Online Extra: Planning commission declines review of Castro falafel shop permit

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday October 25, 2019
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Assaf Pashut, owner of the Flying Falafel, spoke to the Castro Merchants group last month. Photo: Cynthia Laird
Assaf Pashut, owner of the Flying Falafel, spoke to the Castro Merchants group last month. Photo: Cynthia Laird

The San Francisco Planning Commission Thursday declined to take a discretionary review of a building permit for a proposed Castro falafel eatery.

The vote was 3-1 in favor of the discretionary review, but that a unanimous vote of the commissioners present so it failed.

The decision clears the way for the Flying Falafel Vegan Sandwich Bar to open at the former Outfit on Castro Street, according to Flying Falafel owner Assaf Pashut.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, the owner of Gyro Xpress at 499 Castro Street filed a request for discretionary review by the commission to prevent Flying Falafel from opening at 463 Castro Street.

"The Castro district is losing its key retail spaces," Cem Bulutoglu of Gyro Xpress wrote in the request. "There are three falafel shops on the 400 block of Castro."

The preliminary recommendation from planning staff was not to take the discretionary review.

Pashut, who identifies as pansexual, said that he is not sure about the timeline of opening at that location and that it may be occupied in the interim by another business.

"We'll probably have a temporary pop-up until we have more time next year," Pashut said in a phone interview with the B.A.R. Friday morning.

Following the closure of Outfit, the space was occupied by a pop-up branch of the Indigo Vintage Cooperative until October 6.

Before the October 24 planning commission decision, Pashut said that he did not know if he would appeal should he lose.

"It would depend on how rigid the system is," he said. "If it's inflexible and operates illogically, then it might not be worth it."

Jeremy Paul, a permit consultant and expediter who advised Gyro Xpress, said before the decision that he wouldn't recommend the restaurant appeal.

"Either the planning commission cares about a diversity of uses, or the brick and mortar equivalent of a row of food trucks is acceptable," Paul wrote in an email to the B.A.R.

Paul, at first, made similar remarks in front of the commission.

"Is the Castro going to be a fast food mecca? Is that what we want? Or do we want to keep a healthy diversity of uses?" he asked.

But then he seemed to change tone.

"It's not about the menu," he said. "I love falafel. It's in my blood."

After the hearing, Paul wrote in an email that he doesn't expect the falafel shop to open.

"It was an interesting hearing, and I'm glad to see the planning commission start to notice the impact of their process on the small business districts of SF," Paul wrote. "The hearing began very late and two commissioners had left so we needed a unanimous decision to win; I have little doubt that we would have won if we had six commissioners present. Despite the result, I don't expect there will be a falafel shop at 463 Castro Street. I like Assaf and I wish him the very best with his business. But, I'll continue to get my favorite falafel sandwiches up at Rossi's Deli, and a killer Gyro plate down at Gyro Xpress — they've got Stella on draught which makes it perfect. Seriously, the Castro is blessed with great Mediterranean food."

Numerous community members spoke in support of Flying Falafel, including one who appeared to be eating a falafel at the podium until a commissioner asked him to speak more clearly into the microphone.

Commissioner Dennis Richards, who voted to take the discretionary review, said he remembers going shopping at the Castro's then numerous retail spaces when he was "a young gay boy from San Jose." But, he added, the nature of the neighborhood is changing just as it did years ago in North Beach, which has seen retail spaces go empty while restaurants and bars boom.

"We've become a retail desert and the neighborhood is in a death spiral," Richards said. "I think Flying Falafel can help us get out of the death spiral."

Pashut said in a previous interview with the B.A.R. and at the Castro Merchants meeting last month that even though there are other places to get falafels in the Castro, his eatery is a 100% vegan concept, with "very small" overlap with a couple of other establishments in the Castro.

Bulutoglu, in a phone interview Monday, October 28, with the B.A.R., said that his request was purely motivated by the desire to "keep retail in the area so people would dine," bringing up the example of North Beach — though he did add "our falafels are better."

But, at the end of the meeting, Bulutoglu said he shook Pashut's hand to congratulate him.

There is a Flying Falafel location on the 1000 block of Market Street and another one a block from the downtown Berkeley BART station.

Updated, 10/25/19: This article has been updated with remarks from the planning commission meeting.

Updated, 10/25/19: This article has been updated to accurately explain the vote.