80 Years And Counting: Castro's Cliff's Variety Recognized As Best Small Business In California

“We have what you want.” That’s the slogan of Castro Street’s very own Cliff’s Variety, which come the first week of June, will celebrate its 80th anniversary in the neighborhood.

In the spirit of Small Business Week, not to mention the fact that the store was recently named the 2016 Small Business of the Year by the California Small Business Association just a few days ago, we caught up with Terry Asten Bennett, Cliff’s general manager and the great, great grand-daughter of store founder Hilario DeBaca.

Photo: Shane Downing/Hoodline

Founded in 1936 and named for Hilario's youngest son, Clifford, the variety store has had a rich history over the decades — although Asten Bennett admitted that they’re not exactly sure of when Cliff’s set up shop. “When we were getting ready to celebrate our 75th anniversary, we could not find the day we actually opened,” Asten Bennett said. “We know it was the year 1936, and so we picked June 6th as our anniversary date because that was grandpa Ernie’s birthday.”

Asten Bennett is more confident about the store’s formula for success. “I think the best thing we’ve done is we’ve changed with the neighborhood and we’ve catered to what the neighborhood needs and is looking for,” Asten Bennett said. “Because we have such a  variety of stuff, when one area is not doing well, we’re able to change it up with something different.”

Terry Asten Bennett is the general manager at Cliff's and grew up in the store. Photo: Shane Downing/Hoodline

Cliff’s sells exactly what its name implies: a variety of goods. From its home improvement selection to its cooking department, its art department to its selection of fabrics and textiles, the store is truly a catchall shop. “I think the most important thing we’ve done,” said Asten Bennett, “is we’ve given a lot of ownership to what we carry to our employees. We let our employees make a lot of choices about what’s going on in the store. They participate in the buying, they participate in the merchandising.”

Asten Bennett, who was born and raised in the Castro and who grew up around the store, worked at Cliff’s throughout high school and returned after college in 1997. “I don’t remember what year we promoted me,” she laughed. She and her family now live near the Cow Palace in the city. “I wasn’t able to afford to buy in the Castro,” she said.

A snapshot of Cliff's Variety's... of goods. Photo: Shane Downing/Hoodline

Regardless of where she calls home, Asten Bennett still maintains a good sense of how the Castro has changed over the years. “Some things in the neighborhood are exactly the same, and some things are completely different. Rossi’s Delicatessen is still there,” she said, “and a lot of the flavor of the neighborhood is still the same. A lot has changed.”

“The biggest challenge is dealing with city politics and city regulations,” Asten Bennett said. “We’ve always worked really hard to take care of our employees, and every time the city or the state mandates a benefit, they’ve actually mandated it in such a way that it’s taken away from what we’ve been offering.”

She provided the example of the store’s sick pay policy. “Long before that law was ever put in, we paid our employees; they had a week of paid sick leave and if they didn’t use it, we paid it out at time and a half the following year,” explained Asten Bennett. “The sick pay law requires it be rolled over and that we can’t pay it out.”

Asten Bennett (left) pictured with Marian (right), an employee at Cliff's. Photo: Shane Downing/Hoodline

“The city wide policy changes, I understand that on a big scale, they may think they look good, but they aren’t actually looking at the entire picture.”

Cliff’s has always cared about the well-being of its employees. Although she was quite young during the AIDS epidemic, Asten Bennett remembers the fear and uncertainty of those times. “Our store felt it acutely. We watched our customers walk in healthy one week and gaunt and diminished the following week.”

“When our first employee was diagnosed with AIDS,” said Asten Bennett, “we brought in a long-term disability plan to make sure that our employees would have a continuing quality of life whether they could only work part time or not work at all. We’ve always been supportive of all the fundraisers going on, but really it was about being humans and being there for the people.”

Cliff's has been a longtime ally to the neighborhood's LGBTQ community. Photo: Shane Downing/Hoodline

The store currently employs 41 employees, including Franc, who has been decorating the storefront windows for over 10 years. In Asten Bennett’s opinion, Cliff’s “fabulous windows” are what the variety store is best known for. “We have incredibly talented and creative people with really twisted, quirky senses of humor — we let them loose.”

Along with her employees, Asten Bennett is joined in the store on a daily basis by her parents, Ernie and Martha, and husband, Richard. Interestingly enough, the man whose name the store is named after, founder and retired school teacher Hilario DeBaca’s youngest son, Cliff, never worked a day in the store.  According to Asten Bennett, “he named it after his son Cliff, who was a saxophone player. He wanted Cliff to get a ‘real job,’ so Cliff never worked here. It was Cliff’s brother, Ernie, who took over the store and [the store] came down the family on that side.”

Cliff's infamous window displays. Photo: Shane Downing/Hoodline

Whether it’s the window displays or the range of offerings, Cliff’s has never really struggled to attract a crowd. “We have customers that have been here my entire life and before,” Asten Bennett said. Besides welcoming a large, loyal contingent of neighborhood patrons to the store, Cliff’s also sees its fair share of tourists.

“You can feel the ebb and flow of the F-Market. Every time the F-Market stops, there’s a wave of tourists coming in, and it seems like whole countries go on vacation at the same time,” Asten Bennett laughed. “One week we’ll hear nothing but French, and the next week it will be your Japanese tourists and then your German tourists.”

A customer checks out at Cliff's. Photo: Shane Downing/Hoodline

In light of the Castro’s recent string of burglaries, Cliff’s general manager said that although the store hasn’t been the victim of a burglary, another genre of crime has become a particularly annoying thorn in the store’s side. “Shoplifting has run rampant with the our special friends on the street,” Asten Bennett said. “It really picked up when the sidewalk widening started. That seemed to attract a new breed of traveler. It’s been an ongoing challenge.”

Whereas a number of neighborhood businesses have been subjected to rent hikes, Cliff’s general manager was quick to add that her store is lucky to own the building it operates in. “We bought the main building in 1971, and then in the late ’80s, we were fortunate enough to be able to buy the Annex side.”

A shot of Cliff's Variety, moments after walking through the front doors. Photo: Shane Downing/Hoodline

She did, however, have advice for newer neighborhood businesses that are trying to get off the ground. “Get out there and be vocal. Find your niche. Make your business inviting. Do things to draw people in. Get them talking, and if you’re struggling, talk to your employees,” said Asten Bennett. “They’re the most amazing source of advice. They’re down there listening to what the customers want and are looking for.”

It’s this kind of mindset and approach that has elevated Cliff’s Variety to statewide recognition. This past Wednesday, the Castro’s very own Cliff’s was recognized by the California Small Business Association 2016 Small Business of the Year.

From left to right: Asten Bennett's husband Richard, daughter Camille, Asten Bennett, Assemblymember David Chiu, Ernie and Martha Asten. (Photo courtesy of Cliff's Variety)

“Last month, I received a phone call from Assemblyman Chiu saying that he wanted to nominate us as the best small business in California from his assembly district. [Earlier this week], we went up to Sacramento and were honored with that award. It’s really exciting to be seen on a statewide level,” Asten Bennett said.

Upon asking her what the award meant to her and to Cliff’s, the general manager said “The thing we’re most grateful for is the community that supports us. I dedicated my life to being here for the community and the store and I intend to keep that. My 12-year-old, Camille, was raised in the store and thus far, she thinks it’s a good idea to keep it going.”

Cliff's Variety carries an array of goods. Photo: Shane Downing/Hoodline

Only time will tell whether or not Cliff’s has another 80 years in it; however, for now, diehard Cliff’s patrons can look forward to 80th anniversary sales sometime in July, although Asten Bennett said that “we don’t limit celebrating small businesses to just one week a year.”

“San Francisco and the Castro have been an ever changing scene, I think anyone who’s been here for any amount of time will know that good stuff happens, bad stuff happens, and we just keep on ticking. When it gets really bad, we pray for an earthquake,” she joked.

“We’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing,” Asten Bennett said. “I mean obviously we’re doing something right.”

That concludes our coverage of Small Business Week in the Castro. In case you missed it, we caught with Rossi's Deli and Pioneer Renewer earlier in the week. Like Asten Bennett said, however, we also don't limit celebrating small businesses to just one week a year. We like to cover businesses not just when they open or close, or when they're burglarized or burned. If you have a small business that you would like to see Hoodline feature, send us a tip or leave a comment below.

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