For residents of San Francisco’s Mission and Western Addition neighborhoods —and for foodies throughout the city and beyond —Bi-Rite Market is a two-store retail grocery business known for locally and responsibly sourced foods and for top-shelf quality.
But there’s also the Bi-Rite Creamery, an ice cream shop across the street from the flagship market on 18th Street, in the Mission. (Advice: go early to avoid the Apple Store-like lines.)
And don’t forget 18 Reasons, another Bi-Rite creation. Located next door to the Creamery, it’s home to cooking classes, dinner with a local farmer, family food swaps, art exhibitions and other community events. And the Bi-Rite commissary, a central kitchen in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood where foods are made daily for the two retail stores and for yet another eponymous entity: Bi-Rite Catering.
Last but not least, there’s the company-owned three-acre farm in California’s Sonoma County, where much of the produce sold at Bi-Rite is grown.
So what is Bi-Rite?
There’s no simple answer, one thing’s for sure: Bi-Rite isn’t what it used to be.
Owner Sam Mogannam’s dad, Ned, and his uncle, Jack, purchased the 18th Street Bi-Rite, which opened in 1940, in 1964. For the quarter-century they owned it, it wasn’t much different than many other small neighborhood markets in the city: a good place to stop for cigarettes, soda, snacks, groceries, other standard fare of varying healthfulness.
Growing up, Sam, 49, worked at the store after school and on weekends. The Mission district, a present-day foodie mecca and home to many tech workers (a bus stops near Bi-Rite every morning to take Google employees to Silicon Valley), was a different place in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s. Dolores Park, half a block west of Bi-Rite, was a haven for drug dealers. Sam got robbed twice.
The elder Mogannams sold Bi-Rite in 1989, which was fine with Sam. He wanted to become a chef, and he did, training in Switzerland, traveling the world and eventually opening his own restaurant in San Francisco.
And then, unexpectedly, opportunity knocked again on 18th Street.
Mogannam jokes that he had some help in the “thought process” that went into his decision, in 1997, to buy back Bi-Rite with his brother, Raphael. “It was a ‘my father pounding some sense into my head’ thought process,” he says.
For one, the Mission district was “coming around” in the late ‘90s, Mogannam says. Cool restaurants were moving in. A new scene was developing. People walking through Dolores Park were a lot less likely to witness drug deals (or to be mugged). On top of that, Mogannam was about to lose the lease on his restaurant in San Francisco’s financial district.
“The timing was great,” he says. “But I told my dad, ‘I gotta cook.’ I wanted to do what I did at the Pasta Shop [a food hall in Oakland, now known as Market Hall Foods]. Some retail, some foodservice. I worked in deli, prepared foods, cheese. I’d work in the kitchen, then go down to the selling floor.”
Mogannam first got a glimpse of the possibilities of blending foodservice and retail when he went to New York City as a young man and checked out specialty grocers like Balducci’s. “I thought, ‘Grocery stores can be so cool!’”
He wanted his version of Bi-Rite to be cool. And cool, by his definition, meant his personal take on retail-and-foodservice, where “good food” meant not just “tastes good” but also “good for you, good for the people who produce it and good for the environment in which it’s grown or raised.”
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When the next generation of Mogannams took over Bi-Rite, it wasn’t hard to tell that the new store was run by a chef —Sam built a kitchen right in the middle of the store. Prepared foods became central to the Bi-Rite mission. And two decades later, it’s not only prepared foods that are enjoying continually strong growth, year after year. Deli and bakery are also among the strongest category performers for the company.
Not surprisingly, with Chef Sam at the helm, one of Bi-Rite’s signature offerings is its Bi-Rite Dinner. “We do dinner every day — hyper-seasonal dishes, rarely ever the same thing,” he says. “If something is a hit, though, it can become a core-market item.” Take roast chicken and mashed potatoes. On days it’s served, “there’s kind of like a mutiny” among the store’s customers, Mogannam said. Meatloaf is another comfort-food favorite.
Many of Bi-Rite’s chefs cut their teeth at some of the nation’s finest restaurants, Mogannam says. Both the 18th Street and the Western Addition markets have their own chefs and sous chefs, The company also employs a Chef of Culinary Innovations.
Every day, in addition to the Bi-Rite Dinner, that team of chefs decides what 8 to 10 items they want to make in addition to the prepared food staples. Many items are made in-house, and many more at the Bi-Rite commissary. Soups also rotate on a regular basis. Chicken noodle and matzo ball are among the regular favorites, Mogannam says. Bi-Rite’s full-service deli case features about 30 items on any given day —about three-quarters of them fall into the “staples” category, the rest change depending on the season.
Sandwich options on the January day InStore paid a visit included recognizable fare like a meatball sub, grilled chicken, turkey and ham. More exotic offerings included a Vegan Hippy (avocado, sweet potato, pea shoots and green onion aioli on thick-cut seeded bread), Tofu Banh Mi (fried tofu, pickled vegetables, cilantro, scallions and aioli on a baguette) and Fried Chicken (buttermilk fried chicken prepared buffalo style, Calabrian chili, honey, cabbage, aioli and pickles on a baguette).
And even the “normal” sandwiches come with Bi-Rite twists. The grilled chicken, for example, is rubbed with achiote and topped with pickled onions, provolone and chipotle aioli on focaccia.
Bi-Rite’s deli also features a full roster of salads (Vegan Hippy, Vietnamese Tofu, Nicoise Tuna and Grilled Chicken were among the January choices), heat-and-serve pastas and grain-and-grilled-protein dishes, hummus, guacamole, sauces, vinaigrettes, grain- and vegetable-based salads and other items. Many packaged items bear a “Bi-Rite from Scratch” label. Labels on ready-to-eat salads and other deli items encourage shoppers to “Eat Local.”
“Eat Good Food” can be found on many Bi-Rite shelf tags. (It’s also the title of a book Mogannam co-authored, the subtitle of which is “A Grocer’s Guide to Shopping, Cooking and Creating Community through Food.”)
Fresh and local are two of the most important words in the Bi-Rite vocabulary, so it’s no surprise that vegetables also play a central role in the store’s deli lineup. “Every night our chefs come up with creative veggie sides, and our veggie salads sell out more quickly than anything else,” Mogannam says.
Much of the deli meat sold in the Bi-Rite deli case is sourced directly from the producer, and most of it is clean-label. Some meats, like roast beef, are made in-house. In the second quarter of 2018 Bi-Rite expects to begin handling its turkey production in-house, too, Mogannam said.
Meats are sourced from around the country. Specialty brands include Olli, Olympia Provisions, La Quercia, Creminelli, Applegate, Diestel and Charlito’s Cocina. During our January visit just one deli meat being sold at Bi-Rite, an Italian prosciutto di parma, was sourced from outside the U.S.
On the cheese side, one buyer is dedicated to sourcing Bi-Rite’s offerings, all of which are clean-label. Labels include Tillamook, Cabot Creamery, Rumiano, Tine, Emmi Roth, Calabro, Vella, Meredith Dairy, Cowgirl Creamery, Walter Rass, Chalet Ossolo, Colston Bassett Dairy and Penterman Farms.
With the exception of cookies, which are made at the company’s commissary, the baked goods sold at the 18th Street and NoPa markets are made on 18th Street, in the Bi-Rite Creamery kitchen. A typical lineup may include eight types of cookies, two or three varieties of sweet breads (e.g. banana bread), three or four cakes, three or four pies, cupcakes and other goodies.
Mogannam’s wife, Anne Walker, is the head pastry chef. Before the Creamery opened, Walker and Kris Hoogerhyde, who is also a baker and a partner in Bi-Rite Creamery, made the markets’ baked goods after hours in the San Francisco restaurant where both worked. All told, Walker and Hoogerhyde have been making Bi-Rite’s baked goods for 17 years. Before that, Mogannam’s mom, Mariette, handled baking duties.
Trendy bakery items at the beginning of 2018 at Bi-Rite included individual-portion cakes and tiramisu and other serving-sized desserts in jars, Mogannam says. A basket of grab ‘n go items at the market in January included homemade pop tarts, cranberry orange muffins, ginger pecan scones with ginger glaze, banana bran muffins, dark chocolate coconut scones and — on the savory side — cheddar black pepper muffins and white cheddar, garlic and chive scones.
While Bi-Rite makes its own dessert breads, it sources its traditional loaves from Bay Area bakeries like Firebrand in Oakland and Acme in Berkeley. Varieties on the shelf in January included sourdough, walnut levain, olive bread, meyer lemon rosemary and pumpkin seed.
Mogannam knows how important the sacred “C” word — convenience — is to today’s harried consumers. Many of his customers, after all, are Mission residents who work long hours at tech jobs in Silicon Valley.
But in the Bi-Rite version of retail, the focus is not on convenience per se. They keep their eye on the “R” word instead. “It’s all about relationships, and convenience is just one tactic to support good relationships,” Mogannam says. “Efficiency — that’s another tactic. You start with trust and connection. We’re connecting the person we’re feeding with the person who’s growing it. We have to educate and feed our customers simultaneously.”
Taking it one step further, Bi-Rite’s mission isn’t even primarily about food, Mogannam says. “Food just happens to be the medium — for community,” he says. “Neighbors see each other in here. People need to facilitate that bonding. What we’re on is a never-ending journey to learn, teach, discover and share.”
The Bi-Rite commitment to people also extends to the company’s roughly 320 employees. Bi-Rite pays 100 percent of staff health benefits, including for part-timers (as long as they work at least 20 hours a week). The company 401K plan matches up to 4 percent, and profit sharing ranges from 2 to 6 percent. Staff also get fed on-site every day, and they get 25 percent off all instore purchases.
In honor not only of its business success and innovative practices but also its commitment to its employees, community, suppliers and the environment, Bi-Rite was a 2016 Forbes Best Small Companies recipient.
If you’re looking for Mogannnam, whom some have dubbed “The Mayor of 18th Street,” his office above the 18th Street market may not be the best place to find him. There’s a good chance he’s in transit, from one market to the other, from the Creamery to 18 Reasons, from 18 Reasons to the commissary or the farm.
He wouldn’t have it any other way. What better way to get out, talk to people, build relationships, nurture a community. Plus, it keeps things interesting.
“I’m constantly in motion. There’s never a routine day.”