Can Bi-Rite Market put the soul back in grocery retailing?

Can Bi-Rite Market put the soul back in grocery retailing?

Grocery shopping can be a daunting task. And I’m not alone in this sentiment: I just spent the last two months traveling the country asking consumers about this very topic.

Although I enjoy cooking, I have found myself finding ways to not step into a grocery store. I have my milk and eggs delivered and I belong to a CSA. Aside from having no time and a phobia for crowds and parking lots, I wasn’t quite sure why my interest in shopping had dwindled. That is, until I walked into Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco’s Mission district to interview the store’s owner, Sam Mogannam, who is also co-author of Bi-Rite Market’s Eat Good Food: A grocer’s guide to shopping, cooking, and creating community through food.

The reason I don’t want to grocery shop is that the stores available to me have, in a way, lost their soul. Despite their efforts, they aren’t truly connecting to their shoppers or community.

It’s hard for chains such as Whole Foods Market to truly integrate into a community. And there are many chains in Boulder, Colo., where I live. It doesn’t matter how many times I shop at any one store. No one will ever know my name or my preferences.

There are two independents in Boulder: Lucky’s, which is not specifically a natural products retailer, and Alfalfa’s Market, which recently reopened after being bought out years ago. The latter is focused on local, but the store hasn’t found its groove yet. When I walk into Alfalfa’s, I don’t feel like I did at Bi-Rite.

Transforming the grocery store into a home

Bi-Rite Market was once a neighborhood convenience store with bars on the windows. When Sam Mogannam took it over (it had been in his family for years), he transformed it into a neighborhood community hub with food as its drawing card. Completely unassuming from the outside (the flowers give you just a hint of what’s inside), walking into the Bi-Rite store feels like home, which is exactly how Mogannam wants you to feel.

Trained as a chef, Mogannam brought the restaurant perspective to the grocery world, making Bi-Rite a cooks' store. He wanted to help people succeed in making a great dish at home and to know how to pick out great ingredients. To do this, the store doesn't offer too many options, which is what can make shopping overwhelming for many consumers.

"Before long," Mogannam said, "we realized that in addition to feeding people, we were teaching people. Our role and our mission is to create community to food and we do this by feeding and teaching our community about the importance and the value of our food."

But education isn’t cheap or easy. "It takes a lot of people to really get all the information that’s necessary in order to understand the full picture of every product that you have. And it takes a huge investment. We are 2,700 square feet and we have 100 people working for us because we have made this investment. And as a consequence our costs are higher and you know what? It sucks to be told that you are more expensive than Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or whoever else it may be."

How Bi-Rite creates community

Despite high prices, Mogannam has a loyal following. Part of his challenge is to keep people like me chatting in the store and not simply online. "I want people to just engage with each other and look each other in the eye and say, 'Does this taste good?' And that person looks back at them and says, 'Let’s taste it together.'"

Part of the store’s success is that it is actually a neighborhood store in an established community. But Mogannam also has broadened his community by inviting foodies, farmers and anyone who wants to be a part of the food discussion. He is focused on local and sustainability, and according to a recent San Francisco Chronicle article, Bi-Rite contributes close to $7 million a year on purchases that are in the Northern California area.

Not only is the business growing by roughly $1 million a year, it is expanding as well. About five years ago, the Bi-Rite Creamery opened across the street, the first ice cream shop in San Francisco to use organic dairy. This business is run by Ann Walker, Mogannam's wife and pastry chef, and business partner Kris Hoogerhyde.

Sharing the local food story

About four years ago, the store bought a small farm (now two acres) when Bi-Rite’s produce buyer (an ex-farmer) felt the call to get his hands dirty again. The Bi-Rite staff spends time working on the farm, which Mogannam says helps them understand that farming is backbreaking work. The floor staff can then communicate the value of farming to the customer.

"With their experience, they are able to communicate to our guests why these tomatoes are $3.99 a pound. Because it’s really hard to grow a tomato, and half the tomatoes the farmer grows end up in the ground," he said.

The farm helps Mogannam and his team tell the stories that his customers want. "I think it’s about time people demanded more transparency and traceability with their food," he said. "Food is very powerful. It not only gives us energy but it can give us mental stability or a mental instability, and you know we haven’t made those connections seamlessly yet. We really should be teaching our kids."

Putting the 'soul' back into selling food

Telling these stories led Mogannam to yet another endeavor. Several years ago, he started a nonprofit community food space called 18 Reasons. The space hosts farm-to-table dinners, cooking classes, lectures, movies, and youth workshops."We are trying to give people an opportunity to get more deeply connected to each other and also to food—and really raise the value perception that food deserves to have." 18 Reasons is membership-based and has more than 600 members.

With another store under construction, Mogannam isn’t jumping at building an empire. He has slow growth in mind while staying true to his values and commitment to food and community.

"We are trying to teach, but we are also trying not to be dogmatic, which is a challenge. But you know, I have seen what I've said five or seven years ago now alive in other parts of the country. I am—we are— in this for the long haul," he said.

A strange thing happened after I spent time at Bi-Rite. My food soul was awakened. I started to enjoy grocery shopping and food in a way that I hadn’t for some time. I have spent more time in the kitchen and more thought in my grocery lists and dinners. I’ve even started making bread.

Mogannam's book is one of the best and most accessible cookbooks I have found. The tips are useful and the recipes easy to follow. My colleague and I who both interviewed Mogannam joke, "What would Sam do?" I don’t want to oversell Mogannam, but his book and his store are both rich community resources based on authenticity and the belief that he is doing the right thing. He’s not trying to be a celebrity. Now if only he would open a store in Boulder!

You can hearMogannam speak about "Local Food Chains: Making It Work" at Natural Products Expo West on Thursday, March 8 at 10:30 a.m., Anaheim Marriott Platinum Ballroom 4. This session is followed by a book signing at the Expo bookstore, for Sam Mogannam's Eat Good Food.

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