What 25 Years of Shopping Bi-Rite Means to San Francisco
Bi-Rite’s bagging a big anniversary. So we caught up with a few old friends.
By Becky Duffett
Bi-Rite’s bagging a big anniversary this season. It’s been 25 years since Sam Mogannam took over his family’s corner store in Mission Dolores and reimagined it as a different kind of grocery store. As well as 10 years since the team opened the second Market in the Western Addition and the catering commissary kitchen in the Bayview, feeding more relationships and parties across the city. To reminisce, we reached out to a dozen friends and neighbors to share their favorite memories from over the years. So pulling together a collection of different voices from across the city, here’s why Bi-Rite means a lot to a lot of different people to San Francisco.
Going Above and Beyond
For many guests, Bi-Rite means so much more than a Market, it feels like family. They share memories of hugs on hard days and matzo ball soup when sick.
“I still recall that the first time I came into the Market after my dad died in 2014, Faun (a former employee) gave me a hug.” — Rebecca Arons, longtime guest
“When my wife and I had COVID, we would call the Market and Patrick or Sam would bring over groceries.” — Bob Rosner, an almost daily guest for 20 years
For restaurant neighbors, Bi-Rite can be a total lifesaver. “They’ve helped us out of a pinch more times than you can imagine. When our walk-in would go down or the block would lose power. It just happened, actually. We were rolling over carts full of stuff to store in their walk-in until ours was fixed.” — Craig Stoll of Delfina, neighbor for 25 years
For farmer friends, saying hey to the team is a treat at the end of a dusty day. “They’ve always been gracious to us. If they know we’ve traveled a long time, or are dropping off after a farmers’ market, Simon will say, ‘Do you want a sandwich?’ Or give me an ice cream.” — Ginger Balakian of Balakian Farms, first direct-farm relationship
The Friendly Staff
That’s all thanks to the wonderful staff, who are always happy to slice off a taste of fruit, build outstanding potato chip displays, or sprint through the store to find a missing ingredient.
“I adore the super-friendly and helpful staff! They always take a moment to ask how you’re doing, and have good wine recommendations, or give you a taste of produce so you can decide if it’s what you want. I honestly can’t believe my luck in having the Divis Bi-Rite just a few blocks from my apartment, it’s a SF miracle.” — Marcia Gagliardi of Tablehopper, guest for 20 years
“We shop at Bi-Rite because of the integrity the brand stands for and because the staff treats everyone as a guest, not a customer; it makes for such a pleasurable shopping experience …. And they have the best assortment of potato and tortilla chips.” — Bruce Cole of Edible SF, guest for 15 years
“During the holidays, have you ever had this experience, when you’re like, ‘Oh shit, I forgot the vanilla!’ But there’s no way you’re getting out of this long line. They have someone walking up and down asking if you’ve forgotten something and can they get it for you. ‘Oh my God, yes! I need a quart of heavy cream!’” — Craig Stoll of Delfina
Comforts and Celebrations
Other guests share how funerals, birthdays, and other gatherings wouldn’t be complete without a smoked fish platter or ice cream cake. While some have created their own personal rituals, like a beloved after-school snack.
“When my wife’s father died, they put together a lovely shiva platter.” — Bob Rosner
“When my kids were in elementary school, we would go to the Creamery every Friday after school: Ricanelas for one and Mint Chip for the other!” — Rebecca Arons
“The Women’s Building for years would have a Bi-Rite cake or pie to celebrate staff birthdays each month. We changed that during COVID, but for those of us who remember those years, we still miss all the desserts.” — Kelly Lockwood of the Women’s Building, community partner for 20 years
The Quality Ingredients
Of course, so many guests are obsessed with the beautiful seasonal produce and grass-fed meat, and have to call out their favorite order from the deli.
“I love the whitefish salad! On nights when I need some quick comfort, I’m all over their bolognese sauce (although I usually spike it with some peperoncino). Oh, and the seasonal ice creams. Pints of love! Ricanelas forever! Their shortcakes are also so good, hurrah for strawberry season.” — Marcia Gagliardi of Tablehopper
Sometimes, you just want your favorite cut of steak, exactly how you like it. “We’ve shown up at the butcher counter and asked for a tri-tip with the fat cap still intact and they found one that hadn’t been trimmed yet. (Try and find a tri-tip with a fat cap anywhere these days.)” — Bruce Cole of Edible SF
Even chefs get vegetable envy, on occasion. “I’ve been turned onto farms by Sam. Blue House is one example. I walked into Bi-Rite and they had these gorgeous artichokes. I was like, ‘Where the hell are they getting these?! Why don’t we have these?!’” — Craig Stoll of Delfina
Plus, it’s fun to spot the names of favorite farms. “It’s a delight when I see our farmers on the shelves. It always brings a big smile to my face, because I know the people who helped bring that pint of strawberries, ginormous bunch of chard, or the beautiful bouquet of flowers.” — Pei-Yee Woo of Kitchen Table Advisors, community partner for 10 years
Connecting with Foodmakers
Guests love knowing where their food comes from, thanks to Bi-Rite’s deep relationships with local farmers and foodmakers. Those old friends share why they still love dropping off peaches, tasting their milk in the ice cream, and seeing their granola on shelves.
“I mean, Sam’s a movie star in San Francisco. I know that …. But it’s a family business, the same as ours. I believe Sam loves what he does, and so do we. So I just connect that way. He has the very best. And we bring our very best.” — Ginger Balakian of Balakian Farms
“We’ve been working with them since they started the Creamery. They were one of my early customers for the ice cream base …. Sam, Anne, Kris, and the team have all been very aligned around our organic farming practices and carbon neutral model. They support our mission, which is to sustain family farms in Marin and Sonoma County, by providing high quality dairy, and help revitalize rural communities by education and advocacy.” — Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery, dairy supplier for nearly 20 years
“I remember meeting Sam for the first time. I was working as a host at Nopa, and I remember thinking that he had the best, most electric personality. But he also had this empathy and compassion that radiated out of him. He reminded me so much of my own father and made a huge impact in my mind. I always thought to myself, from the moment I met him, that if I ever had a product to sell I would go first to Bi-Rite.” — Michelle Pusateri of Nana Joes Granola, granola maker and former employee of the Creamery
Enriching the Neighborhood
Guests who have been shopping since the very beginning marvel at how the neighborhood has changed. They love how 18th Street has become a food destination, with the Market, a bakery, restaurants, and more.
“When we first moved to San Francisco, which was a very long time ago, Bi-Rite was a liquor store, basically. You know, kind of a mom and pop. Dolores Park wasn’t anything like what it is now, either. But someone must have told me that Sam became the owner and Bi-Rite was changing. Immediately, we started trying to go there. And also, Tartine opened a little bit after, and that whole block on 18th Street sort of got to be more interesting.” — Cathy Simon, guest for 25 years
One farmer wonders how she was ever able to fit a huge truck full of peaches in the heart of the busy Mission. “I would bring fruit to the store when they opened. I was in the truck and I delivered at the front of the store. I have to tell you, now I wonder, how did I do that? Because sometimes I’d have a truck and a trailer.” — Ginger Balakian of Balakian Farms
And an iconic restaurant claims Bi-Rite put them on the block. “On maybe our second visit, Sam was working the register. He said, ‘Hey, are you guys still looking for a restaurant?’ He walked us down a few storefronts to this Brazilian cafe, and there was a handwritten note taped inside the window that said ‘Restaurant for sale.’ We called them right away. We gave them $30,000. And we had a restaurant.” — Craig Stoll of Delfina
The Sense of Community
Finally, we all love feeling like part of a good food community. A couple of longtime community partners chime in with how much Bi-Rite has meant to their larger communities.
“We’ve referred our farmers to the different buyers for the Markets through the years, which directly impacts their livelihoods. Additionally, we’ve organized learning experiences and farm visits for the Bi-Rite team to get to know the farmers and ranchers whose products they’re sourcing. Those have been invaluable opportunities for cross-pollination and a deeper understanding of our shared connections — from the farmer to the eater.” — Pei-Yee Woo of Kitchen Table Advisors
“Our tax program has been doing tax returns for our community for over 15 years. From the beginning, Bi-Rite has supported our 20 volunteers with lunches and dinners as they worked in the tax clinic. Our volunteers love getting the boxed meals from Bi-Rite and we have done taxes for some Bi-Rite staff!” — Kelly Lockwood of the Women’s Building
These interviews have been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity
Becky Duffett is a food writer living and eating in San Francisco. Follow her on Instagram at @beckyduffett.