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Just How Many Chain Stores Does SF Have, Anyway?

Scott Lucas | June 21, 2013 | Story Politics

On Wednesday, the SF Examiner reported that the staff of the Planning Commission recommended that Chipotle’s application to bring a restaurant to the Castro/Upper Market neighborhood be denied. And yesterday evening, the Commission voted 5-1 to deny the application, meaning that abstent an appeal to the Board of Supervisors, Chiptole will not be moving in.

The argument is that if a Chipotle were to go into the former space of Home restaurant, it would increase the concentration of formula retail—think Starbucks or CVS—past a desirable level in the area. Turns out the city has a policy of not allowing chain stores to open if they would increase the concentration of formula retail within 300 feet by more than 20 percent. The Planning Commission is expected to vote on the recommendation today.

On Wednesday afternoon, SFist published a thoughtful piece on the pros and cons of chain stores in the City. “We should probably be glad that restrictions are in place,” wrote SFist's Jay Barmann, although he noted that because of those restrictions, “going out to buy Vitamin Water and Tylenol can be a pain in the ass.”

We started wondering—just how many chain stores are in San Francisco? Compared to other cities in the United States, do we have a trickle or a flood?

So we put on our data analysis hats and flipped our envelopes to their back sides to construct an Index of Chain Retail to allow us to compare SF to other places. It's not peer-reviewed science, but it's a decent little measurement.

First the results, then the gory details.

Index of Chain Retail Concentration
(Higher Number Means More Chain Stores)

Berkeley 0.115
San Francisco 0.219
Dallas 0.261
Manhattan 0.267
Portland 0.365
Walnut Creek 0.400

Here’s what we did. Using Google Maps, we counted the number of certain stores from arbitrary chains within the city limits of the six cities above. We tallied up: Target, Chipotle, Wal-Mart, CVS Pharmacy, McDonald’s, Burger King, Home Depot, Old Navy, Subway, and Starbucks. Then we divided the total number of those chain stores by the population of the city. (The index is given per thousand residents, rather than per capita—it’s easier to read that way). A higher number means that a city has more chain stores per person. Like we said earlier, we wouldn't write our dissertations with this data, but for magazine science, it's ways ahead of the Cosmo Readers' Poll.

What did we learn? Well, by our calculations, San Francisco isn’t much of an outlier in either direction. We have a lower concentration of chains than either Manhattan or Portland. But, if we’re being honest, our numbers are much closer to those of Dallas than to those of Berkeley. Our comrades across the Bay in the People’s Republic scored way lower than anyone else—maybe because Walnut Creek is picking up the slack. Turns out that the city out on the other side of the Caldecott scores way higher than any other that we examined.

Some fun little facts emerged from our investigation. We have almost twice as many Starbucks per resident than Dallas does. But Berkeley has only one-fifth as many as we do. Portland is crazy packed with Subway Restaurants. And the kicker? If you want some Chipotle, head East young man. Manhattan has 34 compared to our nine.

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