Bi-Rite Market was once a San Francisco neighborhood convenience store with bars on the windows. When Sam Mogannam took 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 2,700-square-foot Bi-Rite store feels like home, which is exactly what Mogannam wants customers to experience.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: What is your elevator pitch for Bi-Rite Market?
Sam Mogannam: It’s a neighborhood market feeding our community with great food and great service.
NFM: Who is your target shopper?
SM: It’s so vast and varied, it’s crazy … old people, young people, every ethnicity that there is. It’s fairly balanced between men and women, people who work across many industries. I mean it’s a cross section of San Francisco and that’s what I love about it.
NFM: Prior to taking over Bi-Rite Market, you trained and worked as a chef. What has your restaurant perspective brought to the grocery world?
SM: It brought a much higher level of service. Anybody who has worked in a full-service restaurant understands that when somebody walks through the door, they’re your guest for the next hour or two. So it’s the perception of treating people who walk through the doors as guests, not customers. We’re there to feed them and serve them and that might mean we’re going to have a dialogue with them to understand what they need. My personal background as a chef and a cook taught me that you can’t have a great meal unless you start with great ingredients. We take the same philosophy and apply it to everything we put on our shelves. A product has to deliver on flavor, it has to fill a need, and it has to serve a purpose. We’re not going to carry 300 SKUs of cereal; we’ll carry a few.
NFM: Can you talk about your role and your staff’s role as product curators?
SM: It’s a dialogue. We’re not making the choices for them; we’re telling them what we love and what we’re excited about and why. In that process we’re oftentimes tasting the product with them, so they get excited. When guests walk out the door, they feel empowered and they won’t be disappointed when they get home. We have a relationship with them through this dialogue and moments of sharing and communication that build trust, and ultimately that’s how we build community. You build something that has a solid foundation. A community needs a solid foundation.
NFM: Your store has many community circles. How do you define community?
SM: Our mission is “creating community through food.” We draw this as an equilateral triangle. The points are our guests, our staff and our producers. It doesn’t matter which way you turn the triangle, no one point is more important or weighted, each is interdependent on the other for success. We can’t have a strong relationship with guests unless we have good relationships with our vendors and are able to secure really good food to sell. And if we don’t have this food to sell, then we don’t make money to pay our staff to provide them with meals and benefits. It’s all linked and it all has to be treated equally. The fourth component is that we draw a circle around the triangle and that’s our environment, the earth.
Through this process, we have to make sure we’re operating responsibly. We have to try to do everything we can to mitigate our environmental impact and use producers who do the same. Food is the blood that runs through that triangle. It goes from vendors to our staff to our guests and then at the heart of the center is service, which pumps the blood through it. Our service needs to be genuine; it needs to be caring, seamless and inspiring. Ultimately, what we want to feel and what we want our staff to feel is that not only are they feeding our guests, but in this process they’re being fed. It’s exciting and it’s fueling them. It’s more than putting a tomato in someone’s basket; it’s about building a community and a strong local economy.
NFM: What role does education play in creating a community?
SM: It’s critical. We couldn’t do it without it. It starts with me and the managers educating ourselves as much as we can and creating a culture of learning and really seeking staff members that thrive on being barraged with information. It’s so we can educate the public about why food is so important, how vital their role is in preserving good food and helping a good food system grow. Every time they eat they can impact the system three times a day.
NFM: What role does staff play in creating a community?
SM: We love people who have restaurant experience, but we look for people who are passionate. We love hiring people who like to cook and cook regularly. Part of our mission is that we want people to cook more. We want to make it easy. And as you’re picking up that rutabaga, if the staff on the floor can’t tell you what to do with it and a guest doesn’t know what rutabaga is, then it’s useless.
NFM: Can you tell us about the community food space 18 Reasons (18reasons.org) you opened and why, as a store owner, you would take on such an endeavor?
SM: For me personally, I missed a part of the restaurant business where I actually was able to engage with guests for an hour and a half. I love that. We get lots of 5- to 10-minute transactions with our guests, and over time they build, which is great, but you can only go into so much depth in 5 minutes or 2 minutes. You don’t get to touch everyone in that period of time.
18 Reasons gives us the chance to touch people and go deeper with the info. Our tagline there is to “Learn, think and do.” We wanted to create a space where people can learn and think about what they’re learning and then take action on it. Once they leave, we want them to share it and do something about it, do something with that information. I feel education is vital for any business. A lot of grocery stores have classrooms now. It’s the same principal. It doesn’t have to be a separate space.
Creating return customers
NFM: What is it about your store that keeps customers coming back?
SM: We have amazing food and amazing service. It’s that simple. It’s not complicated. They trust us. We’re feeding them good food, and doing all this vetting for them, so when they come in, they don’t have to think as hard. It’s a Bi-Rite seal of approval.
NFM: Do you have a loyalty program?
SM: No. It takes away the whole point of it—it makes it mechanical and it monetizes and quantifies the relationship, as opposed to it being a relationship, which is about two people. Sooner or later, people are figuring it out. Stockbox Grocers in Seattle—she gets it. Soon there will be a whole other generation of stores opening up that understand that food is a lot more than a means of creating a transaction. They’re vital for sustaining a community.
NFM: How do you overcome threats from big grocery stores?
SM: They’re always a threat. They’re changing and adapting their models. Stores like ours can never compete on price; and no matter how good and how much it supports an eco-system, we’re still dealing with a challenging time when money isn’t as fluid. So we try to win on everything else. We try to get produce from farms that are so small that the supermarket can’t deal with them and we’re going to get meat ranchers who raise it to our specs. So we have items no one else has. We try to make sure we keep inspired and excited. We know they won’t do all their shopping with us and that’s cool as long as they’re sharing part of it with us.
NFM: What about your business keeps you up at night?
SM: My staff. It’s a big family. There are a lot of us and there is always someone who needs more attention. I care so much about them. I want to make sure everyone is OK. It’s the most important topic with the management team, making sure everyone is being checked in with and it’s more than just a task.
NFM: What keeps you excited about the business?
SM: Future generations. I meet so many young folks, kids, high school and college students, who are so fired up about the food movement and to do something that is meaningful. I love being an inspiration to them and that gets me excited.
Square feet: 27,00 square feet
SKUs: About 6,000
Gross margin: 45 percent