SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - Chai Saechao didn’t go to school for business. He says his expertise comes from 10 years of running and managing various Starbucks stores throughout San Francisco.
The 29-year-old entrepreneur, is a long-time Tenderloin resident. He and his partner Tony Stapor opened their business, Plant Therapy, three months ago at 687 O’Farrell Street, in the neighborhood they call home.
“I thought about what makes me happy,” said Saechao over the phone. He’s always been hesitant to accept a challenge, but when friends told him things like, “you’ll have issues” or problems with a Tenderloin storefront, that made him want to do it even more.
“All my customers are all different types of people. Most of them have lived here 20 years or more. Most of my customers are Tenderloin residents,” he said.
His friends’ advice comes with the territory. A recent New York Times article called, ‘Life on the Dirtiest Block in San Francisco’, included descriptors like, “crack tree” and “Land of the Living Dead.” It even warned that you’d have to “hold your breath” when walking around—mostly referring to open drug use, human excrement on sidewalks and the city’s homeless crisis.
That all may seem obvious or even offensive to dwellers of the ‘Loin, who are familiar with the long-standing reputation, but the urban jungle Saechao offers is that of a different kind. His is more therapeutic.
“I live in a studio with my partner and with 200 plants,” said Saechao. His storefront’s Instagram is full of lush succulents, potted leaves of green and vine appendages stretching outward, seemingly co-existing with the chaos.
The interior greenery is so much he has to keep some plants outside.
“There’s no room for all of them. A month ago, I did get some plants stolen. It happens. It’s not the end of the world. I hope they are enjoying them.” People have told them they need to chain the plants down, but that’s not the message he wants to convey. He wants people to feel trusted.
For all the neighborhood’s criticisms and hardships, Saechao is optimistic. He thrives on the energy and diversity of his neighborhood. "There’s a lot happening. I can do a lot of things here."
At one point he gave the Richmond District a try, but he only lasted six months. It was “too quiet” and “far away from everything.”
In the Tenderloin he's more at home. “I feel like it’s a lot of people hustling to survive.”
Some would say these are the gentrifiers. Saechao doesn’t see it that way.
“Me and other businesses are trying to make it better— trying to do what we love and build.”
When trying to build community, he said you need to grow to help build stronger relationships.
He takes the Tenderloin up on its many food offerings; Sai Jai Thai, Lee’s, Saigon Sandwich, and is always up for the Farmer’s Market.
New York Times may have focused more on the negative, but Saecheao is basking in compliments on his storefront from people who tell him he’s making the Tenderloin more beautiful.