Vintage HandPicked: Bi-Rite Market: The Rite Way

Craig McCord

Craig McCord › Craig possesses 23 guitars and cannot play any of them. He likes fresh grilled sardines with a ...

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Editor’s Note: We love Sam’s story and think it’s worth repeating. Bi-Rite is a small market with big ideas–it’s a great example of how to provide real, fresh food. Bravo!

Several years ago we were lucky enough to have dinner at Delfina in the Mission district, in San Francisco. But this article is not about Delfina, although Anne and Craig Stoll’s restaurant is surely worth a thousand words.

No, this post is about their next door neighbor, Bi-Rite, a tiny neighborhood grocery store that has turned into what is arguably one of the most influential markets in the nation. Maybe that’s why fastcompany.com named owner and co-founder, Sam Mogannam one of its 100 Most Creative People in Business for 2012.

In his profile on Mr. Mogannam, writer David Lidsky describes Bi-Rite like this:

Bi-Rite is a single family-owned market with sales per square foot that exceed $4,000—Apple Stores stand alone in generating more than $5,000—and everyone from Walmart to Whole Foods has tried to learn from him. The lesson: “We’ve got this crazy rule for employees,” Mogannam says. “If a guest is 10 feet away, make eye contact with them. If they’re 4 feet away, engage them in conversation.” And also, stay small. “The joke is that it’s impossible to be more than 10 feet away from anyone in Bi-Rite,” which has just 1,500 square feet of customer space.

Folks looking for success in the grocery business would be wise to pay attention to how and why Mr. Mogannam does what he does. Yes, hands-on attention to detail is part of his routine. Yes, buying the best possible products from the best farmers is automatic. Yes, he tastes the produce before it hits the shelves. Yes, ferocious editing of the products on his shelves and laser-beam focus on customer service account for much of Bi-Rite’s phenomenal success. His efforts are literally paying off – in the years since he taken over, sales have grown by $1 million every year.

Folks looking for success in the grocery business would be wise to pay attention to how and why Mr. Mogannam does what he does.

But he runs his store like an anti-grocery store. Rather than grow his business to outsize proportions, he continually refines it. He limits selections in his store so that he (and his customers) can feel good about the products he carries.

All this sounds counterintuitive until one considers Bi-Rite average sale per square foot. A store like Safeway manages around $500 in sales per square foot. What all this means, simply put, is that Sam Mogannam has an expert’s feel for what his audience of sustainably-thinking shoppers want in a grocery store. And his customers support Bi-Rite overwhelmingly.

That support allowed the Bi-Rite folks to start their own farms. On their website they say:

Operating a farm, even at our small scale, not only teaches us where our food comes from but also helps us understand the hard work that farmers and ranchers do to feed us. Like many of the growers we work with, we never use any chemical inputs, but prefer to farm organically and harvest at peak flavor. Additionally, many of our staff members help out on the farm and can share that experience with our guests.

These farms are not designed to supplant farmers in their supply chain. Far from it. Bi-Rite operates their farms to help educate themselves about what it takes to bring food up out of the ground. They are rightly proud of their efforts and use “We Grew This” signs in the store to call out products from their farms.

As if any further evidence was necessary to show Sam Mogannam’s commitment to real food, he has plowed some of his profits into his non-profit community education space, 18 Reasons. Their mission statement reads:

18 Reasons brings people together to deepen our relationship to food and each other. Through an innovative community center and thought provoking, fun programming, we inspire action and foster collaboration toward creating a just and sustainable food system.

A pretty admirable effort, to say the least.

In the Fast Company article, Sam says:

“We love feeding people, man. We love teaching people how to feed themselves.”

Sam Mogannam and the good people at Bi-Rite Market on 18th Street in San Francisco, California are doing that every day.

Have you heard of Bi-Rite Market? Do you shop there? Tell us what you think in the comments!

Photo credit: Inside Scoop SF