Flying Falafel approved for Castro location after sparking neighborhood controversy

Flying Falafel approved for Castro location after sparking neighborhood controversyYIMBY Action board member Steven Buss (front left) with Flying Falafel's Assaf Pashut (center) and YIMBY advocates. | Photo: YIMBY Neoliberal/Twitter
Steven Bracco
Published on October 30, 2019

Local falafel purveyor Flying Falafel is officially set to open in the Castro, after winning approval for a change-of-use permit before the Planning Commission last week.

Owner Assaf Pashut says he hasn't settled on an opening date for the 463 Castro St. location (formerly home to Outfit and All American Boy), as he's still focused on the recent opening of Flying Falafel's new FiDi location at Sutter and Kearny streets.

The falafel-centric eatery also has outposts in Mid-Market (1051 Market St., at Sixth Street) and in Berkeley. 

Flying Falafel will be opening at 463 Castro St. | Photo: Steven Bracco/Hoodline

In recent weeks, Flying Falafel became something of a cause célèbre for local YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) activists, due to efforts by neighboring restaurant Gyro Xpress to slow down its city approval process. 

Cem Bulotogule and Volkan Akoglu, Gyro Xpress' owners, filed a request for discretionary review with the Planning Department, aiming to prevent the space's used from being changed from retail to a restaurant.

In their request, the pair expressed concern about the loss of a longtime retail space, and the addition of a fourth falafel restaurant on the block (alongside Gyro Xpress, Park Gyros and Rossi's Deli).

While the Castro Merchants ultimately endorsed Flying Falafel over Gyro Xpress' objections, the restaurant's attempted intervention drew the attention of a group of activists from "YIMBY Neoliberal," a subset of the political organization YIMBY Action, which advocates for zoning reform for both homes and businesses in San Francisco.

In a blog post, YIMBY Neoliberal member Dana Beuschel called the discretionary review request "a brazen attempt at rent-seeking, padding Gyro Xpress’s profits at the expense of falafel connoisseurs." 

To express support for Flying Falafel, 10 YIMBY Neoliberal members attended the October 24 Planning Commission hearing (rescheduled from October 10 due to improper display of the required notification sign).

At the hearing, Flying Falafel's Pashut explained he'd been seeking a new location in the Castro or Mission for about a year. "We feel like we're a very different restaurant and we'd be adding a lot of value," he said.

"Gyro Xpress should be ashamed of themselves for using the planning process to choke off competition," said YIMBY Action's Daniel Cohen, taking bites of falafel as he spoke at the podium. He also called for discretionary review to be abolished entirely in San Francisco.

Commissioner Katherin Moore interrupted Cohen at one point to request that he speak more clearly, and not talk with his mouth full.

YIMBY activist Daniel Cohen eating falafel while speaking in support of the restaurant. | Image: SFGovTV

YIMBY Action board member Steven Buss told Hoodline that members of his group attended the meeting because Gyro Xpress' actions were "a terrible abuse of the planning process."

"It's not against the rules to eat food at the podium," he added.

Gyro Xpress has recently been the victim of multiple one-star Yelp reviews that echo YIMBY Neoliberal's stance. Buss denied any knowledge of or involvement in the reviews.

Gryo Xpress also got its turn at the podium. Jeremy Paul, a representative for the restaurant, asked the Planning Commission to consider the health of the neighborhood.

"Is the Castro going to become a fast-food mecca, or do we want to keep a lively mix of uses?" he asked. 

Paul said that Gyro Xpress supported the addition of Flying Falafel to the neighborhood, but requested they preserve 463 Castro as a retail space, and move into one of the many limited-use restaurant spaces in the neighborhood that are currently vacant.

Former Castro Merchants president and Mudpuppy's co-owner Daniel Bergerac echoed Paul's comments, noting that while he thinks Flying Falafel "would be awesome in the neighborhood ... currently in the Castro, we have 14 empty food service locations of all different sizes and all different shapes."

"At a certain point, you have to ask, what are we offering people when they come to the neighborhood? ... If it's just limited restaurant after limited restaurant, we're really gonna die."

Assaf Pashut (with window wiper) outside Flying Falafel's third location at 211 Sutter St. | Photo: Flying Falafel/Facebook

Ultimately, the Planning Commission voted 3 to 1 to reject the change of use request. Commissioner Frank Fung was the only member to vote in Flying Falafel's favor, while commissioners Moore, Dennis Richards and Joel Koppel opposed its plans. 

"Our neighborhood is probably one of the worst places to go for any retail experience," said Richards, who also requested Flying Falafel utilize one of the Castro's existing restaurant locations. "The Castro is a retail desert, and the neighborhood is in a death spiral."

However, Commissioners Myrna Melgar and Milicent Johnson were absent for the vote. Because Planning Commission rules require a minimum of four votes to deny a change of use, the project was approved on a technicality. 

After the hearing, Pashut told Hoodline he still feels welcome in the Castro, and he doesn't see Gyro Xpress as enemies.

"The vast majority of people want us there," he said. 

Indigo Vintage operated a month-long pop-up at 463 Castro St. | Photo: Steven Bracco/Hoodline

As Flying Falafel continues to work through permit approvals, Pashut says he'll be looking for a pop-up tenant to occupy the space. 

Indigo Vintage, a co-op of vintage clothing vendors, had been using the space for a pop-up store. When it opened in September, owner Mel Willis told Hoodline that she was considering opening a permanent location in the Castro if things went well. 

But after a month in the Castro, Willis closed the pop-up on October 7. She plans to refocus on her Berkeley and Haight locations, she said. 

"Although most people were very welcoming, we have experienced some push-back, aggression that has made a huge impact," said Willis, who declined to specify in more detail.

We'll keep you posted on Flying Falafel's planned opening date, as well as any pop-ups that drop in in the meantime.