Bi-Rite Market: Pioneer in the New Farm-to-Grocery Store Movement

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final_BiRite_Eat_Good_Food.jpg The first time I entered San Francisco's Bi-Rite market was to buy a couple of really bad tomatoes -- hard, pink, tasteless ones -- as props for a talk I was about to give. From a block away on 18th Street in the Mission district, the shop, with its glaring Art Deco façade, looked exactly like the sort of bodega or convenience store where you'd find such tomatoes in the produce section, and probably little else.

That misimpression vanished the moment I stepped inside and confronted counters mounded with heirloom tomatoes and festooned with hand-lettered signs telling which farms -- all local -- had grown them. And that was just the start. From the grocery aisle to the meat counter and deli in back, the cramped space was a cornucopia for all things sustainable and artisanal.

Most of us can only dream of dropping into Bi-Rite to pick up a fillet of wild Pacific salmon or a wedge of Red Hawk cheese from northern California's Cowgirl Creamery. But now the store's owner, Sam Mogannam, with co-author Dabney Gough, has encapsulated the Bi-Rite ethos between the covers of Eat Good Food: A Grocer's Guide to Shopping, Cooking, and Creating Community through Food (Ten Speed Press). The fat, photograph-rich book is part culinary manifesto, part recipe collection (it includes 120 for dishes like Spicy String Beans with Sesame Seeds, Ginger-Lemongrass Chicken Skewers with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce, and Apricot-Ginger Scones), and part insider's buyer's guide full of advice and tips for sustainable grocery shopping anywhere: "As a rule of thumb, the more detailed information you can get about the meat you buy, the more likely it is that you are making a good decision;" "The vegetable drawer is the perfect spot for cheese in your refrigerator;" "Look for dark, leafy greens that are unsprayed (look for a few bug holes for evidence)." If there is a downside to the book, it's that it is as jam-packed and hard to navigate as the store itself on a busy evening.

At a time when the farm-to-restaurant movement has all but become a cliché, Mogannam is a pioneer in what might be called the farm-to-grocery-store movement. Dozens of mini-profiles of producers are sprinkled throughout Eat Good Food. In the store, Bi-Rite not only showcases produce from northern California growers, taking staff members on tours of farms, dairies, slaughterhouses, wineries, and breweries, but also has its own farm in Sonoma. Chances are good that the herbs sold in the store were grown on the building's roof -- as local as you can get.

Mogannam is an accidental grocer. His father and uncle bought the store in the 1960s, and Mogannam spent the after-school hours of his boyhood stocking shelves and opening boxes. As soon as was possible, he enrolled in cooking school and got out of the place, eventually opening Rendevous du Monde, a restaurant in San Francisco. In 1997, his father approached Mogannam and asked him to take over the store. Mogannam's first reaction was "No way," but that eventually succumbed to a reluctant "Okay, but my way."

At the time, Bi-Rite's prospects did not look good. The Mission was a shabby neighborhood inhabited by more than its share of drug addicts. Stabbings and shootings were common. Mogannam had been mugged twice by age 12 on his way home from the store. Everyone said he was crazy when one of the first things he did as the owner of Bi-Rite was to tear out the metal bars that covered its windows. Next to go were core products like cigarettes and 40-ounce jugs of malt liquor. He replaced them with the high-quality foods he had grown accustomed to using in his restaurant. Customers not only came (business tripled by Mogannam's third year), but the neighborhood itself changed. Delfina, now a popular restaurant, opened down the street. Picnickers and families replaced junkies in nearby Delores Park. Crime dropped. And the area surrounding the market became one of the more desirable parts of San Francisco.

Eat Good Food makes a convincing case that sustainable grocery shopping is good for both customers and the community as a whole -- a concept that could work anywhere.

Image: Ten Speed Press.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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