Chain Stores

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Getting Started

Formula retailers (chain stores/businesses) are establishments with multiple locations and standardized features or a recognizable appearance. Recognition is dependent upon the repetition of the same characteristics of one store in multiple locations. The sameness of Formula Retail outlets, while providing clear branding for consumers, counters the general direction of certain land use controls and General Plan Policies which value unique community character and therefore need controls, in certain areas, to maintain neighborhood individuality (Section 303.1 of the San Francisco Planning Code).

Formula retail uses are commonly referred to as "chain stores." Under Section 303.1 of the San Francisco Planning Code they are defined as "a type of retail sales activity or retail sales establishment that has eleven or more other retail sales establishments in operation, or with local land use or permit entitlements already approved, located anywhere in the world. In addition to the eleven or more other retail sales establishments located in the World, maintains two or more of the following features: a standardized array of merchandise, a standardized façade, a standardized décor and color scheme, a uniform apparel, standardized signage, a trademark or a servicemark."In other words, retail stores with multiple locations and a recognizable "look" or appearance.

To determine if a use/establishment qualifies as a formula retail use, the Planning Department has created a Formula Retail Use Affidavit & Checklist. If a use does qualify as Formula Retail, then additional controls and regulations will apply depending on the zoning district where the proposed business will be located.

The formula retail definition includes the following types of uses:

  • Amusement Game Arcade
  • Bar
  • Cannabis Retail
  • Drive-up Facility
  • Eating and Drinking Use
  • General Grocery
  • Gym
  • Jewelry Store
  • Limited-Restaurant
  • Liquor Store
  • Massage Establishment
  • Movie Theater
  • Non-Auto Vehicle Sales or Rental
  • Pharmacy
  • Restaurant
  • Retail Sales and Service, General
  • Sales and Service, Other Retail 
  • Sales and Service, Retail
  • Service, Financial
  • Service, Fringe Financial
  • Service, Instructional
  • Service, Limited Financial
  • Service, Personal
  • Specialty Grocery
  • Tobacco Paraphernalia Establishment
  • Tourist Oriented Gift Store

It is recommended to visit or call Planning staff at the Planning Counter early in the planning of your project for help in determining if your proposed project falls under a Formula Retail use. 

We also recommend you contact the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) to confirm their requirements before submitting your applications. If your project requires a licensed design professional (architect or engineer) for the preparation of your building permit documents, then the same licensed professional must prepare the plans used for your planning application. To determine if your building permit plans require preparation by an architect or engineer, please contact the Department of Building Inspection at

Understanding What's Allowed

Formula retail uses are regulated by the San Francisco Planning Code. To maintain the character and purpose of distinct areas in San Francisco, the City's geography has been divided into distinct zoning use districts (view these zoning use districts on the San Francisco Zoning Map and Section 201 of the Planning Code). For each activity or use of land in any given zoning district, the Code states if that activity or use is either: Permitted; Conditional; or Not Permitted. Therefore knowing the zoning district of your property will help you identify what specific limits may apply to your project and which application materials you will need to submit.

You can find the zoning use district and height limits of your property on the Find My Zoning page, or directly from our San Francisco Property Information Map by entering your address or Assessor's Lot and Block number and click the "Zoning" tab.

According to the Planning Code, in specified zoning districts, formula retail uses are subject to additional regulations and processes than would otherwise not be the case for the same use in the same zoning district were it not a chain or "formula retail" store.

Here are the most common regulations a formula retail use will need to consider:

  • Pre-Application Process & Neighborhood Notification requirements
    Neighborhood Notification Process. If your project requires Neighborhood Notification, the Planning Department mails a notice alerting neighbors and neighborhood groups in the vicinity of your proposed project and they are given a period of 30 days to respond with concerns or to request a Discretionary Review (DR). Depending on the scope of your project, you may also need to provide a "Pre-Application Notice" to nearby neighbors, and/or you may need to hold a "Pre-Application Meeting." The triggers for the Pre-Application Process are explained in the Pre-Application Information Packet.
  • Formula retail subject to "Conditional Use Authorization" (CU) in some zoning districts
    For each activity or use of land in any given zoning district, the San Francisco Planning Code states if that activity or use is either: Permitted; Conditional; or Not Permitted. If you would like to conditionally permit a formula retail use, a Conditional Use Authorization Application must be submitted. Following submittal, your project will be reviewed by the Planning Commission at a public hearing. The Commission will make findings that your project is consistent with the San Francisco General Plan and promotes the general welfare of the City.
    • By a voter initiative in 2007 (Proposition G), formula retail use was made subject to a Conditional Use Authorization in any NC district, if not otherwise prohibited.
    • A Conditional Use Authorization is also required for formula retail uses in Residential Commercial Combined (RC) districts: RC-3 and RC-4, Urban Mixed Use (UMU), Mixed Use General (MUG) and Residential Transit Oriented (RTO) districts, and in the following Special Use Districts: Western SoMa, and Japantown.
  • Formula retail completely prohibited in some zoning districts
    As of May 2011, formula retail was prohibited in the Hayes-Gough NCD, North Beach NCD, and Chinatown Visitor Retail district.

Applying for Your Permit & Paying Fees

The Formula Retail Establishment Affidavit & Checklist must be submitted by any applicant seeking a permit for any of the uses that may be considered formula retail within those districts.

This page describes the controls on formula retail use mandated in the San Francisco Planning Code. If your construction project will involve other changes of use or construction, you should visit the how-to pages for those types of projects.


Inspections of permitted work is the responsibility of the Department of Building Inspection. DBI's Inspection Services page explains their inspection function.


Provided below are the most common handouts and applications that will get you started on your project.