Sam Mogannam is the much-loved owner of San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market, Bi-Rite Creamery, and founder of 18 Reasons, a community space that invites people to explore art, food, and community. According to a recent article in 7×7 about SF tastemakers, he’s also been called the Mayor of 18th Street on a number of occasions. With his market and his devotion to people, and farmers in particular, he’s brought back the family-owned grocery and created a renewed sense of community in this pocket of the Mission District (and also my neighborhood). I sat down with him in his office above the store recently to interview him as the first in a series of perspectives on folks around the country who are making a difference in the effort to transform our food system.
JD: What issues have you been focused on?
SM: How to get product from the source to us, whether from farmer or rancher. Distribution and transportation will be a constant issue, a lot of producers don’t have time to spend a day in a car or a truck, driving around — there needs to be strategic hubs for food to get consolidated. We need to learn from the models of the Walmarts, Whole Foods, and Safeways, and have those hubs available to smaller growers and ranchers.
Another big issue — education around the cost of food, the cost of good food, and just helping people understand, and justifying why its okay to pay extra for things grown well. It’s more than that it’s organic, sustainable, and has more flavor but that there are people behind it as well.
More than anything else we’re trying to put the faces to the product. There’s a human with passions and a human that cares, not only about the product but the people that he or she employees and that’s all a part of being sustainable.
A big issue we’ll all be dealing with, as the industrial machine understands the pressure points [of the conscious consumer], they’ll be able to mass produce a lot of things people will demand and these human issues will be swept under the table.
Another big issue is health. I keep freaking out about the stats of kids born after 1990. They have a one in three chance of getting diabetes. Nobody is talking about that when those kids are young adults we’ll have a workforce in crisis — with a serious economic impact on everyone. They will have to take constant breaks, monitor their blood sugar, and all the efficiencies we’ve become accustomed to will fall by the wayside.
The greatest opportunity we have is having conversations around food and sustainability with children. I’m blown away how smart and receptive they are when given the opportunity to engage in this conversation.
JD: What inspires you to do this work?
SM: The people. I love the people. Food. I’m so happy food is the medium I get to work with. I love experiencing new flavors and new ingredients and sharing them with people. Everyone needs food and it’s an easy way to someone’s heart and opening them up and having a conversation with someone. I’m lucky I discovered that at an early age. I was 19 when I discovered food was a way to connect with people.
JD: What’s your overall vision?
SM: It’s not completely clear yet. I keep refining it and thinking about it a lot. A big part, an important one, is I feel that change needs to happen and its in the process — there’s a lot of people who believe in it and care and a lot of people doing it at global, national levels and I admire them and at times aspire to be like them; but my focus is my local community. As much as we’ve been asked to expand and reach out to other communities, our work here has just begun. It’s the tip of the iceberg.
To create a strong, sustainable, local community.
JD: Who’s in your community?
SM: Its big, a lot of people. Everybody that we come into contact with is a member of our community. And, those people include our guests, people from out of town, friends of guests, children of guests, all the producers of the great food, all the distributors, our staff, all the family members of the staff that are supported through the market and the creamery. All the members of 18 Reasons. Our neighbors. All the schools and non-profits and art organizations. Everybody who’s trying to be connected. The only people we have difficulty embracing are those who don’t want to be embraced and engaged. I still consider them part of the community, but we haven’t figured out how to touch them yet.
One of the cool things, when I made the decision to leave the restaurant business, the grocery business is a lot more accessible to people, and becomes a bigger part of their daily lives. I didn’t realize how vital a local market is to creating local communities.
One of the main reasons local communities broke up was because of the loss of central anchor tenants. Now they are a part of a shopping mall, not so much as to be an anchor for the community, but as a revenue generating, car-attracting eyesore. It got people into their cars and off the street and people stopped having those opportunities to engage with their neighbors outside of church or wherever else they did. It’s one of the things I love most at the store, is seeing people catch up with their neighbors. Definitely one thing I love about 18 Reasons, friendships develop and strengthen. And the ice cream takes it to another level. It’s just good, cheap, easy entertainment. Stress free, happy experiences. Some people who support the creamery, are conscious of supporting local business and a local dairy but some not so much. They just like it because it tastes good.
JD: What are your commitments?
SM: To the community. To all the relationships we’ve built. Sometimes I feel guilty because I feel my commitments to the community are just as strong as my commitments to my family. Not as deep, but I feel a lot of emotion for all the people we touch and engage with.
JD: What are your goals?
SM: To continue to deepen the relationships we have established. To inspire other small businesses to get deeper within their own communities. I’d love to see more grocery stores take more of an editorial role with the products they are selling, to eliminate the products that are part of the problem. Change can happen by either impacting the supply or the demand and retailers can easily impact the supply and create a demand for better products.The hard part is where to stop with the editing process without being to elitist and preachy.
There needs to be another surge of entrepreneurs going out into the world and starting meaningful businesses in order for the economy to turn around and I hope that we’re setting an example and creating a model that inspires people to share. Not just as commerce centers, but as relationships builders, to share their passions and ask the right questions. To be there when someone falls and to pick them up. A goal that won’t be easy to measure, but that doesn’t bother me. Because it means I’ll never achieve it and always strive to get deeper and deeper with it.
JD: What does change look like to you?
SM: The change I would love to see … I would love to see known carcinogens made illegal and harmful foods to be banned. I would love to see corporations be more focused on society than they are on the bottom line. We’re beginning to see more triple bottom line companies start and develop and change. I think there’s a lot of green washing, a lot of multi-nationals figuring out what words to use, manipulating their public image; I would like to see it be true and honest. A healthier society. A change in priorities to prioritize our friends, family, and our well-being over all the stuff. I hate the stuff. I think the whole world’s been manipulated now. It just depresses me that we value meaningless objects the way we do. I think one of the coolest things about having kids is seeing how something as simple as a piece of ribbon can create hours of fun and playtime and enjoyment.
I struggle with this one because the technology is incredible. We can communicate and do things more effectively, but in the process we’ve lost the human contact. I might sound like a luddite, but I miss the days when you pick up the phone to talk to someone; when they weren’t around they weren’t around; and you made plans in advance and you didn’t need to have as many friends in order to have that positive socialization in your life. We’ve become obsessed with how many friends we have on Facebook and it’s a great way to connect people, but it’s slowly becoming a replacement for human contact.
I think that’s why 18 Reasons is so special and so important. There need to be more places like it — that are easy, not a huge commitment. Public spaces where people can come to engage physically.
JD: Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?
SM: Nothing will be more effective than touching people. If you can create experiences, if we can create experiences for people that they haven’t had before that impact people and make them stop and think, then we’ll be viral; they’ll want to be part of sharing that with others. And the only way that will happen is if we get in front of each other, look each at other eye to eye. Share our emotions with each other. I don’t think it’s going to happen otherwise.
JD: What projects are affiliated with yours?
SM: Local schools: Sanchez Elementary, Mission High (through Next Course), Buen Dia Family School, San Francisco Friends School, Childrens Day School, St. Ignatius College Prep. Our marketing director has been working on establishing a new preparatory elementary school in the Mission and I feel any sort of educational institution is a part of our world, especially at that elementary level. It’s a special time to make future change happen. I feel there’s some synergy with Slow Food, Sarah Weiner and Seedling Projects and The Good Food Awards — they’re doing something.
I am on the advisory council for CAFF [Community Alliance with Family Farmers) and feel the work they have been doing for the past 30 years has had tremendous impact on agriculture in California.
I sit on the board for the National Association for Specialty Food Trade and have been trying to get them more focused on supporting good food. They are slowing making steps towards it, but they have to be sensitive to their membership. My goal with them is to inspire a new generation to produce and retail good food.
Anybody doing anything to try to get more people to care about the food they’re making in the food world somehow.
Constantly working with our farmers, to support them, mapping out ideas for products we’d want so they can plan and budget their lives around it.
The Women’s Building. I think it’s a tremendously important organization that creates amazing opportunities for community building and they are touching a sector of the community we haven’t been able to connect with as deeply yet. What Caleb [Zigas] is doing at La Cocina. What they are doing is incredible.
JD: What projects have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?
SM: I haven’t been there yet, but dying to check out Mission Local, just what I’ve read about their vision for the Mission, seems in line with what we’re trying to do. Constantly keeping tabs on what La Cocina is doing. It’s incredible how selfless that organization is and how they focus on helping people who want to improve their own lives and have a product they feel is delicious and getting it out there, it’s brilliant and necessary. Every city should have an organization like La Cocina.
I think KTT [Kitchen Table Talks] is brilliant. And, so important. I can’t believe it took so long for something like that to start. One of the best things about what KTT does is addresses, with all the attendees, what they can actually do once they leave to be part of the change. So many discussions don’t empower people with the tools to help. You guys [I am one of the co-founders] are very focused on people leaving with even little tidbits. It has to start one step at a time
The other person I’m super inspired by is Severine from Greenhorns. I think what’s she’s doing is the coolest thing. She’s inspiring and empowering a new generation of farmers. I heard the coolest thing on NPR last night. For the first time in this century, the number of farmers has increased in the last five years. We had a net increase in the last five years, compared to last 100 years, where we’ve had a decrease.
JD: Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next five to 10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?
SM: I don’t think in five years, not real policy change. The headline in the Chronicle today [SF Chronicle, Organic, small farmers fret over FDA regulation]… the large companies controlling the food. I hate to sound so doomsdayish, it won’t be until we have a real crisis, that people are going to wake up and realize that change needs to happen. I honestly think that crisis is gonna hit in 10 to 15 years, when the generation with a high percentage of chronic illness hits the workforce and we won’t be able to employ them or we’ll be paying their healthcare, and people will have to ask how did we get here, how did we ruin our society to this degree?
I think man has the power to change, we’re very adaptable, and have an incredible survival instinct, but I think we’re passive, we’re not a proactive, make change happen, before we’re forced to kind of people. It probably took cigarettes 40 years to get where it is now; where it’s taxed to where it’s less affordable for people. The world smokes a lot still, but I can’t believe it hasn’t been made illegal because it destroys us. Food will have to take that path.
The thing that scares me is that food scientists are geniuses and they will always create new things and manipulate products so the multinational companies still make money. I know everyone says we have to wean off manufactured, processed food, but it’s so complicated. We’re like mice, trying to survive, spin in this wheel, we don’t have time and sometimes I think we’re part of this big master plan, ya know.
JD: What would you want to be your last meal on earth?
SM: One of my favorite things, would be dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes and freshly picked basil, bread from Tartine Bakery, fresh garlic, beautiful extra virgin olive oil, good salt, some Reggiano Parmigiano. I’d make a bread salad, panzanella, with a glass of bone dry rosé. That would completely satisfy me. I could die a happy man at that point.