The company’s two markets in the city feature responsibly sourced, top-quality foods curated with a chef’s eye. Many, however, know Bi-Rite mainly because of its famous ice cream, sold across the street from the flagship market at the Bi-Rite Creamery, which consistently generates around-the-block lines and rave reviews from the Today show, the Wall Street Journal, Travel+Leisure and countless others.
What’s less known, or not known at all, is that much of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making Bi-Rite what it is takes place in a 16,000-square-foot former Whole Foods Market bakery, neighbor to other food production facilities and wholesalers in San Francisco’s gritty Bayview neighborhood.
Since its 2013 opening, the commissary has become more integral to Bi-Rite’s overall success, says Sam Mogannam, Bi-Rite’s owner. “Because of our space constraints (in the markets), its role continues to become more and more important and significant.”
One example: cookies used to be made in the Bi-Rite bakery kitchen located in the Creamery. Now they’re made at the commissary. And eventually, Mogannam says, so will the ice cream.
The commissary plays three distinct roles, says Tom McGuigan, general manager of Bi-Rite Catering: supplying all of the prepared foods sold in Bi-Rite’s 18th Street and Divisadero markets; making foods for the company’s burgeoning catering business; and serving as a warehouse for Bi-Rite’s pallet-level purchases.
All three are thriving. “November and December were the two highest sales months ever in the commissary,” McGuigan says. About 10,000 square feet of the building are dedicated to warehousing, 4,000 to the commissary kitchen and 2,000 to the office.
Mogannam brings a veteran chef’s perspective to all of Bi-Rite’s ventures, and the same can be said for McGuigan at the commissary. McGuigan and Mogannam, both San Francisco natives, went to high school and college together, both earning degrees from City College of San Francisco’s Hotel and Restaurant Management program. McGuigan worked as a chef in Switzerland, the Cayman Islands and Paris before returning to San Francisco to partner with Mogannam in a restaurant, Rendezvous du Monde. He joined Bi-Rite in 2012. “Sam and I have cooked in 16 or 17 different kitchens together,” he says.
As you’re walking the aisles of the Bi-Rite markets, almost everything you see with a Bi-Rite label on it comes from the commissary. (Some baked goods are made at the Creamery kitchen, and occasionally items like poke bowls are made at the markets. Originally, McGuigan says, all the foods now made in the commissary were made in the kitchen shared by the Creamery and 18 Reasons, Bi-Rite’s cooking class/community outreach arm.)
The Bi-Rite deli menu changes with the seasons, but there are perennial favorites, McGuigan says. Hummus and guacamole are the two biggest packaged deli items produced at the commissary. Curry chicken salad, chicory salad, seasonal salmon dishes and spaghetti and meatballs and other pastas also are big sellers, he says. On any given day, the commissary will prepare about 50 different SKUs for the two markets.
Whatever they’re making, the commissary’s chefs try to keep innovation top of mind, McGuigan says. “I’m collaborating with everyone constantly,” he says. “We’re always trying to be the company that’s setting the trends, not following them.”
Almost everything at the commissary is prepared by hand. Bi-Rite looked at automating some tasks but found it wasn’t feasible based on the company’s size, McGuigan says. “We’re like a big small guy, but we’re not at the point where we can be a small big guy.” For many operations, he says, it’s actually more efficient to do it by hand, based on the volumes being produced. “If a machine takes an hour to set up and an hour to take down, that might be 2 ½ hours to make something vs. an hour if you do it by hand.”
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Many of the multi-level food carts used at the commissary were designed by McGuigan himself. (Bi-Rite has sold some of them to other commissaries.) McGuigan also designed a cooler at the commissary that circulates ice water and thereby cools product twice as fast, he says.
On a typical work day, about 30 people are preparing food in the kitchen at any given time, McGuigan says. Equipment used includes tilt skillets, 60-gallon kettles for soups and sauces, a six-burner stove, grills, convection and combi ovens, Baxter ovens for baking and for roasting vegetables, Formatic cookie makers, Hobart mixers and MVS nut packers. Foods are kept fresh through Bi-Rite’s use of cook-chill technology, in which foods are cooked, bagged and chilled.
The two Bi-Rite markets place their orders via Catapult software. Product is then pre-packed on a two-day cycle, McGuigan says. “When it’s slow, we ramp up our freezer inventory, so the labor stays constant.”
The commissary’s role as a warehouse has become more important, McGuigan says, as business has boomed at the Bi-Rite retail stores. The markets are located in the heart of city blocks, so there’s not exactly room to expand.
“The stock rooms in the markets get full quickly,” McGuigan says. “And (market employees) can spend less time breaking down pallets (when it’s done at the commissary). We provide better service to the stores, and we deliver seven days a week.”
The daily deliveries are made in Bi-Rite’s 20-foot refrigerated truck. It leaves the commissary each morning, delivers to the market on 18th Street, picks up from the Creamery, delivers to the Divisadero market and makes a final stop at the 18th Street businesses before returning to the commissary. The truck also picks up fresh fruits and vegetables from the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, located just around the corner from the commissary, and delivers them to the markets.
Sushi is the only exception to that model, McGuigan says. Bi-Rite’s sushi chef arrives at the commissary at 5 a.m. to make that day’s batch, which gets delivered by other means at 9:30 a.m.
Sushi was just added to Bi-Rite Catering’s menu at the end of 2017, McGuigan says, and Bi-Rite is looking to expand its Japanese prepared foods repertoire even further. “We want to start moving beyond California and Mediterranean cuisine,” he says. “Sam’s gone over there (to Japan) a few times and made some good connections. We have a lot of culinary talent within the Bi-Rite family.”
Unlike the markets and the Creamery, the Bi-Rite commissary has room to grow, McGuigan says. When Bi-Rite took over the building from Whole Foods, McGuigan put the commissary’s different operations into small spaces, so they could eventually expand. It also helped keep things more organized and, he says, it was just good psychology. “It’s better to give people space then to take it away.”
With the record-breaking sales at the end of 2017, growth is something the commissary can definitely count on. In fact, at the beginning of the second quarter of 2018, Bi-Rite will add a second work shift at the commissary, McGuigan says.