Ritchie: The Original Joe’s Index
Original Joe's in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Frank Andre.

    No, this is not about the cholesterol, but a metaphor. Although I do hope my cardiologist does not subscribe to this column.

    I spend each week drifting between San Jose, San Francisco and Santa Cruz for my business life, as well as community, political and social events. It’s also a great cover for a surfing habit in Santa Cruz two to three afternoons per week, blended with commercial brokerage in that most interesting and incredibly innovative city. Go Joby.

    As I am often out on my own—single father, daughters in SF, partner girlfriend in Orinda—I take to the various classic lunch and dinner bar counter spots. I am more of a comfort food guy than being into the somewhat exhausting foodie pursuit. I am not alone in this preference: the two northern Original Joe’s in North Beach and Westlake—Daly City—are post-COVID phenomena with record-breaking revenue after a clever refresh some years ago by the new generation family owners.

    The OJ’s in San Jose is much more traditional and still recovering post-COVID. Might want to 86 the chicken livers, just saying. I also discipline myself to not eat at Original Joe’s unless I have been, in fact, surfing beforehand to manage the dangerous venn diagram of health and the comfort food martini dinner. On my San Francisco business days I will wander into infamous Tadich Grill or The Royal Exchange, my city office is by no coincidence on the same block on California Street.

    There is no better source on the return to office trends than the bartenders and servers at these types of establishments. Like hairdressers, they really know more about the pulse than any economist or politician. The good news is, notwithstanding the existential disaster that is the office space market, I think it’s safe to say we are finally in a stasis. That is, the work from home pajama army is not growing, and the often griping return to office ranks are slowly expanding.

    If we can blend this with a pause on interest rate shocks, perhaps the central business district economies will find a tide that is settled instead of the COVID-to-war-to-interest rate shock tsunami we have all endured. With a steadier mix, all things will adjust at the new (markedly) lower values and rents, then I will wager we will start a post-AI boom all over again.

    But the OJ’s Index is also a metaphor for what it means for people to congregate for work and pleasure in the center of cities. This has gone on since the colosseum was built in Rome. In spite of the technical abilities of today we are still mostly social animals. The longer the giant tech employers slice and dice the endless return to office vs. work from home studies and arguments, there is no doubt that more gets accomplished face to face.

    There may always be a contingent of remote workers who choose to rarely patronize the outside world, but at some point when the last kitchen utensil is reduced to that one pair of scissors to open the frozen Trader Joe’s bags, there might be even more capitulation.

    We may even see a new golden age in city centers with a coming wave of unimaginable new uses for retail and office in the entertainment, immersive, theatrical and general extravagance space. Think Meow Wolf. Maybe throw in a couple of mechanical surf parks for fun before pickleball consumes us all.

    So may we all enjoy our individual forms of the OJ’s Index and remain more connected as humans than on a flat screen only.

    San José Spotlight columnist Mark Ritchie is the owner of commercial real estate brokerage firm Ritchie Commercial, and has spent his entire career in commercial real estate. His columns appear every second Wednesday of the month. Contact Mark at [email protected].

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