[Update 9/22/17: We are sad to report that Gus Vardakastanis was struck by a car and passed away today. Our condolences to his family and staff. The stores do remain open for business.]
A new addition came to the Mission last January – with a sidewalk of brightly colored produce seemingly chasing away dreary winter rains. Called Gus’s Community Market, this store at 2111 Harrison @ 17th is the third such venture owned and operated by the Vardakastanis family.
Gus, the namesake of the new store, has a Greek birth certificate that actually states his first name as “Konstantinos.” Gus has been working in San Francisco grocery stores since he was a teenager, when this son of farmers emigrated from the Greek island of Zakynthos.
After seven years of hard work and garnering knowledge on how to run a small business, enough money was squirreled away to open Haight-Ashbury Produce, which immediately becoming a neighborhood staple. Though twice the size of the usual corner markets found in San Francisco, this larger space has been able to offer more variety while still providing neighborly service. The same was true of a second store opened by the Vardakastanis clan in 1985 in the Outer Sunset.
When looking to expand in 2015, a 12,000-square-foot Mission Creek location was found in an area where manufacturing is being transformed into residential spaces. That’s when Gus’s and MEDA partnered to ensure that community needs were being met by this new small business. Involvement from Vardakastanis sons Dimitri and Bobby also occurred.
The good news is that Gus’s Community Market has turned out to be an ideal community partner.
One item put forth by MEDA was that Gus’s employ local residents for the store by joining with the nonprofit and three other local hiring agencies. A local-hire number once at 50 percent has quickly risen toward the requested 80 to 85 percent, with the store even hiring three monolingual Spanish speakers.
“I was pleased that Andrea Leonard, who works in Gus’s human resources department, was open to having me translate for MEDA’s Workforce Development monolingual interviewees. These are dedicated workers looking to better their lives, and they can definitely take on jobs as stockers and food preparers,” explains MEDA Workforce and Tax Specialist Ernesto Martinez.
MEDA requested that there be competitively priced, affordable goods, so that the community’s low-income residents could shop at the market. The goal was to also have discounted items each day. Additionally, Gus’s stated that they would include culturally relevant offerings for the Mission’s longtime Latino community.
Another area of interest for MEDA was to be able to avail workers of the free asset-building services offered at the organization. States Martinez, “MEDA has been invited to soon come to Gus’s Community Market to speak with their employees about our free programs, such as Financial Capability, Housing Opportunities, computer training, GED and ESL. The owners’ willingness to do so shows that they care about strengthening families.”
With regard to charitable giving for the betterment of the community, Gus’s agreed to offer the same philanthropic program as at its other stores: for each customer who signs up for the program, Gus’s donates 5 percent of the value of that customer’s purchases to a local school.
To further engage with the community, MEDA also suggested that Gus’s sponsor and support this year’s Carnaval event in the Mission. The store did take part, reveling in the day’s joyous celebration that takes place in proximity to the market.
“MEDA is glad to welcome Gus’s Community Market to the neighborhood. We acknowledge the owners’ efforts to immediately become part of our Mission community. This is a win-win situation!” sums up Martinez.