchants Association, is optimistic yet candid in offering his views on the state of the street.

Crime has long been a problem on Fillmore, but Kiniris reports that Northern Station has a newish captain in charge — Paul Yep — who gave the street back its own foot patrol, which was shared at one point with Japantown. More cops are visible.

Walgreens at Fillmore and Pine — regularly hit with swarms of grab-and-dash young shoplifters — now has an SFPD officer posted inside the front door, with a black and white squad car parked conspicuously outside the front door. There were recent rumbles that Walgreens might close its Fillmore store, as it closed others suffering a steady stream of thefts. But staffers say nothing is definite.

A peek inside the late, once-great Elite Cafe reveals a nearly completed interior makeover. A year after he planned to open, serial restaurateur Adriano Paganini will soon unveil The Tailor’s Son, his newest Italian restaurant, which pays homage to his childhood near Milan.

“My mom and dad are both working tailors, and my grandmother and grandfather were tailors as well,” Paganini says, hence the name. Paganini says that contrary to recent rumors, he “has no interest” in taking over long-shuttered Grove next door to Harry’s Bar. A reliable source maintains the Grove “will reopen eventually.”

From Hoodline: “An interview with Adriano Paganini

Another rumor turned out to be just that — only a rumor. Delfina, the uber-popular pizzeria on California Street, is not dead, despite the window boardings. Kiniris says it is simply undergoing a remodeling.

♦ 

John Litz’s Noosh, on the corner of Filllmore and Pine, has re-opened for pick-up, delivery and indoor-outdoor dining after being temporarily closed. Noosh is launching a multi-course tasting brunch on the weekend, which will feature its signature Mediterranean delicacies for $45 per person. At night, a multi-course Noosh dinner tasting menu will be offered at a price point, Litz insists, below similar San Francisco restaurants. The front windows of the restaurant have re-opened to the street, offering its full “fine casual menu,” including craft cocktails.

Many stores and brands on Fillmore have pulled up stakes during the pandemic. Kiniris lists International Orange, Dosa, Goop, Prana, the Repeat Performance resale shop, Illestiva, Frame, Ralph Lauren, Space NK, Alexis Bitter, Ministry of Supply, Samovar Tea, Asmbly Hall, Sunhee Moon, Atelier de Cologne, Flor, James Perse, Lexe, Alice and Olivia, Cotelac, Minted and the Artists Inn.

But there have been some openings: Liberty Cannabis is now open for business in the former Unity Church around the corner on Bush Street. Byredo, a Swedish fragrance emporium has taken over the former Space NK location at Pine and Fillmore. And Compton’s Coffee House now occupies the former Samovar Tea shop. Many restaurants have added seating outside.

As for activity at the old Clay Theatre? Absolutely nothing. 

No more Polo in Pacific Heights

The Ralph Lauren store on Fillmore Street.

FASHION DESIGNER Ralph Lauren’s elegant emporium at 2040 Fillmore — which replaced a former Goodwill store and paved the way for the street’s transformation into an upscale shopping strip of clothing and cosmetics boutiques — is now permanently closed.

The Polo shop had reopened only a few weeks ago, along with other Fillmore retailers, when the city gave the go-ahead for limited shopping and sidewalk dining after a three-month shutdown. August 22 was the final day of business at the shop, which has now been emptied.

A staffer referred questions to corporate headquarters in New York, which did not respond to repeated inquiries. The Fillmore store survived an earlier round of closings in 2015 and 2016, when Polo shuttered nearly 100 other stores.

When Polo Ralph Lauren opened in 2008, it was the first international brand to get a permit under San Francisco’s new formula retail ordinance, intended to limit chain stores in the city’s neighborhoods. Polo was first rejected, but later approved unanimously after it worked out a written agreement with local groups promising to play an active role in the neighborhood and be a role model for other retailers.

Most of Polo’s promises went unfulfilled, and no other formula retail business seeking to open on Fillmore was ever rejected by the city’s Planning Commission. More than two dozen more international fashion and personal care brands followed during the next decade.

‘We’re seeing a huge retail fallout’

Palmer’s and other restaurants, now serving outside, may lead the recovery.

STREET TALK | THOMAS REYNOLDS

Almost a dozen Fillmore businesses have permanently closed, and more are likely to follow.

“It’s a tumultuous time for Fillmore Street right now,” said Vas Kiniris, executive director of the Fillmore Merchants Association. “We’re seeing a huge retail fallout.”

Kiniris listed numerous businesses that are permanently closed: Frye Boots, Samovar Tea, Prana, Illesteva, Lip Lab, CBD Garin, Aday, Asmbly Hall and Repeat Performance, the S.F. Symphony resale shop.

“I’ve been on the street for 25 years and I’ve never seen so many closings,” Kiniris said. “It’s a little bit alarming.”

A leader and close observer of businesses citywide, Kiniris said he expects the recovery of neighborhood commercial districts to be sparked by restaurants and bars.

“These businesses really pull traffic to the corridors,” he said. “They give rebirth to those corners.” Bars remain closed for now, and indoor restaurant service has been pushed back, but eateries are now allowed to serve outside, in addition to the takeout and delivery service that has kept them alive for the past four months.

“We see this right now with Noosh,” he said. “Noosh opened, then Kiehl’s opened, Glaze is opening, so there’s activity there” at the corner of Fillmore and Pine.

The city’s shared space program, which has let stores and restaurants serve on the sidewalks and in parking spaces, has been helpful, Kiniris said. “It’s another revenue stream for the merchants,” he said. “But it’s also very important to the visual well being and the rebirth of our street. It makes the street visually more enticing, and it makes it more sticky, so people want to linger — and therefore they’ll go to other stores as well.”

At least one new business is preparing to open. Liberty Cannabis, after two and a half years, finally has the permits for its new shop in the former Unity Church space at 2222 Bush Street, near Fillmore, and plans to open in the fall.

Formerly bustling upper Fillmore Street still “is pretty healthy overall,” Kiniris said. But he added: “It’s gonna be a rough ride. We’re all in startup mode now.”

Plenty of parking

Photograph of the California/Fillmore parking lot by Dickie Spritzer

Boarding up the street

A mural and a message in the boarded-up windows at Fillmore and Clay.

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

In 1971, carpenter Mark Johnson moved into a Victorian flat at 2254 Bush Street, just off Fillmore, and stayed for 25 years.

“It was not the most attractive place to live in the early ’70s,” he says. “But by the time I moved out, it had changed dramatically — and for the better.”

Now he’s back, plying his trade and creating a grim streetscape on a nearly deserted Fillmore Street that is creeping out the locals. Johnson, who lives in tranquil Petaluma, has quickly become the go-to guy for Fillmore merchants who want their store windows boarded up to stave off potential looters as the coronavirus crisis drags on.

For from $300 to $600, he will tailor 4×8-foot sheets of 3/8-inch plywood to cover up the mostly empty retail shops, restaurants and bars on the boulevard. Already he has protected the glass of 14 Fillmore addresses.

 “Looters are opportunists who look for convenient ways to break in and get out,” says Johnson. “They won’t spend time trying to dismantle a boarded-up facade. They’ll look for glass.”

Johnson is a licensed contractor who usually remodels interiors and does finish carpentry. So, he said, he tries “to provide a very clean appearance” for his clientele “instead of just slapping up boards, nailing them to 2x4s and making it look like a blighted area.” A few businesses have painted the wood a more stylish black or white, and a couple of murals have blossomed, along with the seemingly inevitable graffiti tags. But most are sporting raw plywood.

Johnson’s boarding-up business was spurred when staffers at the HeidiSays boutique passed his name along to others in the Fillmore Merchants Association. “That’s when it really started to snowball,” he says. “I got at least a dozen jobs in two weeks.”

Passersby at first would ask: “Is this store going out of business?” He told them: “No, it’s just an abundance of caution.”

Some residents and merchants see the boarding-up as an overreaction. There have been a few break-ins, as there were before the virus hit.

“It breaks my heart to see the street like this,” says Vas Kiniris, executive director of the merchants association. But many businesses have decided to be safe rather than sorry, and Johnson is still getting calls.

His fee includes removal when the stores reopen, he says.

Frye first to shut down

Frye’s stylish shop on Fillmore Street opened in 2016.

FRYE BOOTS at 2047 Fillmore Street has become the first neighborhood shop to announce it will close permanently.

“We were told last Friday [March 27] that we will not reopen our beautiful store,” says Frye manager and longtime local Cris Mcquay, who formerly managed Kiehl’s on Fillmore. “We will stay permanently closed going forward. We are closing all 16 Frye retail stores in the U.S.”

She added: “I’m afraid we won’t be the only one — just the first confirmed case.”

Fillmore getting its first cannabis dispensary

Liberty Cannabis Dispensary will replace Unity Church at 2222 Bush Street.

LIBERTY SAN FRANCISCO has been granted a permit to open the neighborhood’s first cannabis dispensary.

On December 12, the Planning Commission unanimously approved Liberty’s application for a conditional use permit to open a retail dispensary just west of Fillmore at 2222 Bush Street, formerly the home of Unity Church. The church sold its longtime home for $5 million earlier this year.

The commission heard from 12 neighbors who supported the permit and seven who were opposed. Only one — Christopher Hayes, who lives nearby on Wilmot Alley — spoke when the issue finally came up at the bottom of the agenda more than seven hours after the meeting began. Hayes asked the commission to prohibit on-site consumption and to ban customer parking at the back of the building on Wilmot Alley. Both conditions were approved as part of the permit.

Timothy Omi, director of operations for Liberty SF, said it will be “a different type of cannabis dispensary focused on cannabis education and customer well-being.” He characterized its priorities as “hugs over haggling.”

Liberty also owns cannabis dispensaries in Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Southern California.

Fillmore Street: Retail Mecca?

The new boutique ADAY has just opened at 2011 Fillmore Street. 

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

Despite the fierce turnover among well-heeled retailers, is Fillmore Street still Mecca for merchants? Jon Levy, an exec with Leap — a New York-based firm that creates and launches traditional retail stores for web-based digital brands — is convinced of it. He just snapped up a second storefront on the street for a client and is gunning for a third — all in the same block.

Leap just soft-opened the women’s fashion shop ADAY at 2011 Fillmore, after the cosmetic emporium MAC vanished suddenly last month. A few months earlier, Leap opened Koio, a hip sneaker company, a few doors north at 2029 Fillmore in what was previously the Lilith women’s boutique. Now Leap has its sights on the space nearby at 2033 Fillmore being vacated by Modcloth, the Walmart-owned apparel startup that flopped as a brick-and-mortar venture but lives on online. 

Leap is neither an angel investor nor a venture capitalist. Its gig: Match online retail concepts with hot locations nationwide and get them off the brick and mortar launching pad. And even with the high casualty rates on Fillmore among solidly financed, often globally owned retailers, Levy feels the street has an irresistible appeal to tech-smart, savvy-spending millennials who aren’t afraid to disrupt rules and flout traditions.

Levy maintains that ADAY is aimed at the “fashion forward yet practical” woman who looks for simplicity and versatility in her wardrobe. “This is comfortable yet technical apparel — think high-end fabrics made of recycled materials,” he says. The premise is that customers can wear the same outfit to work, a party, a job interview and a club.

“These buyers are found in cities like San Francisco, L.A. and New York,” Levy says. “The place to be for retailers targeting those buyers is on Fillmore. Just look at Noosh. Filled. That’s our market.”

Levy, who kicks off all his new store grand openings with a music, food and drink party and invites the neighborhood — none of those “friends and family” insider-only private bashes — is doing the same with ADAY. A do-good shopping incentive: 10 percent of all proceeds will be donated to the California Fire Foundation to aid in wildfire relief.