Talking Community With Sam Mogannam of San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market

by Laura on October 25, 2009

in From the Experts

We all belong to various communities, each fulfilling a different need we have in our lives. Whether it is a political affiliation, sports group, literary community, or church, the communities we function within help connect us with like-minded people who strive for the same goals.

The importance of building a community — where we learn, support, grow and sustain – is ever present. This month, we talk to Sam Mogannam about that very topic. Sam’s business, BiRite Market, has been located in the Mission District of San Francisco for decades. In the past few years, Mogannam has stepped up the company’s efforts to build a community, and in the process has made an all-out effort to connect with the community of customers, vendors, producers, and the environment.

Family Eats: How do you define Community?

Sam Mogannom: Our definition of community is multi-pronged and includes our customers, our vendors (producers, farmers, artisans), our staff and the environment. In order to create our community, everything we do revolves around these four stakeholders. We keep these communities in mind as we make decisions on a daily basis.

FE: BiRite Market has been around for decades, when did this mission for building a community emerge?

SM: The market has been in my family since 1964, but the inception of this overall mission of strengthening the community, emerged about four years ago. I have always had a reverence for food, and as a cooker and a feeder I feel a sense of responsibility to the community from where the foods I cook come, as well as the communities I feed – my family, friends, and customers. What the business has done is given me a medium in which to play and work.

We feel it is important to ensure sustainability for all our communities. We feel that the way food is grown or raised is just as important as how it is prepared, and our product selection affects that. Whenever possible, we buy form small-scale local producers who use sustainable and/or organic practices, and employ artisanal techniques.

It is important to know what distinguishes the foods we sell from others, and understand, for instance, why a pasture-raised chicken is better than an organic, free-range chicken. To do this, whenever possible I source from local vendors, who produce in a sustainable manner. It is becoming more important for us as a business to educate ourselves on these issues, as they influence our buying decisions.

FE: How are your customers accepting your efforts to build the community? Do they understand the nuances and complexities of these business practices?

SM: There is no doubt that it takes time, and change will not happen over night. Even in my market of San Francisco, where consumers are pretty savvy about sustainability issues, we have to explain the issues every day. Some customers have no concept of sustainability issues, or how their choices at the market affect so many things from the farmers to the earth to their own health.

And, now that the economy has gone south, people are more cost-conscious; opting to purchase more packaged and processed foods rather than putting a value on simple, whole foods. It can be very challenging at times.

FE: What is creating the challenges you face with consumers?

SM: I believe the biggest challenge is the government not doing anything to protect us. Then, the media jumps on the latest trending news, and does not dig deeper into an area to provide us with the right solutions. It is so critical that change has to happen, and it will on a small scale, on the community level. What we aim to do is bring about that change, by offering our customers food that empowers them to bring about change. Even if it is one person deciding to purchase organic bananas rather than conventional, then the change has begun.

FE: In addition to building the community with customers in the store, what other initiatives are you involved in?

SM: In the store we remain dedicated to offering customers products that are carefully chosen – local, organic and made in a traditional manner. We also reach out the community at18 Reasons, which is part of the Bi-Rite Family of Businesses. It was created as a way to give back to the neighborhood that has contributed to and supported Bi-Rite over the years. It’s a space to come together, engage with the people who feed us, view work by local artists, and learn about what we eat and why. It is a great way for our customers to get closer to the producers, and to meet the people that are feeding them.

We are also winding down second summer season at our farm, our one-acre family ranch in Placerville. The adventure has been awesome, because it allows us to get closer to the earth and gain a clearer understanding of that farmers go through. We have also gained a greater understanding of certain crops. On occasion we bring staff to the farm to enjoy the experience and get their hands dirty. Each year, we spend a week harvesting the food, and then cook a meal for the staff to enjoy. It is a great way for everyone to come around the table and share meal that was grown and harvested by us.

We hope that all we do, at the store, in the Creamery, at 18 Reason and at the farm, will help inspire and create a change.

We are in the process of writing a book that focuses on our mission to teach people how to shop better in supermarket and navigate the aisles so that they can make sounder purchasing decisions. Change has to happen in order for us to survive. And that can only happen if we build the steps towards a great community.

Here are a few locally owned retailers who are dedicated to building their communities. Please add your suggestions for other locally-owned food businesses dedicated to building the community in the comments section.

Liberty Heights Fresh

Salt Lake City, UT

Sickles Market

Little Silver, NJ

New Seasons Market

Portland, OR

Pastoral Artisan Cheese bread & Wine

Chicago, IL


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