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To fight drug crisis, city may force Tenderloin stores to close earlier. Owners are outraged

A bustling night scene outside 'Plaza Snacks & Deli', with a crowd of people on the sidewalk.
Plaza Snacks & Deli, on the corner of McAllister Street, operates 24/7 as crowds gather around it at night. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Operators of corner stores in the Tenderloin are outraged that San Francisco officials may force them to close earlier as part of efforts to fight the city’s illegal drug markets. Smoke shops may also face tighter regulation. 

New legislation from Supervisor Dean Preston would make it more difficult to open smoke shops in the Tenderloin. Preston’s office says residents believe such businesses facilitate late-night illegal behavior. 

Meanwhile, conversations are reportedly taking place behind closed doors between Mayor London Breed and other city officials about a proposal to limit the hours of operation for some stores in the neighborhood. 

The city has cracked down on drug activity since last spring, making thousands of arrests and finding some success in cleaning up the Tenderloin’s streets during the day. But nighttime drug dealing and illegal vending persist.

Much of this late-night activity tends to congregate around stores that sell snacks, drinks and—more notably—pipes and torches used to smoke drugs. At least three of these businesses are open 24/7; others are open until 2 or 3 a.m.

‘The problem is the drugs, not the stores’

Store owners and staff are furious about the proposals. They say the problem is drugs, not their stores, many of which opened before the fentanyl crisis hit San Francisco. Owners contend the neighborhood wasn’t exactly a utopia when they arrived. 

Ameer Ahmed, who has worked at the Hyde & Turk Market for three years, said he worries that such changes could endanger jobs. He called proposed new regulations on businesses unfair, claiming they may worsen the neighborhood’s problems. 

“The problem is the drugs, not the stores,” Ahmed said. “If I don’t have a job, what do I do? I’d have to go to the street to make money.” 

A man stands smiling in a store aisle, surrounded by snacks and beverages, wearing gloves and casual attire.
Ameer Ahmed, who works at the Hyde & Turk Market, said he's against new regulations for businesses in the Tenderloin. | Source: David Sjostedt/The Standard

A few blocks away at New Princess Market, owner Willie Masarweh balked at the ideas—especially considering the issues Tenderloin business owners have dealt with. 

Masarweh acknowledged that some stores stock their shelves with drug paraphernalia, potentially making them complicit in the crisis. However, he said he still believes the answer isn’t to punish law-abiding business owners.

“If they came to my store and they saw my shelves were empty and selling nothing but a crack pipe, I’d understand,” Masarweh said. “But every drug addict is walking through the neighborhood with a torch and a pipe. If those stores didn’t have the clients, they wouldn’t have the product.” 

Masarweh noted that the city’s health department funds harm reduction programs that provide people with drug paraphernalia. He gestured around his shop, which closes at 2 a.m., pointing at groceries and other necessities that fill the shelves. 

“They’re going after retailers? What happens next?” he asked. “People are going to walk 10,000 blocks to buy milk?”

Preston’s proposal has passed through the Planning Commission and will soon be heard by the Board of Supervisors. But it still has to pass through the board’s Land Use Committee and then garner a majority vote from the full board before it becomes law. 

The legislation would effectively bar new businesses in the neighborhood from stocking more than 10% of their shelves with tobacco products—unless they receive special authorization from the city, which is likely to be costly and challenging to acquire. Similar restrictions are already in place on Haight and Polk streets. Existing stores would be exempt from the law.

A group gathers at night outside a brightly lit shop, with some on foot and others on bikes.
People gather at an unofficial night market outside Plaza Snacks & Deli shop in Civic Center. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Preston’s legislative aide, Li Lovett, confirmed that city officials, including Breed, are holding separate conversations about restricting hours of business for markets in the Tenderloin. But Lovett said those discussions are in the early stages.

“Businesses have been hurting, especially since the pandemic,” Lovett said. “So that becomes a whole other set of considerations.” 

Breed’s office wouldn’t confirm that such conversations are ongoing but said in a statement that it’s “working on a multi-strategy coordination involving city departments and the Tenderloin community.”

“We must disrupt and remove the problematic night markets harming our neighborhoods,” Breed’s office said.  

Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said he supports Preston’s legislation—as well as restrictions on store hours—because he believes the neighborhood is flooded with businesses that are complicit in the drug trade. 

“They open up these tobacco stores that end up being open 24 hours just to subsidize and help drug dealers,” Shaw said. “They just proliferated in the last few years, and they don’t have any viable business except from the dealers and the drug users.” 

One notable example, Shaw said, is the Plaza Snacks & Deli shop in Civic Center. Most nights, people engaging in drug activity and selling stolen products crowd around the shop. At its front counter, the store prominently displays torches and pipes used to smoke drugs.

A man working behind the counter, who identified himself only as Jay and said he was an owner of Plaza Snacks & Deli, said Wednesday it was unfair the city was blaming business owners such as himself for the street crises. 

“This area was not Hollywood before we opened the store,” he said. “Even if we shut down, the people will still be there.” 

David Sjostedt can be reached at