Miki Werness, whose well acclaimed but financially troubled grocery store fizzled in Alma Village last year, will get another shot at success in College Terrace after the City Council agreed early Tuesday morning to approve him as the new grocer at the former site of the beloved JJ&F Market.
Following months of negotiations and several botched attempts, the developer behind the block-long College Terrace Centre development at 2180 El Camino Real finally succeeded in convincing the city that Werness is the city's best shot at matching the quality of JJ&F, a requirement that was key to the city's approval of the project more than four years ago.
The council voted 8-1, with Karen Holman dissenting, to approve Werness as the new grocer and included a condition that would penalize the developer $2,000 a day if the grocery becomes vacant.
The council's vote of confidence marks a fresh start for a seasoned grocer who launched his career in Palo Alto at the former Brentwood Market (now Piazza's) before moving on to manage the popular Monterey Market and Berkeley Bowl stores.
Yet his last venture fizzled in 2013 after just six months in operation, prompting him to declare bankruptcy. Many residents, including council members, blamed the failure of Miki's Farm Fresh Market in large part to the design of Alma Village, where the grocery store faced the interior parking lot and effectively turned its back to Alma Street.
The store shut down in April 2013 after six months of operation.
Several residents requested Monday that the city do more research into the viability of Werness' proposed operation before voting to approve him as the new grocer.
Doria Summa, who lives in College Terrace, noted that his only store in Palo Alto "failed quickly and catastrophically."
Lydia Kou said she found it disconcerting that most of the vetting was done by residents rather than city staff.
"While Mr. Werness has a background as grocer, and a fine one, we also have a history of his business not succeeding even with incentives," Kou said.
Holman shared some of the concerns brought up by the residents.
"I'd wish Miki nothing but the best of luck and a good future, but I don't think there's enough here to know whether there's the ability to attract vendors due to the prior bankruptcy," Holman said.
But the rest of the council generally agreed that the developer, Brian Spiers, has met the conditions that members imposed on Dec. 1, when they rejected the last bid.
Earlier this year, the proposed grocer was James Smailey, the son of one of the partners on the development team. The council struck down this bid in August, arguing that Smailey is unlikely to match JJ&F's quality.
A later proposal, that had Smailey leasing the grocery store but turned over the management to Uriel Chavez, whose family runs small markets throughout Northern California, including La Hacienda, Arteagas and Mi Pueblo, was likewise shot down.
On Dec. 1 the council blasted the bid to have a developer's son with no grocery experience take over market's operation, with Greg Scharff characterizing it as "nepotism," and specified that the market's lease should be signed directly by the grocer.
During a long discussion that stretched from Monday night to Tuesday morning, the council determined that its message was finally heard.
Councilman Greg Schmid noted that the popular JJ&F store also failed because of plummeting finances and noted that "people in grocery business have ups and downs."
Councilman Marc Berman agreed and said that to use Miki's failure as a "scarlet letter to keep people from doing business again is anathema" to the local culture.
"This is Silicon Valley," Berman said. "People fail in things they try."
Werness' store is expected to open in early 2016, Spiers told the Weekly. Werness said the store will include conventional items, organic and natural products, a deli, meals to go, comfort food, sandwiches, a meat department, a fish department and a bakery with goods made on premises. He also said he will "with every fiber of my being strive to make the store ... one of the best stores in Palo Alto."
Later in the meeting, after hearing residents' concerns, Werness spoke passionately about his bankruptcy in Alma Village and his desire to get another shot. Having to claim bankruptcy, he said, "wasn't an ego booster for me." But he noted that many of the vendors he dealt with at Miki's have known him for many years and have told him they would be happy to do business with him again.
The council agreed to move ahead, with only Holman dissenting because she said she needs more information before making her decision.
Scharff noted that the $2,000-per-day penalty offers a major incentive for the developers to find a store that works. And it's hard to argue, he said, that the developer did not follow the council's direction from the Dec. 1 meeting.
"I think this will be what the community was looking for in terms of a grocery store," he said.
The decision was one of several votes that the council took in a marathon meeting that was a protracted swan song for Mayor Nancy Shepherd, council members Larry Klein and Gail Price.
Later in the meeting, which began at 5:30 p.m. Monday and stretched well past 1 a.m. Tuesday, the council voted to expand the smoking ban to include commercial districts and outdoor dining areas; explore "fuel switching" initiatives that would wean residents off natural gas; and agreed to explore regulation of "share-economy" businesses such as Airbnb.
The council will not meet again until Jan. 5, when three new members -- Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Corey Wolbach -- are sworn in.