San Anselmo Chain Store Ban: How Would You Define Formula Retail?

The San Anselmo Town Council isn't done discussing if the town should restrict "chain" businesses in town. But before the topic goes behind the dais again, we'd like to hear your thoughts on what exactly the criteria should be for a chain/formula business


San Anselmo isn’t the only Marin town that has recently been looking at restricting chain stores (or formula-retail businesses) downtown.

For the past 14 months, the Mill Valley Planning Commission has been  to the city's commercial zoning regulations as part of efforts to keep business development consistent with the city’s character. Some of the proposed changes (attached at right) have garnered more attention than others, particularly a move to  and obtain a conditional use permit (CUP) to open downtown. That proposal, along with one to set a square-footage trigger for a (CUP), have  from the , and .

Meanwhile, San Anselmo council members still aren’t quite sure how the town could ban, or restrict, chain stores downtown.

After , the council had asked staff to provide more information on the subject.

However, when the topic , some councilmembers agreed they needed additional time to mull over a formula-retail ordinance.

The council may discuss a formula-retail ban at the end of September, according to Town Manager Debbie Stutsman.

Of the 50 , 78 percent of the voters thought the town should have some kind of formula-retail business ban.  

Now we’re thinking: What exactly is a formula-retail business?

A San Anselmo staff report provided the council with possible “formula-retail” definitions this summer, such as having 50 or more other retail establishments in the U.S.

Some council members weren’t sure if defining chain stores by a number would work. 

In June, , including the founder of High-Tech Burrito and one of the Red Hill Shopping Center owners, who were worried about formula-retail ordinance impacts.

High Tech Burrito Founder and President Greg Maples had told the council he was concerned High Tech Burrito would be considered a chain because there are 12 High Tech Burritos in the Bay Area.

Several council members agreed they wouldn't like to see a chain such as a McDonald's in town, but didn’t have a problem with a High-Tech Burrito opening downtown. 

We’re heard similar feelings like High-Tech Burrito but want the town to preserve its character and not be chock-full of chains.

Much of the chain/formula conversation in Mill Valley in recent months has centered around the  at 29 Miller Avenue. That effort  and was  and the .

But with more than 37,000 locations across the globe, Subway is a formula business by any definition. There's a lot of wiggle room between a mom-and-pop shop and the Subways of the world. 

Here's how the Mill Valley’s current proposed changes define a formula eating or drinking establishment: 

  • An establishment which, along with seven or more business locations, is required by contractual or other arrangements to offer standardized employee uniforms, exterior design, food preparation, ingredients, interior decor, menus, or signs; or adopts an appearance, food presentation format, or name which causes it to be substantially identical to another restaurant regardless of ownership or location.

Mill Valley’s current proposed definition for formula retail businesses is largely the same:

  • A retail business which, along with seven or more business locations, is required by contractual or other arrangement to maintain any of the following: standardized merchandise, services, décor, uniforms, architecture, colors, signs or other similar features. 

Fairfax and Sausalito, the only Marin towns with formula retail ordinances, have taken a slightly different approach. 

Fairfax (ordinance attached at right) did not set a minimum threshold for the number of locations, making any business with standardized branding and products a chain.

Sausalito permits chain outlets in five different sections of town, with certain criteria that must be met, including ensuring a new chain is not close to another formula retail in town. In 2010, the Sausalito City Council denied a request for a Peet’s coffee to open near the waterfront because of concerns it would pave the way for other chains.


So where is the line? How many locations must a business have to be considered a chain? Should number of locations matter? Should they be locally owned? And how do you feel about the standardization of uniforms, menus and branding? 

Tell us in the Comments below!


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RJ August 31, 2012 at 02:14 PM
There are enough chain stores within driving distance. Small, individual business owners should have their fair opportunity.
Elise Heitur Semonian August 31, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Consider a "Formula Business Exclusion District" for the original downtown areas and allow formula stores elsewhere. A lot of businesses that we like are "chain" or "formula" like Safeway, Ace Hardware (Corbetts), Peets and Wells Fargo.
Bob Hunter August 31, 2012 at 05:13 PM
In January 2013 small business will be standing in the doorway of a transformational opportunity. The rollout of Crowdfunding under The CROWDFUND Act will signal a new era of Marin and Bay Area consumer products and services businesses expansion. We should make room in our business communities for Bay Area based businesses to expand and create high quality jobs.
Tim Chatard August 31, 2012 at 05:16 PM
With so many shades of grey, is it a good idea to task the city council with making this type of judgement? UnionBank (formerly Tamalpais Bank) is a subsidiary of a $2.7 trillion asset Japanese financial group. Is that "small town"? Peet's will shortly be acquired by a multi-billion dollar German conglomerate. Should they be kicked out of town? Maybe we should let folks spend wherever they see fit, and let all businesses try to compete for those dollars. I bet local businesses would fare just fine.
Bob Hunter August 31, 2012 at 05:32 PM
Supporting local business with access to funding, consumer product incubators, improved transportation and parking, downtown pedestrian amenities, signature local events, amenities for bicylists, and community funding for our Chambers of Commerce; all will help to create more space for local businesses.
T McDermott August 31, 2012 at 05:34 PM
Chain stores tend to need more parking and increase car activity. Downtown should remain charming with stroll shopping and sit down eating. Specialty and niche, one of a kind items. I really would like to see more local artist of all mediums work for sale. Downtown should be the place to go for that special lunch or dinner like 'Comforts' or friends to meet like the coffee roastery. Those you have already and they are a good template, keep it like that. Keep the Mom and Pop store mentality, we all need more of it.
Shirley La Mere August 31, 2012 at 05:40 PM
The idea of a "formula business exclusion area" is a good one. Red Hill is, after all, a shopping center, and chains thrive there, while downtown San Anselmo has a very specific character. For local ownership to continue to prevail there needs to be some charter protection. The advent of the Goodwill resale, is a fine example of something that will inevitably drive one or two locally owned resale shops out of business.
Bob Hunter August 31, 2012 at 05:43 PM
Our local businesses also need help creating a robust online shopping experience that will supplement their storefronts, helping to make them stronger businesses. Chamber/Town sponsored workshops could greatly help.
David Edmondson August 31, 2012 at 09:42 PM
If San Anselmo moves away from the Highway Commercial zone, there might be a downtown-ization of Redhill Ave, and that's where the problems might come. The experience in DC (and anecdotally in San Anselmo) is that independent stores need small spaces, even if the rents per square foot are high, to thrive and survive. Chains tend pursue larger spaces with high overall rent but low rent per square foot. Though defining a formula store is important, a guideline that lets the Planning Commission and City Council force new retail spaces to be smaller would be another, really important tool in the toolbox.
Joyous September 16, 2012 at 03:40 PM
I believe that if more corporate chains enter the charming San Anselmo downtown area, the place will not attract folks who appreciate the small town atmosphere which is what Marin so well presents in all of the towns in the county. Strip malls and shopping centers that already exist should stay as they are including the Peets, Safeways, etc...but out of the small town streets! Since the Goodwill boutique "Georgie and Willow" came into San Anselmo, it sort of paves the road for a "Wally's" drug store in the disguise of a Wallmart! If Marin becomes a commercial , uninteresting place to go, it will be a loss of identity to the sweetness of the mom and pop charm of our county~ Also put the small businesses out of biz!


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