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Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food: A Grocer's Guide to Shopping, Cooking & Creating Community Through Foodby Sam Mogannam and Dabney Gough
Creating Community through Food
I never wanted to be a grocery guy, but here I am. My dad and uncle had owned San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market since the 1960s, which for me meant a childhood spent stocking shelves, helping out, and generally serving as free labor. Starting at the young age of six, I would go home after school every day, pick up the dinner that my mom had prepared for me and my dad, and head over to the market, where I would work until the store closed at 9 p.m. The grocery business was hardly my idea of fun, and as soon as I left home I didn’t look back.
I found my calling in the restaurant world. I went to culinary school, cooked in Switzerland for a year, and continued to cook once I returned to San Francisco. I loved cooking, and I didn’t miss the grocery business at all. So in 1997, when my dad gave me the opportunity to take over the family grocery business, I initially said, “No way.” At the very least, I was hell-bent on doing something—anything—other than running a market.
Still, Dad’s offer piqued my interest. Just like him, I had entrepreneurial blood running through my veins, and at the age of twenty-nine was coming off of six years of owning and operating my own restaurant. With his offer, I immediately started visualizing the store’s potential as a restaurant space. I fantasized about gutting the store to put in a large kitchen and a spacious dining room. Dad nipped that in the bud, though. He knew how hard I had been working at my restaurant—the long hours, the less-than-healthy lifestyle—and he denied me flat out. “You’ll never have a family if you stay in that business,” he warned. (Like many fathers of childbearing-age adults, he was pushing hard for grandchildren. Which he eventually got.)
So no restaurant. I still refused to do a grocery store, so we began to think about other ways to use the space. We entertained all kinds of ideas; someone even suggested to Dad that we open a pet food store, so we kicked that around for about a week. After much debate and no ideas that really excited me, I caved. I agreed to take over the market and continue to run it as such, but under one condition: I had to do it my way.
The odds were against us. At that time, the neighborhood was hardly the trendy, vivacious, bursting-with-energy place it is today. The Mission has always been lively, but for a long time it was the wrong kind of liveliness. Dolores Park, just half a block from the Market, was home to junkies. Stabbings and shootings happened regularly. By the time I was twelve, I had been mugged twice on my way to and from the store.
Still, when we started our renovations in November 1997, one of the first things we did was take down the metal bars that covered the windows. What a drama that was! All these old-timers—people we hadn’t seen in years—came around and asked, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?” To me, those bars made the store feel like a fortress. I wanted the store to look inviting and welcoming, so I told myself (and those questioning bystanders), “I’m taking the bars off, and I’m just going to deal with it.”
The renovated store reopened on June 8, 1998. And it was crazy. My brother Raphael and I were partners in the business (he is no longer a partner but still works at the store), supported by six staff from my old restaurant and all the family members we could corral. I wore many hats in those days: I would go to the produce market in the morning, come back and cook for the deli, stock the shelves, and ring on the register.
In the beginning, we had no idea what we were doing. We made it up as we went along, running it like a restaurant, which turned out to be a huge advantage. And, it turns out, we reinvented the grocery store in the process.
I did know one thing from the very beginning. Coming from the restaurant world, I understood the importance of making things entertaining and treating the market as a theater of sorts. The flattering lighting, the upbeat music, the open kitchen and exuberant signage are all designed to create an energetic, fun vibe. I also knew that having friendly, informed staff would be key. So we hired former waiters for our “front of house” staff, and we expected them to know our food inside and out, just as they would at a restaurant. Even if they’re stocking shelves, their main role is always to inspire customers, put them at ease, and get them excited about good food. All with the overarching goal of making grocery shopping an interactive, fun, and enjoyable experience.
The product selection got a makeover, too. We revamped the offerings and got rid of products that my dad and uncle had carried for years—things like cigarettes and forties of malt liquor. It came as a big shock to some folks in the neighborhood. After we reopened, people would come in, take a look around, and eventually ask, “Ain’t you got smokes?”
We didn’t. We filled the shelves with things that I as a chef would want: pantry items like good wine vinegar and panko bread crumbs, farm-direct produce, and sustainably raised meat. Basically, it was a lot of the same ingredients I had used at my restaurant. I preferred these ingredients because they tasted better, not just because they were organic or local. That evolution came over time and happened largely because of the people around me. These were people—mostly our own staff at first, but more and more guests as well—who wanted to make a difference in the world, and they began to push me in ways that nobody had before. Our produce buyer, Simon Richard, had a huge impact on me. A farmer himself, he helped me see farming in a new way, and I gradually understood why organic and sustainably raised produce was so important. I owe him a lot for that.
Once I made the connection—that where produce is grown, how it’s grown, andwho is behind it are all just as important as flavor—it was easy to apply that thinking to all our products. It eventually evolved into a rigorous but informal set of criteria for everything we sold: Would we eat this ourselves? Would we feed it to our children? How was this raised, grown, or made? What was the impact on the environment? How are the workers treated? Can we feel good about that?
Often, the only way to answer these questions was to talk to the producers themselves. Not many grocers can say they are on a first-name basis with the people behind the products on their shelves, but we can. In addition, since we support so many local products, it’s possible to visit the producer and see firsthand how the products are grown or raised. We also taste nearly every product before deciding whether to sell it. Even meat, cheese, or bread with the most pristine provenance will not get very far with us if it doesn’t taste good. This process of evaluating and vetting products means everything that’s here is here for a reason. The products support each other and enable cooks to achieve their vision. This alone has done a lot to establish a sense of trust between us and our guests, because they know that if we carry it, it’s going to be good.
When we started making these changes, some guests grumbled about the higher prices that came with these more sustainable foods. We tried to help them understand the factors behind those price tags, including the lower yields (but higher quality) associated with organic farming. We worked hard to instill the idea that every grocery purchase affects the environment, the economy, and the well-being of the people who feed us. We talked about the true cost of food, including the hidden costs of subsidies (paid for by our taxes) and health care. In short, we all have the power to either contribute to the problem or be part of the solution. We all have the opportunity to make an impact every time we eat.
We’re about more than “service with a smile.” Although we have always prioritized hiring friendly, personable staff, to me, that’s just a small part of our customer service strategy. We treat customers like they’re visitors in our own home; in fact, we refer to them as “guests.” And rather than thinking about customer service as something limited to our frontline staff, we consider our guests in just about every decision we make. We’re a customer-directed business.
This, again, goes back to the fact that at the beginning, we didn’t know what we were doing. We knew we had reincarnated the market into the kind of place where we’d want to shop. But what about everyone else? For this reason, we knew it would be especially important to keep an ear to the ground—to listen and respond to guest requests, whether big or small. Other-wise, we’d have no way of knowing that there was demand for gluten-free cookies or additional bicycle parking. Constantly listening to guests, and constantly evolving in response to them, has been the number one key to our success.
There’s always more to learn. Education goes hand in hand with great guest service. That means constantly pushing ourselves to learn more and dig deeper about the products we sell. We regularly take our staff on field trips to farms, dairies, slaughterhouses, breweries, and more. The payoff is huge: not only does it give our staff a sense of how good food is produced, but also once they’re back at the store they can say to guests, “This is how this is made, and I know because I saw it.” That’s pretty unusual in this business, and it’s also a lot of fun.
Educating ourselves also means doing things ourselves. From day one, we’ve produced our own sausages, smoked salmon, and pâtés, which we sell out of the deli case. In 2003, my parents bought a farm in the former gold mining town of Placerville; from the orchard’s fruit, my mom makes jams, jellies, and preserves that we sell at the market. We also started growing our own herbs on the roof of the store, and more recently we added a couple of beehives. In 2008, under Simon’s leadership, we started our own mini-farm in Sonoma, just north of San Francisco, where our staff could actually get their hands in the dirt and grow vegetables. It’s fun, but also helps our staff appreciate and understand how much work goes into producing food. It’s an ongoing process; the more we learn, the more there is to know.
Educating guests is just as important. All that work that we do to research and vet products is lost if we don’t communicate it to guests. Telling the story of individual products is important to us. Sometimes we do that by chatting with guests. Signage is also important; we make our signs by hand and include all the key details about that cheese you’re considering: not just the kind of milk and where it’s from, but also what makes it special. In other words, why are we bothering to sell it? Why did we choose it? Why will you love it?
Tasting is another form of food education and the easiest and best way for us to share our own excitement about a product. We’re constantly putting food into our guests’ mouths, whether it’s a slice of American prosciutto or a sip of a great small-batch soda. We’re known for our produce samples—every day we offer precut samples of nearly every fruit we sell. It’s especially popular with our guests’ kids, who turn out to be some of our most discerning and loyal guests; many are so won over by our fruit that they won’t let their parents buy fruit anywhere else!
We are community. Nobody is anonymous in our store. It’s a lot like the bar inCheers—we’re the place where everyone knows your name. We encourage our staff to build relationships with our guests—to know not just who they are, but also what they like to eat, what they’re looking for, and what kinds of foods are exciting to them. This enables our staff to recommend and share new discoveries and creates an interactive, long-term dialogue.
We’re serving not only our guests but also the people whose products we carry. Some of our producers, like Ginger Balakian from Balakian Family Farm in Reedley, California, have been providing us with their amazing stone fruits since the very beginning. Others are newer. And when we find someone who’s making something that people aren’t familiar with, we’ll go out of our way to promote it and introduce it—passionately—to our guests. We often invite the producers to the store to give out tastes and talk about their product. This gives our guests a chance to talk to producers directly, ask questions, and put a face to where their food comes from. We encourage our staff and our guests to think about the connection to the producer, farmer, or rancher every time they eat; we don’t take for granted the hard work and dedication those producers have commited to feeding us.
It’s not just about connecting guests with producers. We have found other ways to support producers, such as our unique arrangement with Soul Food Farm. As a burgeoning farm, they had the best possible problem: they had more demand for their gorgeous eggs than they could supply. To scale up, they needed capital. So we loaned it to them, repayable through a steady supply of eggs and chickens for the next year. Sort of like a community-supported agriculture (CSA, or “farm shares”) arrangement, but with bigger volume and a single customer—us! And everyone benefited from it—Soul Food Farm, our guests, and Bi-Rite.
Over the years, we realized how important it was for us to facilitate these relationships between our staff, our vendors, and our guests—each one interdependent on the other for success. Our business was, in essence, a collaboration between these groups. We realized we couldn’t imagine doing business any other way, so we eventually formalized it as our mission: Creating Community Through Food.
Everything changed. Even in the early days, it was clear that we were on to something. The most obvious, easily quantified indicator was our sales. We set a first-year, admittedly ambitious goal of $1 million in revenue. We ended up exceeding that by 25 percent. By our third year, we did $3 million. After more than a decade, our business continues to grow by about $1 million a year. Our staff has grown, too—our little original crew of six has grown to well over eighty. (First-time visitors, upon seeing the store, are often shocked to hear that we employ that many people. The store really is that busy, and we want to maintain a good work-life balance!)
The store’s success has made it possible to grow the Market into a whole family of businesses. In December 2006, we opened Bi-Rite Creamery down the street to create a permanent showcase for the sugary talents of my wife, Anne Walker, and our business partner Kris Hoogerhyde. Our salted caramel ice cream—an intense blend of sweet, bitter, and salty—became an instantaneous hit; the line of guests eager for a cone wrapped around the block. In 2008, we started a neighborhood community center called 18 Reasons, an intimate venue that brings our community together with producers, activists, and innovators in the world of food. In bringing people together, we strengthen our bonds with one another and deepen our relationship to food. 18 Reasons has gained recognition across the city and nationally for its incredibly popular classes, art exhibitions, workshops, tastings, dinners, and lectures. A second Market and Creamery is slated to open by fall 2011.
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