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  • Writer's pictureGwyneth Borden

The Beginning

Updated: May 28, 2019

Six years ago as I began to contemplate leaving IBM after 10 years, I started the exploration of what I wanted to do next. At the time I was also serving on San Francisco’s Planning Commission witnessing the beginning of a new Gold Rush in real estate development. When I joined the Commission in 2008, the real estate market was at a standstill and most of our time was spent rezoning large plan areas of the City and considering entitlement extensions for permits that were inactive due to the lack of financing (and market) for new development. Having been through the rezoning a good portion of the city -- Eastern Neighborhoods, Bayview Hunter’s Point Shipyard, Treasure Island and Park Merced -- I was acutely aware of the vision that had been set forth of a future with vibrant transit-oriented neighborhoods new and old, with activated ground floors with restaurants, retail shops and open spaces. Mixed-use zoning was the cornerstone of most of the plans -- ground floor retail below a highrise of housing and/or office. These active ground floors are seen as the key to creating community -- they provide amenities for residents and office tenants, create pedestrian activity and eyes on the street that contribute to an active streetscape.

However, what I began to notice from some of the early projects of the Market Octavia Plan area as well as other new high rise development, while the housing was coming online, the commercial ground floors were often an afterthought. Many ground floors sat vacant as developers focused on selling the premium real estate -- housing or offices. It often seemed like the ground floor commercial was only done because it was required, so forethought about spaces for restaurants, smaller retail tenants, and flexible uses was lacking.

And during my time at planning, two things began to happen; the rise of online retail impacting brick and mortar, and the desire for more restaurants -- even in neighborhoods that had previously set numerical caps on them. I have always felt that restaurants are critical in creating community. Restaurants are where the community meets -- whether for dates, celebrating the best and worse days/holidays of your life, attending an event for your local PTA and more. When people think of a place, a culture, their culture, food is often what most comes to mind. Restaurants are often emblematic of the time and place of their existence and with longevity become a vital part of a community’s fabric.

New buildings, no matter how they’re designed, rarely feel immediately part of a community’s fabric. However, with the right ground floor experience -- the building itself almost disappears as the ground floor integrates it into the community. This was my vision for my future company -- working with developers on the ground floor experience and I even met with some real estate developers to see if my idea had value -- it did.

Then my so-called “dream job” came my way; the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) was looking for a new executive director, and the chance to work in another area of passion, which consumed my disposable income -- restaurants -- was too good to pass up. For a little over five years, I got to work with arguably one of the best restaurant scenes in the world. During this time I saw the industry grow in size, scale, and prominence, while also tackling increased costs ranging from minimum wage and health care and higher labor costs due to the massive labor shortage, rising rents and more. Somehow San Francisco restaurants make it work with the highest labor costs in the nation -- but there are perils to this continued future. As costs rise, restaurants have to raise their prices and consumers aren’t always understanding of that reality. With industry profit margins being in the 4 - 6 percent range on average, any percentage increase in costs is untenable, and anything over 5 percent can mean the end.

At GGRA I worked hard at educating consumers, decisionmakers, bureaucrats and more about the importance of the restaurant industry to the local economy, its role in employing people at any skill level and the need to stem the tide of increasing costs from permits, fees, and other regulatory requirements and processes.

In addition to public policy efforts, there was much more -- 2 office moves, rebranding and moving SF Chefs, out local food festival, to become Eat Drink SF, the creation of the two-day Industry Conference and The Saucy Awards®, taking over SF Restaurant Week, operational changes ranging from website overhauls to instituting a customer relationship management system. All these things taught me a tremendous amount while building on my existing expertise.

But a year ago I became restless, I had spent 10 years at IBM because I hadn’t really thought about what next, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake with GGRA. I had committed 5 years, and that milestone seemed like a good time to move on. While there are always things to be learned, I really wanted to do something entrepreneurial and see if I could bridge the nexus of two loves -- restaurants and land use -- which brings me to Ground Floor Experiences.

Ground Floor Experiences is the culmination of my life experiences -- understanding the socioeconomic and political impacts of land use and the value that restaurants bring to that dialogue and to communities at large. Ground Floor Experiences is focused in three areas: 1) public affairs/regulatory and permit consulting for restaurants, 2) strategic advice for companies doing business in or with the restaurant sector, and 3) thought leadership public policy advice for those in the hospitality sector on positioning with decision-makers and the public.

It’s been a long journey, but I’m glad to be finally here. Will you join me on the ground floor?

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