San Francisco

After 30+ Years, Cole Valley's Alpha Market To Become Luke's Local

Owning and operating Cole Valley's only grocery for three decades is an honor that comes with great responsibility, said Abe Saba, but he's now ready to hang up his red apron. In a few months, Alpha Market at 960 Cole St. will become Luke's Local, the first physical location of an online company that delivers groceries and prepared foods.

Saba said he decided to sell the business so he could concentrate on recuperating from a recent operation. "This is too much work for me, so I need time to take care of myself," he said. "I'm happy to retire."

The move comes at an uneasy time for residents alarmed by recent changes to their commercial strip: last year, Cole Garage closed, leaving many without a reliable mechanic and Dirk Spencer, a beloved member of the community. That same week, Doug's Suds, a corner laundromat in service for more than 20 years, also closed.

After three decades, Alpha Market owner Abe Saba is retiring.

The block of Cole between Parnassus Avenue and Carl Street embodies the mercurial nature of San Francisco's commercial real estate market. For more than a year, 930 Cole St. has been a massive, ongoing construction site. Each business that expressed interest in the space kicked off new speculation about the changing nature of the once blue-collar neighborhood.

Rightly so: if plans are approved, the cavernous building that spent a century as an auto garage will soon house an urgent care clinic, a yoga studio, and an expansion of Zazie Cafe, the bistro across the street best known for its French Toast and lengthy table wait times.

Neighborhood markets do well in San Francisco, but family-owned shops with strong community ties fare best. Even as shops like Fog Hill Market, Divisadero Health HavenMichael's Pit Stop and Anna's Market close, multi-generational businesses like NoPa's Cindy Market, Outer Sunset's Noriega Produce, Haight St. Market and Nabila's Health Foods in Hayes Valley continue to thrive and expand. 

But as owners age and commercial rents rise, the future of businesses like Saba's becomes less certain.

New owner Luke Chappell has perfect timing, said Saba. "He just came by after I put the store up for sale, but he didn't know this. He came and asked and we told him 'yes.'"

Chappell, who lives nearby, told Hoodline via email that he's "really excited to launch Luke’s Local’s first brick and mortar store in my Cole Valley community."

Unlike other online food delivery services, Luke's Local makes almost all of its prepared food in-house with products sourced directly from local farms, bakers and small-scale makers. Chappell's interest in sustainable entrepreneurship isn't new: his parents founded Tom's of Maine, one of the world's largest personal-care companies.

The 3,000 square foot store currently has 8 employees.

The new store will "plan to cover every category that Alpha currently does," and will add "a mix of prepared foods made by our in-house culinary team, as well as products from local foodmakers," breakfast items, and fresh flowers, said Chappell, who launched six years ago. "I think a grocery store is a vital part of a community, and I couldn’t be happier to put down roots in Cole Valley."

Based in Potrero Hill, Luke's Local competes with venture-backed online delivery services like Caviar, Munchery and Blue Apron. Such food-tech companies don't operate out of storefronts and are often funded by international investors, not local entrepreneurs, making them less connected to the communities they serve.

Saba plans to keep managing the 3,000-square-foot market and its staff of eight until he officially hands the keys to Chappell this fall. "It will probably take four months to transfer the liquor license," he said, noting that he also owns Cole Valley Pets, located a few doors north at 910 Cole. "It's easier to run."

Luke's Local will likely bring in an all-new staff, said Saba, since the majority of his crew are students "who'll find something else to do." One of his full-time employees plans to start driving for Uber, Saba said.

The news shocked Saba's customers, many of whom visit Alpha Market on a daily basis. "This is the first I'm hearing of it," said an elderly woman who stopped to ask why we were photographing the store. "I'm going to have to talk to Abe about this."

One at a time, Saba has been informing long-term customers about his retirement plans.

Moments later, she intercepted Saba as he crossed the street. After she pressed him for an explanation, he took her hand and explained the situation. "It's OK," he said, patting her wrist. "I'll still be around."

Author Steve Silberman, who's lived in Cole Valley for 37 years, got to know Saba when he purchased the market, and refers to him as "one of the hidden Buddhas of Cole Valley."

After Silberman relocated his elderly mother to the neighborhood, an Alpha Market employee named Anwar offered to deliver groceries to her home, he said. "His sweetness and caring during these weekly visits made her feel like a member of an extended family," said Silberman.

"In an era when so few neighborhoods really feel like communities in the old sense... Alpha has been one of the reasons why Cole Valley feels more like a village where the locals have your back when things get rough," said Silberman.

"I'll be sad to see Abe and company go, but am so happy he will get to enjoy some well-deserved R&R," said customer Ilana Minkoff, who added that the corner market's charm was one of the factors that made her choose to live in Cole Valley. "The corner of Cole and Parnassus looked like something off of a movie set."

Saba plans to stay on until the liquor license is transferred to the new owner.

Bruce Beaudette, a 20-year Cole Valley resident, said Saba has always made him feel welcome. "Abe is just one of those kinds of humans that gets along with everyone," he said, "and thus, everyone loves him back."

Over the years, a few notable events have broken the routine at Alpha Market: in March 1988, a crew shooting a "Dirty Harry" movie built its own fruit and flower stands out front for a sidewalk car chase down Cole St.

In December 2011, police responded to a 9-1-1 call about an armed robbery in progress and burst through the door, guns drawn. It was only after officers wrestled the robber to the ground that they discovered Saba had given another film crew permission to shoot a TV show inside the store.

Last fall, an errant driver plowed into the store's south wall, reportedly damaging a refrigerator case, knocking some shelf items to the ground, and startling customers.

"I'll miss the friendship of my customers, that's going to be hard, said Saba. "All my customers are very nice and friendly, and I never had problem with anybody, so I'll miss that."

Rick Karp, owner of Cole Hardware, said Saba and his employees "are irreplaceable neighborhood gems" who "greeted everyone with warmth and a smile, and always made time to chat with their patrons. The closing of the Alpha Market is a sad loss for the neighborhood."

To get to know the community, Chappell has joined a local online discussion group. Several Cole Valley residents have reached out with questions, and one has already asked him to cater an upcoming neighborhood fundraiser.

"The most important thing Luke's Local could do would be to listen to the neighborhood," said Silberman. "Talk to people, engage on social media, find out what the neighborhood really needs, and adapt its business model to fill those needs. That's what any successful local business does."

"I hope everyone can keep positive" while the changes unfold, Minkoff said. "A neighborhood is only a neighborhood when neighbors make that effort."


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