Bi-Rite Offers San Franciscans a Marketplace to Grow In
Story contributed by Polina Selyutin.
Bi-Rite, a grocery market nestled in the heart of San Francisco's hip Mission district, has been owned by Sam Mogannam's family since the 1960's. In 1997, when he reluctantly agreed to take over the family business, he decided to run the market his way. His way involved hiring and training staff to be educated and passionate about food, creating a fun environment, and selecting food with meaning. Fourteen years later, in Sam’s new book, “Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food”, Sam tells the history of Bi-Rite, his passions and advice for purchasing and cooking good food. Sam’s criteria for stocking the market based on “would we eat this, feed this to our children, how was it raised grown or made, impact on environment, how are workers treated”, is the foundation of his purchasing decisions and in his book, he offers valuable advice on how to shop for food based on this criteria.
Sam ensures his passionate staff are educated and informed about the food so they can develop their own inspiration and knowledge they will in turn share with customers. He encourages the staff to develop relationships with customers, takes staff on visits to farms, dairies and slaughterhouses, and allows staff to work on Bi-Rite’s farm in Sonoma to form an understanding for the hard work required to produce food. Bi-Rite is also committed to educating consumers. Every-other Monday during the local growing season Bi-Rite sets up a tent with a farmer and Bi-Rite staff where the farmer can sell their products directly to the customers in an intimate and relaxed environment. When Sam discovers new vendors he respects, he passionately promotes their products at Bi-Rite. Note cards next to products at Bi-Rite create a connection between the vendor and customer by offering suggestions on how to pair the product with other foods, and provide charming details about how and where the product was made. Sam wants his customers to think about their connection to the food producer, and how a product is made every time they eat.
While always promoting the connection between customers, vendors and staff, Bi-Rite’s mission of ‘Creating Community through food” evolved naturally. Along with successfully managing Bi-Rite, now a thriving business with 80 staff members, and annual sales increasing by one million every year, Sam is further building his San Francisco foodie rock star status by supporting the community through 18 Reasons, a non profit he founded to engage the community through food and art. 18 Reasons holds weekly events with the purpose of “deepening relationships to food and to each other”. The nonprofit works with producers, policy makers, offers cooking and gardening skills and works with kids to teach them about the importance of food in sustaining their lives. Recently, “18 Reasons hosted a week long summer camp for 8 to 10 year olds where they learned to tend to chickens and sheep, to make cheese and ice cream, pizza dough and tomato sauce, culminating in a delicious meal they all helped to prepare and serve on the final day.”
Sam believes and promotes the idea that customers can make an important and daily impact based on their food purchasing decisions. This simple concept is easy to forget since modern grocery stores have disconnected buyers from the farms and producers of merchandise. Today, few people know where their groceries come from and the impact to our environment from food produced unsustainably. As education increases it will be harder for customers to continue to support the status quo without questioning the consequences of a corporate food production chain dependent on pesticides, corn subsidies and genetically modified crops. Sam cares deeply about these issues, and is committed to supporting a sustainable food system.
Bi-Rite’s success has also spread to Bi-Rite Creamery, located a few doors down from Bi-Rite and operated by Sam’s wife Anne. The creamery sells ice cream and baked goods and is also committed to using local and organic products and operating sustainably. Fans of the Creamery rave about the unique flavors such as the salted carmel ice cream. The Creamery's 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars on Yelp from over 4,000 reviews, are an indication of the adoration the shop inspires from it's customers.
Residents of San Francisco’s NOPA neighborhood eagerly await the opening of a second Bi-Rite in their neighborhood. The decision to expand was not an easy one. “What we created on 18th street took 14 years to make and is still evolving. My biggest fear was trying to replicate, and when we came to the realization that replication wasn't paramount and that Divisadero would have its own personality, I was able to relax and feel better about the decision. I am also concerned about diverting my attention and the attention of my entire team away from 18th street. The last thing we want to do is have a negative impact on our current community, our staff and our vendors by splitting our attention. And I’m concerned about preserving the fragile balance I have created between my family and work life. My daughters Zoe (8) and Olive (4) are still young and I want to be a good father to them and a good husband to my wife Anne,” expounds Sam.
To the Mogannams, the best part of owning Bi-Rite is “the people”—the staff and vendors are like family. For entrepreneurs hoping to start their own markets, Sam has this advice “Be really clear on why you are doing it, have a well defined mission, vision and set of core values. Be ready to work hard and to love every minute of it. You must love to feed people and to serve them selflessly and to find fulfillment from this. Hire staff that share your core values and who are passionate and capable of learning and sharing.”
Bi-Rite Market is located at 3639 18th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Bi-Rite Creamery is located at 3692 18th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
18 Reasons is located at 3674 18th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Online at http://biritemarket.com
Contributing writer Polina Selyutin lives in San Francisco, spends her days as an operations manager, and her nights enjoying the city. In her free time, she is dedicated to finding ways to live sustainably, while supporting and promoting the fearless and innovative leaders who run sustainable businesses in the Bay Area.