The controversy surrounding popular San Francisco sandwich shop Ike's Place is becoming a political hot pastrami.
In the race for lieutenant governor, incumbent Republican Abel Maldonado is trying to make the closing of Ike's restaurant on 16th Street a campaign issue, positioning the eatery's misfortunes as a failure of Mayor Gavin Newsom, his Democratic opponent.
"Mayor Newsom did not care," said Maldonado campaign manager Brandon Gesicki. "He had the ability and power to keep the business open and he didn't."
"Ludicrous," said Newsom campaign manager Dan Newman, who then referred the matter to the mayor's City Hall spokesman Tony Winnicker, who recounted a list of efforts he said were made by the city to save or relocate Ike's.
All of this might be chalked up to the typical gamesmanship of mid-October politics, except that Maldonado has obtained support for his attack on Newsom from a key player in the high profile sandwich drama: Ike Shehadeh, owner of Ike's Place.
Shehadeh said that Maldonado visited the tiny eatery as it was being dismantled last month and asked for permission to use Ike's Place in his campaign against Newsom.
"I said yes," Shehadeh said. "What happened to me has already happened to me."
What happened to Ike's Place might be one of the most unusual gastronomic success stories to hit the city – with a side of backlash.
Little more than a kitchen and a doorway, the sandwich shop amassed a legion of foodie fans that would line up for hours for a bite. Four upstairs neighbors said the crowds, along with noise and cooking odors, disrupted their lives. They complained to the city, which led to a lawsuit, stepped-up health department inspections, a planning department decision that Ike's needed a different permit, and eventually eviction by the building's landlord. Nearly 50 people worked at the shop.
Since closing on 16th Street, the restaurant recently started selling sandwiches out of Lime, a trendy lounge on Market Street in the Castro. But the shared arrangement (which Shehadeh said he is grateful to supervisor Bevan Dufty for forging) comes with limited hours and visibility. All those foodies have yet to find him tucked away in someone else's kitchen – business is off by nearly 35 percent.
Even so, Shehadeh isn't the type to complain. He's preternaturally happy, and when asked how things are going, even with the setbacks, he said, "Things are going phenomenally well."
So why get drawn into a political battle?
Perhaps it's because he now sees how things could have been, if events had unfolded differently in San Francisco. While he endured months of drama, legal proceedings, and inspections here, his business has flourished outside the city.
"I'm like a rock star at Stanford," he said, referring to his latest location on the university campus. "I got to meet the founder of Yahoo." He said the president of Stanford has also said hello. Silicon Valley's elite have welcomed Shehadeh, or at the least have been curious to meet the man behind all the fuss. Business is booming, and he has figured out an alternative for those who don't want to wait in line: a vending machine that dispenses an Ike's sandwich in three minutes.
Now that he sees how well his business can thrive elsewhere, it puts the hassles of San Francisco in a new perspective.
The mayor's office said it did what it could for Ike's, and Winnicker said he has empathy for Shehadeh and "the frustration that must come from a landlord-tenant dispute."
Shehadeh doesn't see it in those terms. While he agreed that the mayor's office has approached him with ideas, he said none were practical or viable – and when he needed assistance, he could not get answers or responses from city offices, including the planning department.
Earlier this month the city health department's investigations of Ike's Place were put into a new light by an interactive map created by the website Mission Loc@l. http://www.baycitizen.org/blogs/pulse-of-the-bay/how-clean-are-san-francisco-restaurants/ Despite all the complaints that played out in news stories, in the end Ike's received a score of 94 out of 100 – putting it in the top tier for cleanliness. Shehadeh has long maintained that the health department's high number of inspections were a form of harassment.
The Newsom-Maldonado race isn't the only campaign where the fate of Ike's Place has become a political issue. On Saturday afternoon at a meet-the-candidate gathering in a backyard on Walter Street in San Francisco, Scott Weiner, a candidate for city supervisor, faced local voters. The first question: "Where do you stand on Ike's Place?"
Not the economy. Not crime. Ike's Place.