Bi-Rite Market celebrated its 75th anniversary with an intimate lunch on Friday, in which its owner spoke of how the Mission has changed since his childhood and the pride he has for the market’s ethical stance.
“[The neighborhood] is really important, it’s where I grew up,” said Sam Mogannam, whose family has owned the grocery store since 1964. “I started working here when I was six.…I’d walk down from 17th and Church by Mission High School as a little boy, by Dolores Park, which was a pit; my father never let me go to Dolores Park when I was a kid. I got mugged twice and while I was at work I had a gun put to my head once.”
“It was different,” he continued. “But it’s where my roots are, and for me to have taken so much of who I am and that history of what’s shaped me as a child, to be back in it, and to continue to tweak it and shape it…it excites me.”
The lunch was a gathering of close family and friends celebrating both the store’s recent certification as a b-corporation (one that has a positive impact on society or the environment) and its continuous presence. It has been in its 18th Street building since 1940 and under a few different owners has maintained its facade mostly unchanged in those 75 years.
“This one we all felt was really important to celebrate,” said Mogannam, who told those assembled he doesn’t usually like to celebrate such things. “Especially with a rapidly changing San Francisco, that there’s a space, a building, that hasn’t changed since 1940…[that] also maintains the same mission that they started with of serving food to a community with the intent of feeding it, to feed it well.”
Mogannam’s father and uncle bought the neighborhood store in 1964 from a family that had run it since 1940 and was also present at the anniversary lunch. It then went through a brief period of other management from 1989 to 1997 before it was passed onto Mogannam.
Mogannam’s ethical food focus – gained from his years as a chef in which “if you fuck up, you can make somebody sick” – only became a staple after he stepped in, he says.
“During my youth, we sold cigarettes and we sold malt liquor and we sold Doritos and Hostess and all the shit you can imagine,” he said. “It was very different. It wasn’t a fresh food store, we didn’t sell any fresh meat or fish or fresh cheeses.”
And it was one of the only food places on the block. Pay ‘n Save Grocery had on the corner of 18th and Guerrero since his childhood, Mogannam says, and Dolores Park Cafe had just opened the year before in 1997. But Faye’s was just transitioning from being a laundromat, and neither Delfina nor Tartine were yet open.
“This is one of the magical things about the synergy that has happened on this block of 18th Street,” Mogannam said. After opening in 1998, he was congratulated by the future owners of Delfina, Craig and Annie Stoll, and told them about a restaurant space down the block.
“Well they went, got some information – there was a paper napkin that had been written on it with an ink pen that said ‘For sale’ with a phone number, and they still have that napkin – and they bought the restaurant within a week,” he said.
A few years later Tartine opened, and along with Dolores Park Cafe, Delfina, Pay ‘n Save, and Bi-Rite, formed a corridor of food in the middle of the Mission, a sort of entrance to Dolores Park and a frequent stop for park-goers.
“It’s like an ecosystem,” said Shakirah Simley, Bi-Rite’s community programs manager. She said employees often go into the different 18th Street food spots and greet one another, and that some even work different shifts at the different eateries on the block.
After its opening, Mogannam stepped up Bi-Rite’s food ethics. He “started going to farmer’s markets to buy ingredients” and conversed with farmers and ranchers about “how good food should be grown… and the ethics around meat,” eventually building the organic, ethical reputation Bi-Rite now enjoys.
Mogannam’s focus on community has inspired others. When Little Mission Studio founder, Matt Rupert, was asked why he stressed reaching out to the community on Mission Local’s radio show, Rupert said it was something he had learned “from Sam” while working as a clerk at Bi-Rite.
Mogannam also started the non-profit 18 Reasons back in 2008 as a space for community cooking, hosting some 300 food classes annually and serving more than 3,000 individuals from “underserved communities” throughout the Bay Area under its Cooking Matters program.
“There’s classes happening in Concord and in Palo Alto and in the North Bay,” he said. “They’re all happening in the turf of these underserved communities, in churches and in clinics and in schools, places where people feel comfortable going.”
The new b-corp certification for Bi-Rite Market will help it measure the success of practices it has been implementing for years, though for Mogannam it was also a nice pat on the back.
“When a third party steps in and says ‘You guys are kicking ass’ – it felt good, it felt really good,” he said.
He’s happiest for the economic support Bi-Rite gives to vendors and staff, however. Being “one of the biggest vendors for a lot of farmers” and seeing them “succeed and feed their families” (to say nothing of the “really healthy 401(k) plans” he says his staff have) is cause enough for celebration, Mogannam says.
“It honestly feels great, I’m really proud,” he said. “Reconnecting people much more closely to where their food comes from – that makes me happy, man.”