By Lance Tisuela
Vas Kiniris is a charismatic, unreserved product of the San Francisco Bay Area, with a passion for progress and immersion. He serves as director of the Fillmore Merchants Association and secretary of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations.
“I tend to look forward all the time, I’m not one to look back,” Kiniris said. “I don’t want to put that on myself. You never want to rest on your laurels, you always want to look forward.”
Kiniris starts his mornings early in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland. After commuting to San Francisco, he has morning meetings at The Grove on Fillmore Street, then goes to his business, Zinc Details, where he conducts more meetings and catches up on day-to-day operations. His role in the SFCDMA takes him all around the city.
He immigrated to San Francisco from Greece at age 7 and grew up working at his father’s grocery store in the Mission district where he learned the value of community and small business.
“The fact is, small business is not just a place of commerce but also a place where community is solidified and formed,” said Kiniris. “The business manual for small business, that’s nonexistent! It’s based on human interaction and community. At the end of the day, it’s more than just to make money.”
During his time at his father’s grocery, he picked up customer service skills, and was able to communicate with people of all income levels and ethnicities. But he also yearned for a 9-to-5 job. Or, so he thought.
After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in architecture, he began working at firms both small and large, national and international. Ironically, this proved not the life for him.
“I got that 9-to-5 job behind a beautiful desk, with all the perks, and you know what? I’m just too much of a people person,” Kiniris said. “I hated it. I would literally fall asleep behind the desk,” he added with a laugh.
In search of a new avenue at age 24, he decided to return to small business and opened his store, Zinc Details, which specializes in products for the home, in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.
“It was always home, it was always furniture, it was always accessories,” said Kiniris. “But, what was different and unique was that it was a pare-down aesthetic.”
In 1994, he relocated his new passion project from the Tenderloin to the Fillmore district. The move was successful, and he opened his store to a more affluent demographic which afforded him more leeway to head in the direction he wanted.
“The space really reflects the retail landscape,” Kiniris said. “It’s much bigger, an event space, also a co-working space, as well as a design store. There’s a convergence of services and everything. It’s more than just a store, it’s a lifestyle brand.”
Zinc Details has been serving the Fillmore for 25 years and has transcended generations. Kiniris’s position in the community has transformed from simply a local shop owner and merchant to become a trusted champion of The Fillmore.
“Now, we’re servicing our original customers’ kids,” he said. “I’m really happy about it. After 25 years, we’re still relevant to the new consumer class, Millennials and even those in their 30s and 50s, so there’s a nice cross-demographic.”
Today, his involvement in The Fillmore community surpasses the doors of Zinc Details. For the past three years, Kiniris has been president of the Fillmore Merchants Association, the oldest of its kind in the city, celebrating its 110th anniversary. Kiniris “manages the affairs of the street, the vision, the collaborations and the membership to the association.”
The mission of the merchants association is to promote business and the merchant corridor and promote the entire street with safety and maintenance. But Kiniris’ vision goes beyond that.
“My aim is to stitch this community together,” said Kiniris. “Fillmore Street is like a spine and off the spine is Japantown, Hayes Valley. There’s Haight Street, there’s Sacramento Street, and these communities need to be stitched together.”
True to his devotion to Fillmore Street, he formed relationships with the local police department and graduated from the Community Police Academy, a 10-week course, in hopes of gaining better insight into the city’s police department, what they do, their challenges and how to be a better contributing resident of Fillmore Street.
“Security and maintenance are the most important things, because if the street isn’t clean and safe, you can’t have commerce,” said Kiniris.
His vision for The Fillmore is now his vision citywide. As secretary of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Association, his engagement with the city far exceeds Fillmore Street. The SFCDMA represents small business and the 30-plus merchants associations of San Francisco.
“My vision is to scale up what I’ve done in The Fillmore, such as best practices, mentor other associations and bring them into this family,” said Kiniris. “We need to harness the power of small business into merchant associations, because at the end of the day, they are very impactful.”
There are 90,000 businesses in the city and over half of them are small businesses. Kiniris intends to create workshops and marketing opportunities so that these neighborhoods are sustainable from a leadership and financial point of view.
Never the type to rest on his own laurels, he foresees progression in the way people direct their shopping habits, hoping that people support small businesses as opposed to the anonymity of large businesses.
“If we change 1 percent of our shopping habits, and direct it toward small businesses, that will create $100 million to the local economy,” said Kiniris. “What’s really impactful is that small business employs over 300,000 people in San Francisco.”
He used to favor dividing his private life from his business life, so he moved to Rockridge in Oakland. Ironically, he now feels that he needs to move back to San Francisco.
Regarding the future of The Fillmore, he had this to say:
“I don’t like making museums out of communities because I feel that stagnates cultural progress and cultural free thinking. It doesn’t mean we have to give up what we have now to move forward.”
Note: Kiniris closed the brick-and-mortar version of Zinc Details in 2018, just a few months after the author profiled him. This is an important reminder to beat reporters, photographers and storytellers of all ages and experience levels: Try to land that interview, that story while the window of opportunity remains open. You never know when it suddenly shuts.