Shakirah Simley is the Community Coordinator at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and a preservation expert. She took a few minutes out of her very, very busy schedule to talk about the path from her first fresh apricot through launching a food craft business, and on to one of San Francisco’s most esteemed community businesses. Thanks to her jammy and community work at Bi-Rite, she was just named one of Zagat’s 30 under 30.
Q: You’ve had quite a journey as, in your own words “a Harlem-raised girl who hadn’t tasted a fresh apricot until her first visit to the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market.” What was the spark of inspiration to begin making preserves?
A: First, it was just exposure–going to the Ferry Building, seeing fruits and vegetables I’d never seen before, things that were just not in my background. It blew me away! The other part is that everyone had backyard fruit that was going to waste. In terms of food justice and food access, it’s a shame that food goes to waste, so I wanted to know how to turn that into value-added products, especially in areas that could be so-called food deserts. The environment in the Bay Area is ripe for that. There were not many others at the time who were bringing a different conversation to artisanal food production. So I set out to teach myself, and I spent tons of hours in research. When I finally started producing jams, people were all, “did you make this?” Yes, I really made this.
Q: Prior to your current position, you had a small jam startup called Slow Jams. When did you decide to make the leap to make jam commercially?
A: My inspiration was drawn from the bounty of available produce in the Bay Area, but also imagining an equitable system where we’ve reclaimed our food knowledge and traditions. Not wanting to half-ass it, I enrolled in a business planning course through Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment and was accepted into La Cocina‘s Incubator program. During this process, I went from my home kitchen to producing at my first shared commercial kitchen space, and from selling to friends to selling at Bi-Rite, online, at events, and a few retail contracts. By putting myself out there as much as possible and leveraging my networks, my business, brand and story, I was able to gain a lot of momentum. And exposure. I’ve been featured on Grist.org, FoodCrafters with Aida Mollenkamp and on the Katie Couric show more recently.
Q: What was involved in going commercial with your jam? What were the pitfalls?
A: Making the jump to a commercial kitchen was terrifying, but after a few failed “sets”, burns, tears and curse words, I finally got my recipes to scale. Understanding how to produce artisanal-quality food on a larger scale is one of the keys in all of this and having the determination, patience and pure hustle to do so is another. If you’re an excellent preserver and you’re ready to make the jump–awesome. But keeping up with customer demand, understanding the wild world of retail, identifying opportunities for expansion that will actually pay your bills, and being consistent in your product are some of the bigger hurdles. Lastly, I think the California Cottage Food Laws will definitely help ease more preservers into the market, but ability to scale will determine who makes it and…who doesn’t.
Q: And then you went to Italy! Tell us about it.
A: It was a really intense process to submit an application for the Fulbright scholarship to the University of Gastronomic Sciences. I spent months on the proposal, had to get approval from my alma mater, get recommendations, and go through several rounds [of interviews]. I was surprised to make the first round. For that Fulbright, the State Department gives only one approval to a US citizen. But I had amazing professors who wrote great recommendations. I was extremely grateful and overwhelmed. Studying (and living!) abroad for the first time in my life was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. It opened my eyes as a producer, but also as an advocate and an African-American. I’m not done traveling yet; I have a lot more to learn. I think this post on the Bi-Rite blog sums up my experiences quite well.
Q: When did you join Bi-Rite? What programs are you working on there?
A: I joined Bi-Rite in February of 2012, post-Italy. I currently manage the community giving and outreach across the Bi-Rite family of businesses (their 18th St Market, Divisadero Market, Bi-Rite Creamery, 18 Reasons, Bi-Rite Farm, and Bi-Rite Catering). My job is to develop and implement a community strategy that not only elevates our current efforts but creates deeply impactful programs along the lines of youth employment and empowerment, serving local schools, supporting the communities in which we operate, and sustaining a good and just food system. I also develop recipes for and make our in-house jams and preserves for our Public line and teach canning classes at 18 Reasons. In addition, I also work as a grant consultant for a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded initiative working with underprivileged youth across the US to change their school food systems.
Q: Tell us about the Public label. I love the community aspect of the product.
A: We created our Public label to bring more transparency to your typical store brand. Unlike the private labels produced by other grocers, we know the exact (short!) story of every one of our products: where it comes from, who produced and how it was made. It’s been an incredibly exciting process, working directly with farmers, artisanal producers and our staff and guests to develop some awesomely tasty goods, like San Marzano tomato sauce, stone fruit jams, wine, extra virgin olive oil and spicy pickles. On my end, while developing our preserves, it’s been super fun to have a supportive environment that allows me to be creative, and share the same high standards for quality.
Q: What is your philosophy of food preservation?
A: Preserving isn’t some “twee trend.” It’s a practical, necessary skill and a way to connect communities to the land and to each other, across race or class lines. For the past several years, I’ve worked extremely hard to refine my craft. This MSN Grio article speaks well to my approach to preserving.
Q: What new products are in development? What would you like to see next for the Public label?
A: We’re exploring more ferments like kimchi, and we’re doing it a little differently, using kale for example. I’ve developed more seasonal recipes, and it’s time to start working with a copacker to produce them. If something special comes in, I’ll make a small batch to get it on the shelf and test it out, and if it’s a success, we’ll develop it at a larger scale. We’ve been doing this for a while, and people get excited about it. One of the reasons I like working at Bi-Rite is that we can do this sort of thing–work with farms to get amazing produce for excellent preserves and sell them at competitive prices at the level of quality people expect. This is my favorite time of year. You feel so productive. I have nocino going, vinegars, plum jam, all kinds of things in my pantry. It’s fun to be at home and make small batches, test recipes, and think about how we could bring them to market.
This interview originally appeared on Punk Domestics.