COMMUNITY THROUGH FOOD
Sam Mogannam remembers when he first fell in love with food as a young boy. It was a non-traditional introduction by today’s standards. He was in Bethlehem, Palestine, visiting his grandmother. He loved visiting her and the amazing array of vegetables and fruits she grew and the chickens and other animals she raised.
His favorites were the bunny rabbits. They were soft and sweet and he always looked forward to seeing them. But on this trip, his grandmother asked him to join her outside. Together they selected a rabbit, destined for the dinner table. Sam held the rabbit’s legs while his grandmother took care of the hard part. Despite his mother’s concern, his grandmother had successfully passed on an important family tradition. “He’s fine,” his grandmother reassured his mom, and she was right. In this simple act, she had instilled a great lesson in young Sam.
Food was precious. It was family. It was love. It was important. It was to be treated with respect. This lesson would guide Sam for the rest of his life.
Back home in San Francisco, Sam’s dad and uncle had emigrated from Palestine and in 1964 bought a rundown neighborhood store. It made ends meet by selling chips and malt liquor to the scruffy crowd that surrounded Dolores Park.
Sam started working in the store when he was six, helping to stock the shelves and whatever else needed doing and he continued working there through high school, periodically being mugged on his way to and from the store. That was enough to convince him that he didn’t want to follow his father into the business, so he attended City College of San Francisco's Hotel and Restaurant Management Program with plans to become a chef.
After traveling to Switzerland for culinary training, he returned home and opened his own restaurant Rendezvous du Monde in 1991, where he learned by fire the joys and terrors of the restaurant business. But by 1998 his lease was coming to an end and his dad was whispering in his ear about a crazy idea.
His dad and uncle had sold the old store in 1989, but it was for sale again and his dad was urging Sam to buy it.
Sam had changed since he was a teen working in his dad’s store. His love of food had deepened as a chef, but something more profound had changed in him. He had begun to see food as an integral part of a complex ecosystem, with a network of producers and consumers that nourished and provided for the community as a whole. What if he could bring that vision tangibly to life in a new kind of grocery store? And if he could, could he do it in a space as small as his dad’s old market?
As is so often the case, when an idea takes hold, it becomes impossible to shake, and this one had a firm hold on Sam. It was almost as if he’d become possessed as he imagined what could be if he fully embraced his vision. He decided to leap in head first, and a remarkable story of community and entrepreneurship followed.
In the center of his market, Sam installed a kitchen, where he could bring to life the enormous array of produce, meats, and cheeses that he had begun to source from the incredible array of independent producers around Northern California. And that was just the beginning.
Years later, to live in San Francisco is to be aware of the phenomenon of Bi-Rite Market. At first glance, it appears to be a small, higher-end neighborhood grocery store. But upon closer examination, Bi-Rite reveals itself as something far more complex and revolutionary.
At the core of Bi-Rite’s business is an invitation to its customers to get to know the food they eat and the impact that it has on us, our neighbors, and our community. On a recent early morning walk, Sam said to me, “Never forget, eating is a political act. Every time you buy, you make a choice of the farmers, the dairymen, and the ranchers that you support.”
Later at a gathering in American Giant’s headquarters in downtown San Francisco, he handed the one hundred or so people in the audience a piece of cheese, admonishing them to not eat it right away. “Look at it first, notice the color.” He explained that it came from the grass that this particular dairy grazed its cattle on, and he then guided us through a long discussion of who the farmer was, their approach to cheesemaking. He encouraged us to smell the cheese, break it open, and then smell it again. The smell was totally different, and an audible gasp went up through the room as people suddenly deepened their understanding of how much work and effort goes into so many of the things we take for granted.
A bit of theater? Yes, probably. A bit of luxury? For sure. But the broader point here is much harder to dismiss. What type of world do we want for ourselves and our children? One increasingly dominated by huge multinational corporations that feed our families with products relentlessly optimized for convenience and cheap? Or a world that acknowledges and supports that enormously complex network of producers that come together to feed a family with the love and care that it deserves?
As Sam reminded me on that walk, “You would never cook for your family the way the corporate food industry cooks for you.” That was the essential lesson that Sam took from his grandmother and his mother. When they cooked for him and his family, it was an act of love. He took that lesson to heart. He runs Bi-Rite as an act of love, for his customers, his staff, and his suppliers. And it’s working.
When he bought back the business, the first thing he did was remove the wrought iron bars that had covered the windows and then he crowded the sidewalk with boxes overflowing with seasonal fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The neighborhood noticed, and Bi-Rite began to grow. In 2006 he expanded, adding the Creamery & Bakeshop across the street. Huge lines followed. Another Bi-Rite location came a few years later across town, expanding Bi-Rite’s influence to a new neighborhood while expanding its impact on its suppliers. And to help more of their Bay Area community stay connected to how to make and eat great food, they founded 18 Reasons, a non-profit cooking school that offers classes to over 3,500 low-income residents every year.
Today, 75% of the dollars Bi-Rite spends are made to suppliers and services within 200 miles of the original location. Sam knows nearly all his farmers on a first name basis, and in doing so is pointing a new way forward. In a small way he is asking a large question: how do we work to repair our communities that seem to be under so much stress at the moment, so quick to suspicion and anger? Perhaps some of that answer lies in the choices we make and the people and livelihoods we chose to support.
Fifty years ago, we knew our butchers and bakers. We knew where their products came from and when we spent our money there, it mattered and it stayed. In the intervening years, things changed. We swapped intimacy, quality, and care for convenience, cheap, and scale. It was supposed to be better for us, but when you take a bite of cheese with Sam Mogannam, it feels like you’re taking a small stand against the complex, industrialized food system we have come to worship, and in that small act, doing something to help nourish yourself and your community.
To learn more, visit biritemarket.com.