If You Build It, Will They Come?

By C.W. Nevius
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) An interesting look at some of the entrepreneurs who are opening up businesses in an unlikely neighborhood of San Francisco.

San Francisco Chronicle

Sunny Simmons and his wife, Caroline Smith, have an idea. They are opening a high-end, holistic spa, with acupuncture, healing massage and Japanese tea.
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In the Tenderloin.

Admittedly, the space is gorgeous. Simmons, a builder and contractor, bought a former auto body shop on Eddy Street and has transformed it with redwood shelving and doors and a communal bathing pool with a stone deck. It looks like an expensive Japanese spa.

In the Tenderloin.

Simmons and Smith think that when the Onsen Spa opens in October, they’ll attract a diverse clientele of office workers needing a healing massage, acupuncture treatment and, perhaps, a dip in the warm communal bath (swimsuits required). But Simmons admits it may be a new concept to some in the neighborhood.

“A lot of people in the community are not that familiar with bathing culture,” he said.

It’s a safe bet that many people in the Tenderloin have zero experience with spas, high end or otherwise. But this is an interesting moment in the TL. It has that vibe of an edgy, emerging neighborhood, which many businesses want to get into. But the timing has to be just right. Too soon and the customers aren’t there yet. Too late and … well, you’re too late.

Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and a neighborhood booster, thinks the spa is a terrific addition to the 400 block of Eddy Street, which he says is an example of how the area is improving. He cites the recently opened Black Cat Supper Club, which is also on the block.

“The Black Cat has been a huge success,” he said. “It is filled every night. Sunny and Caroline feel like if they provide something great, people will come.”

It isn’t as if they haven’t thought this out. One factor is that the location is near the Superior Court building and not far from the Federal Building. They are hoping to attract office workers, who may want to schedule a massage after getting a stiff neck after sitting at a desk and staring at a computer monitor all day.

“We see it as a place for bathing, treatments and food,” Simmons said. “Maybe people will stop in, drink a little sake and then go home.”

But frankly, Simmons and Smith aren’t sure who’s going to walk in the door.

“We are still discovering who our demographic will be,” Simmons said. “We think a big part of it will be female, and we think a lot of young people and Millennials will be interested.”

That’s fine, but it’s also pretty vague. As Shaw says, it isn’t enough to create a cool space and open the door. There needs to be a strategy.

He points to the Bulldog Baths Dog Resort, which opened in the spring of 2015 on Turk Street, another cheap square on San Francisco’s Monopoly board. The idea was that it would be a downtown spot for dog-sitting and overnight boarding. In a city that famously has more dogs than kids, it seemed like a sure winner.

But Shaw says the owner “never really had a marketing strategy. He did no publicity. He didn’t do anything to create interest.”

Nor, Shaw says, was there marketing research.

“Before we opened the Tenderloin Museum (in July 2015), we hired a company to do a survey to see if this was going to work,” he said. The dog-resort entrepreneur didn’t do that, Shaw said.

“Would you come to the Tenderloin for a dog facility?” he asked. “Who did he expect to be the market?”

Sure enough, Bulldog Baths closed in nine months.

Simmons and Smith haven’t done a survey either, but they do have a professional publicist and have reached out to nearby residents.

There’s another advantage — City Hall is not only interested in the project, it is also helping with it.

It began with Simmons blithely going to the city and saying he wanted to open a late-night massage parlor. As you can imagine, everyone from planning officials to the Tenderloin Station cops pictured a seedy joint offering hundred-dollar happy endings.

The Board of Supervisors took aim at those when it voted in 2015 to restrict the number of new massage parlors.

Jeremy Hallisey, director of special projects for the mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, helped find a way to clear that up.

“This is a very different kind of massage,” Hallisey said. “Supervisors Katy Tang and Jane Kim worked with us to resolve the issue.”

And why the Tenderloin? Simmons says he saw the space online and immediately wanted to buy it.

“My wife has lived here 10 years,” said Simmons, who has been in San Francisco a little more than two years. “And she was like, ‘Uh, the Tenderloin?’ But I did not have a clue.”

I’m betting he’s going to get one in about two months.

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