Is Beloved Ice Cream Shop in SF's Richmond District Being Evicted?

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a storefront for Joe's Ice Cream
Joe's Ice Cream in San Francisco's Richmond District on Sept. 13, 2022. Owners say the building has been bought by developers, and they may be evicted. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A 63-year-old community favorite ice cream parlor is at risk of eviction. The proprietors of Joe’s Ice Cream in San Francisco’s Richmond District say they might lose their building to developers, in a struggle that’s become familiar to many small-business owners as the housing crisis increases demand for new homes.

Sean and Alice Kim discovered their building was for sale when a surveyor showed up one day this August measuring and photographing the property. They were meeting with a reporter to discuss installing a news rack for the community paper.

“If my husband was not here on that day when the survey happened, we probably still wouldn’t know,” Alice Kim said. “And if he didn’t Google something, we wouldn’t know anything.”

a man and woman stand in front of their ice cream shop
Owners Alice and Sean Kim at Joe's Ice Cream in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After an internet search, they learned that their building had been on the market for months, with a potential buyer already lined up.

Joe’s Ice Cream has been open since 1959; the Kims became owners in 2012. Many in the Richmond District consider Joe’s a beloved community hub, including the old landlord, who liked the spot enough to offer the Kims a long-term lease. Despite seven years still remaining on this lease, it is unclear whether a new owner is bound to honor the agreement.

As a registered legacy business, Joe's is eligible for grants, marketing help and business support from the city, but is not protected from a lawful demolition by the property’s owner, according to the San Francisco Planning Department.

a plaque denoting that Joe's Ice Cream is a legacy business
A legacy business plaque hangs on the wall outside Joe's Ice Cream in San Francisco's Richmond District. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A representative from the Planning Department said the agency had been contacted by San Francisco architecture firm Kerman Morris Architects, who were representing a buyer, and that they discussed three plans to redevelop the space into housing. They detailed a three- to four-story mixed-use apartment building with commercial space on the ground floor. No formal proposal is on the table yet, and it is unclear whether the commercial space can or will be occupied by Joe’s. The architecture firm declined to comment, saying their client does not yet own the building.

Sean and Alice Kim are now exploring possibilities for the future of their business. District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan said that she is “working with them to help determine their options and ensure that this neighborhood legacy business continues to thrive in the Richmond."

With the city’s help, the Kims said their first priority is figuring out whether they can purchase the building themselves and avoid a costly move. They are working with the San Francisco Office of Small Business to approve a potential loan to make their own offer to the landlord within a few weeks. The Office of Small Business is also connecting them to an attorney to review the terms of their lease and provide legal advice.

Community members have offered vocal aid to the ice cream shop owners, with one neighbor even proposing their own vacant property as a temporary location.

a man holds a little boy as they pick out an ice cream flavor
Stan holds his son Brady, 4, as they decide on an ice cream flavor at Joe's Ice Cream. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

However, many residents also welcome the idea of new apartments, even if Joe’s might have to relocate. The severe shortage of affordable Bay Area homes is resulting in skyrocketing demand for more housing from tenants and lawmakers alike, as the crisis has priced many longtime residents out of the city. A Joe’s customer named Paul said residents of the Richmond District are attached to the legacy business, but the dire need for housing is unignorable.

“The building’s been sold, somebody else is coming in, and they probably want to put up housing,” said Paul. “They probably don’t want to have this establishment, so it would be bad if they [Joe’s] weren’t here anymore, but I certainly understand that’s kind of the way it works.”

Sean Kim recognized the issue as well, and pointed to nearby vacant buildings as possible alternatives for housing plans — namely, the defunct Alexandria Theatre right next door, which has been sitting empty in development limbo for over 10 years. He is hopeful a deal can be reached through cooperation with the landlord, city and neighborhood to address every party’s needs.

“Lots of neighbors love us, and they want us to stay longer. Maybe the builders can pick another building (that’s) empty. We hear everyone say they support the development. We need … more housing. But why this building, which already has two good businesses operating well?” Kim said.

a banana split
A customer holds a banana split outside of Joe's Ice Cream. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

If the Office of Small Business is able to confirm and complete a letter of approval for the loan, then the Kims can present an offer to their current landlord before escrow closes. Then, the matter of how to pay for the property comes to the fore. Even with a monetary grant, continuous lines out the door and after-school sales, the homemade ice cream parlor will be facing a highly competitive San Francisco real estate market.

Yet Alice Kim says she and her husband are confident in their security because of the support they feel from their neighbors and community.

“For me, (with the) continuous support from local customers, I just want to appreciate them and how much they help us. I feel like we are just working together with all the issues we went through this year … every time those issues come, all the community helps us and is willing to work together,” she said. “That’s what makes us stronger every time. That spirit is really working well this time, so we won't give up.”

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