Food: “As Close as You Can Get to Someone Without Having Sex With Them”

“I don’t think anyone has ever cooked on the TED stage before,” said Bi-Rite Market founder Sam Mogannam, standing before a cart overflowing with heirloom tomatoes, rustic bread, and a massive chunk of Reggiano, about to make a demonstration salad in front of an audience at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts last Saturday.

Growing up a child of grocers and on visits to his Palestinian grandparents in Bethlehem, “I realized that food was life, that as my mother fed us she was loving us,” he said, grinning and laughing as he tore up the lettuce and chopped tomatoes. “When I cook for someone, I get to pick the ingredients for something you put in your mouth. This is about as close you can get to another person without having sex with them.”

Mogannam’s giddy joy illuminated his TEDx talk last Saturday at the “Re-Inventing Capitalism” event sponsored by the Presidio School of Management. Mogannam’s grocery store, catering business, creamery, farms, and community center in San Francisco’s Mission District swear by local sourcing, fair trade, sustainable food, and the idea that food is supposed to bind a place together.

When he took over the Bi-Rite Market in 1998, Mogannam says, the nearby Dolores Park was a heroin market and he got mugged on the way to work more than once. “There were 48 jobs on that block when we started – there are over one hundred now,” he said. Bi-Rite sales have grown ten-fold, from $2 to $20 million in 14 years. “And over 70 percent of our business stays in the local community, compared to 10 percent of chain grocery stores,” he said.

The Bi-Rite supply chain is actually composed of names and faces – Adriana Silva of Tomatero Farm in Watsonville, Matt Kreutz at Oakland’s Firebrand Bakery. “This, on the other hand,” said holding up lettuce from a grocery chain store, “this is grown on an industrial farm where the land is dead, and then triple washed in a chlorine solution that is almost impossible to get off.”

Certified as a San Francisco Green Business and famous for the half-block line of hipsters waiting for Balsalmic Strawberry ice cream at the Mission creamery on summer days, the Bi-Rite businesses are based on a philosophy of equal treatment of four stakeholders: staff, producers, guests, and the environment. 18 Reasons is the Bi-Rite “food-based community center,” which offers cooking classes, food literature groups, tastings, and pie baking contests.

But you really should just watch the salad speech for yourself…

More TriplePundit coverage of the event is here.

Hannah Miller is a writer, ecologist, and adventurer living in Colorado. She is interested in everything, but particularly in creative sustainability practices, the Internet, arts and culture, the human-machine interaction, and democracy. She's lived in Shanghai, New York, L.A., Philadelphia, and D.C., and taught English, run political campaigns, waited tables, and written puppet shows. She definitely wants to hear what you're up to. You can reach her at @hannahmiller215, email at golden.notebook at gmail.com or at her site: www.hannahmiller.net.