May 2008

The New Chiotras Grocery: Same as it Ever Was

By Deia de Brito

In early 2006, Ramzi Harb recognized a store in a Craigslist advertisement photograph and called his girlfriend Beth Bullard. “Isn’t that the market across the street from your mother’s house?” he asked. Sure enough, Chiotras Grocery on Rhode Island Street was for sale.  Beth and Ramzi had been looking to buy a cafe in the Mission for a few years, but they never expected such an opportunity to pop-up on Potrero Hill.  To top off their stroke of luck, the renters in the upstairs apartment moved-out six months after they purchased the market, and Beth and Ramze moved in.

“They couldn’t have ended up with someone more local, even though they advertised on Craigslist,” Beth said of Mr. and Mrs. Kim, the Korean couple that bought the store in 1993. “I grew up in that house across the street. My great-great-grandfather built it when he first came over from Russia in 1907.”

With an espresso machine pumping-out lattés behind the counter, and the shelves packed with wines, chips, imported cheeses, and a handful of organic products, it’s hard to imagine the same market almost a century ago, when it was opened by Greek immigrant Chris Chiotras.  The determined son of a Macedonian sheepherder, Chiotras started the enterprise after years of shining shoes and working as a fireman for Southern Pacific Railroad. In a 1919 photograph, a broad-shouldered, mustached man in a butcher’s apron looks humbly into the camera as he leans on his wooden counter. Around him are wall-to-wall canned goods, a dozen melons, big cloth bags of grain, and a cutting table. It’s the number of cans that’s most striking:  rows after row of cans that, when purchased, had to be brought down with a mechanical claw on a stick.

Chiotras, cut and ground meat where customers now peruse pastries and stir cream and sugar into their coffee. In the market’s legendary back room, local laborers gathered to drink beer, play cards and bet on horses at the end of a day’s work.  Periodically they’d come in to pay-off their charge accounts, Chiotras adding everything up with an abacus. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Chiotras’ son Pete took over the market from his father and, with his wife Smaro, ran it for half a century.

Throughout his teenage years in the 1970s, Beth’s brother Joe helped out at the store. Joe remembers Pete affectionately, but can’t shake his memory of how filthy Chiotras Grocery used to be. “The store didn’t change much over time,” he said. “It was dirty, dark and crowded, and he used every square foot. The meat was fresh, but by today’s health codes, the store would be shut-down.” Pete continued to rely on an abacus to do his books. And the back room remained a place to drink beer, though Joe recalls Pete sometimes kicking out hippies that used the space to smoke pot.

In 1980, the Planning Department found its way to the top of one of the highest streets on Potrero Hill to tell Pete that he was in trouble.  If he didn’t remove the decades old sign that read “Chiotras Grocery” he’d be fined, or worse.  A new ordinance had been adopted that prohibited projecting commercial signs in residential neighborhoods, and the Chiotras sign—with its neon subheading, “Grocery, Fresh Meats, Beer and Wine” — fell into the newly forbidden category. Over the next couple of months Pete gathered almost 500 signatures from customers petitioning to keep the sign. A 1980 photograph taken in front of the market shows a diverse group of people — elderly women wearing fur coats, long-haired men sporting sunglasses and bellbottoms, men in suits and ties — holding up signs that read “Keep The Sign” and “Our Taxes Go For This?”

When Pete and Smaro moved to Nevada in 1990, their daughter Christina remodeled and eliminated in-store meat cutting.  She ran the grocery until 1993, when it transferred from Greek-American to Korean-American ownership.

“It’s ironic,” Beth laughs. “When my mother was a little girl, she couldn’t come to this store because her grandfather had a store a few doors down from Chiotras. The Russians went to my great-grandfather’s store and the Greeks came here.” Beth’s great-grandfather, Alec Karetoff, closed his short-lived market in the 1920s and retired at age 35.  But up until the 1970s — even after Karetoff died — her mother couldn’t bring herself to buy groceries at Chiotras, sending Beth instead.  Joe said the conflict was a personal one between Chris and Alec, unrelated to cultural identity. No one in the family can pinpoint a specific reason for the feud, but suspicions point to the illegal, backroom bars both stores operated during prohibition.  “There was no animosity between my mom and Pete because it was a generation before them. Pete came over to the house every Christmas,” Joe says. “But old traditions die hard.”

There have been many colorful incidents in the Bullard family, most lacking clear explanation and many involving the notorious Karetoff. He was once shot on Rhode Island Street. “I think it had to do with a woman,” Beth guessed. “He was shot through both lungs, but the doctors refused to see him right away because he didn’t have money on him.” The shooting brings to mind another vague incident involving Karetoff, who was stabbed on the same street. “There was a lot of monkey business around here,” Joe explained. “People did things their own way.”

Beth’s childhood home was next to her great-grandfather’s house, which was next to her great-great-aunt’s home. The three backyards thus became one, where her great-grandfather kept pigeons, burned the family’s trash, and barbecued shashlyk — a marinated lamb kebab — over a claw foot tub.

Beth describes Potrero Hill in the seventies as a tight-knit community where everybody knew each other. She hung out at the Daily Scoop, now Chez Papa, the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, the Farm, which was located at 25th and San Bruno streets, and the Pickle Family Circus rehearsal space on 19th and Missouri streets. She recalls sliding down the hills on pieces of cardboard and breaking up serpentine rock with rough local kids.

“I feel like I’m supposed to be here,” Beth says. “Part of me feels like my family’s been here forever and I should go somewhere else, but there’s not that much of that around anymore, especially as the City becomes more expensive. A lot of the blue-collar, original immigrant families are moving out of the City.”

Roughly a year after Beth and Ramzi bought Chiotras Grocery, Whole Foods Market opened on 17th and Rhode Island streets. “I’m not gonna lie,” Beth says. “I’m not terribly happy about Whole Foods because they’ve taken a lot of our business.”  Still, many of the store’s customers remain loyal.  Priamos Georgiades has been buying his family’s groceries at Chiotras since he moved to the neighborhood from Cyprus 10 years ago. “I would only go to Whole Foods for something specific that they don’t have at Safeway and don’t have here,” he said. “It’s too expensive.”

Aside from a wider selection of goods, Whole Foods lacks something essential that every neighborhood should have:  a place where people can experience something more meaningful than just handing over money for a product. In a letter to the Planning Department protesting the removal of the store’s original sign, Chiotras family friend George Kosturas wrote that the market helped with “any little problems, such as use of the phone to call a doctor or some other emergency, groceries on credit for those that were short until payday, donations of cash and groceries to churches and needy people and many other things that you normally do not get at the computerized, robot retail outlets.”

That sense of community is exactly what Beth and Ramzi have in mind for their Chiotras Grocery. “We’re really making an effort to know our neighbors, their kids, their pets,” Beth said. “We want to be a neighborhood hub for passing information along.” Beth sometimes makes deliveries to elderly or sick customers, an act of kindness as well as good business.

Ramzi, who moved to San Francisco from the ancient city of Bethlehem in 1987 is happy to own a neighborhood market after many years of doing sales, driving delivery trucks, and working at his brother’s café. “I never thought I’d own a store,” he said. “My uncles owned stores here and there in the City, but this is different than owning a liquor store.”

“The sheer number of hours you have to put in is more than I expected,” Beth said. When they first bought the market, the shelves were almost empty and significant funds had to be invested into restocking.  Once they get fully on their feet, however, Beth and Ramzi intend to host a day in which neighborhood kids can come to the market to draw pictures of Blue, the gentle dog that greets customers as they come and go, which will be featured on the market’s walls.

A 20-something couple walks into the store at around noon on a Saturday. Looking eager and slightly lost, they explain to Beth that a neighbor referred them to Chiotras Grocery for help finding a Potrero Hill apartment. They flew all the way from Boston to apartment-hunt. “We hear this is a really nice place to live,” the woman said. Beth assures her this is true and quickly takes down their information and price range. She tells them she’ll call as soon as she hears of an available rental.

An elderly Greek woman named Mary walks by and gives Beth a boisterous hello. She’s on her way to serving food at Potrero Hill Neighborhood House’s senior lunch program, something she’s been doing for years. “I love all the new blood in the neighborhood, but it makes me feel really good to see older women that have been up here since before,” Beth said. “It’s a different place now.”

“I can’t fight change,” Beth admits. “I don’t blame anyone for wanting to live here. I don’t own the future of the Hill. But I would love to see families that come here raise their children here instead of moving to the suburbs. Community requires people to stay.”

The storefront sign may seem like the only piece of history left at Chiotras, but the market has in some ways returned to its roots.  Amidst the quickly changing neighborhood, a spirit is being revived.  Beth and Ramzi aren’t just selling groceries; they’re creating community.


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