Longtime Potrero Hill resident and chief executive officer of The Good Life Grocery, Lester Zeidman, retired last summer after 40 years as co-owner of one of San Francisco’s most beloved, and successful, retail groceries.
Zeidman left his home state of New Jersey when he was 17 years old. He bounced around, living in a cabin in the Maine woods for a year, eventually hitchhiking to California in the summer of 1970. It took him forty-nine different rides to get to San Francisco, an unintentional nod to the early gold seekers that populated the City, and a testament to his perseverance and stamina.
One of Zeidman’s first jobs in San Francisco was at Stanislaus Imports, a distributor of arts and crafts supplies, then located at 17th and Arkansas streets. While enjoying his lunch break in Jackson Park one day he looked at Potrero Hill and thought, “I’d like to live up there.”
He soon did, first at an apartment on Wisconsin Street, then Missouri Street.
When asked what brought him to the retail grocery business, he smiled, “I was dating the boss.”
According to the store’s website, “In 1974 a group of Potrero Hill friends opened The Good Life Grocery on a shoestring budget and a dream. We joined a loosely knit organization of collectives, co-ops, and community stores called the People’s Food System.”
The first store was located on 18th Street, between Missouri and Connecticut streets, Papito’s current location. The grocery featured food from local farms, bakeries and wholesalers. Zeidman noted that when the original members experienced the day-in, day-out hard work of running the store half of them quit.
In 1976, Kayren Hudiburgh joined the effort. She helped the business grow, nurturing a local customer base and a reputation for providing quality foods at reasonable prices.
There were few other businesses on 18th Street at the time, limited to enterprises like the Little Red Door, a resale outlet operated by Enola Maxwell, and Kotch’s Barber Shop. Many storefronts were either boarded up or being used as residences. After Good Life opened its doors others followed, including Goat Hill Pizza, Just For You Cafe – since moved to Dogpatch – the Daily Scoop Ice Cream Parlor, and Spiro’s Greek Restaurant.
Lester starting dating Kayren in 1980 when he was working at the Mayflower Saloon on 18th and Connecticut streets. He was her favorite bartender. They married in 1982. Realizing Good Life Grocery’s potential and wanting to help the love of his life with her business, he bought into the enterprise, becoming a co-owner.
The Good Life leased its 18th Street storefront. In 1985, it was notified that its rent would increase by an unaffordable amount: a 1000 percent rate hike. It looked like the nascent business would have to close. Devoted customers and neighbors protested, showing up en masse to try to stop the eviction, posting window signs, ‘Keep Our Good Life On The Hill.’ The dispute was heavily covered in the media, including by the View. Then-mayor and Hill resident, Art Agnos, intervened. Small business evictions were becoming common in San Francisco, as new building owners tried to force out tenants to jack up rents.
Despite all the efforts, eventually the Good Life had to go.
Determined not to let the business fail, Zeidman secured a new location, on 20th Street, between Connecticut and Missouri streets. For several months, after being evicted from the old location and moving into the new, St Teresa’s allowed Good Life to operate a weekly open-air market in its side lot. Hudiburgh and Zeidman stored much of the inventory in their home, reduced orders for perishables, and kept a steady supply of ice. Zeidman sold $25 gift certificates for $20, redeemable once the new store opened several months later, in March of 1986.
The eviction experience made it clear to Zeidman that Good Life had to open another store, to enable the business to stay solvent should such an expulsion happen again. In 1991, Hudiburgh and Zeidman found a reasonably priced retail grocery business for sale, located in a building with affordable rent on Cortland Avenue. To stave off the risk of future evictions, they purchased the Bernal Heights property in 2000.
According to Zeidman, the secret to success for small businesses in San Francisco is, whenever possible, to purchase the property on which the enterprise is located. It’s not an easy path to take. Zeidman’s financial acumen, meticulous ‘above-board’ record keeping, the store’s consistent revenue, and the integrity and long-tenure of the staff enabled The Good Life to secure the loans necessary to purchase the Potrero Hill and Bernal Heights buildings and renovate the latter.
Zeidman noted that in the early decades the store stocked organic produce only. Hudiburgh, who serves as produce manager, now carries both organic and conventional items.
“It’s all about giving the customer what they want, as well as offering alternatives,” he said.
Progresso products sit alongside “natural” and “gourmet” soups. Customers often recommend items they’d like to see in the store or inform staff of a company’s politics and why Good Life shouldn’t carry its merchandise.
Zeidman said that neither Rainbow Grocery Cooperative nor Whole Foods Market have significantly eaten into Good Life’s business.
“Those customers are too lazy to walk up the hill,” he joked.
Although largely retired from the day-to-day business of running a grocery store, Zeidman remains on the board of directors. New co-owner, Samantha Zuvella, has taken over most of his former responsibilities. Zuvella started at Good Life in 2004, as a courtesy clerk, becoming general manager of both stores in 2016.
Zeidman is thrilled that ten-hour-workdays are behind him, as are the constant stressors involved in running a small business. He looks forward to travel, impromptu naps, and revisiting past hobbies, like journalistic photography, a pastime he used to engage in on behalf of the View.