An East San Jose convenience store’s simple application for a permit to sell alcohol has spiraled into a tangled knot of controversy and accusations of foul play.
The San Jose City Council on Tuesday denied a conditional use permit that would have allowed Fast Mart, a small store at 1484 S. White Road, to sell alcohol alongside its groceries and snacks.
The council’s unanimous vote came after a 90-minute hearing in which people associated with Fast Mart were accused of various questionable dealings including coercion and intimidation, while the store’s representative alluded to residents being tricked into opposing the permit.
The decision by the council overturned a Sept. 27 San Jose Planning Commission approval of the permit application from the store’s owner, Jitender Grewal. The store, under previous ownership, gained a reputation for selling alcohol to minors, and lost its state liquor license.
Grewal said previously he is committed to ensuring the store is run responsibly by instituting a host of security measures and policies. He said he needs the alcohol sales to help compete with other businesses.
“We’re licking our wounds,” Vincent Rivero, a San Jose real estate consultant representing Grewal, told San José Spotlight after the Tuesday hearing.
Grewal’s September permit approval was appealed separately by three different residents in early October, city reports said, including Amado Gonzalez, who owns a restaurant next to Fast Mart, as well as residents Maricela Bautista Barajas and Rob Kifer. The appeals were filed over concerns about it being too close to schools, and that alcohol sales at the store could increase crime or violence in the area.
However, all three appeals were apparently withdrawn, via letters city officials received from the Fast Mart team, with signatures from the residents who filed the appeals. Gonzalez’s withdrawal letter wasn’t filed in time, so the city considered his appeal at the hearing.
Rivero, at the hearing, said Barajas was misled into filing her appeal under false pretenses.
“A non-English speaker got approached, then got driven down to City Hall, and she filed an appeal. And she’ll tell you her story and it breaks my heart,” Rivero said.
Barajas spoke at the meeting through an interpreter, and said someone she didn’t know came to her house and asked her to sign a paper against vandalism in her neighborhood. She said she actually supports the permit for Fast Mart.
Kifer sent a separate letter to planning officials in late October that contained a host of serious accusations, including that a woman named Harkamal Grewal, the name of Jitender Grewal’s wife, came to his home with two men after he filed an appeal. Kifer wrote that the woman flashed a county employee badge at him, and said she works for the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, and is investigating an “unlawful appeal” he filed.
Another person flashed a city of San Jose badge, and told Kifer to come to Fast Mart with them or they would have him arrested. He said he went there, and they offered him free drinks and snacks. He signed his name to a paper without reading it under duress.
“I was having a panic attack, and I basically wanted to leave (as) quickly as possible, as I got really scared and turned off my phone,” Kifer wrote in the letter. “This liquor license should not be granted at this location especially for business bullies like these people.”
District 5 Councilmember Peter Ortiz, who represents where Fast Mart is located, highlighted Kifer’s letter during the meeting.
“It is alarming to read that there were alleged tactics of intimidation used to interfere with a municipal process meant to provide any resident the ability to speak against proposed projects in their community,” Ortiz said.
He asked city officials if they followed up on the accusations Kifer made. Planning officials said they confirmed no city employees had visited Kifer’s home, and said when they reached him he didn’t want to continue with the appeal, as he doesn’t live in the area anymore.
Rivero told San José Spotlight that Harkamal Grewal does work for the county, and visited neighbors near the store with her husband to explain their permit application goals. However, Rivero denied they visited homes after any appeals were filed, and said Harkamal Grewal strongly denied ever showing a county badge to anyone.
“No one is coercing anybody here in this democratic process,” Rivero said.
Rivero called Kifer’s accusations “damaging” and “slanderous,” and said it was concerning that Ortiz only focused on Kifer’s accusations, while seemingly ignoring Barajas’ story. Rivero said Ortiz should push for a full investigation into all the claims made.
Ortiz was ill and unable to comment for this story. Mayor Matt Mahan was unavailable for comment, a spokesperson said.
At the meeting, Mahan said he heard enough concern from residents and neighbors about alcohol sales at the store to deny the permit. Other councilmembers, including District 10’s Arjun Batra, said they were deferring to Ortiz’s judgment on the issue.
In wake of the council’s decision, Rivero said Grewal will consider other options, including offers from people who want to open a smoke shop or a lounge on the site, but next steps aren’t immediately clear.