Bi-Rite Grows Local With Rooftop Garden

It's almost impossible to get produce from a grocery store that's more local than that found at Bi-Rite in San Francisco. On the roof of this 11-year-old store is a 400-square-foot garden, growing herbs, grazing greens (such as chard) and tomatoes. I had heard about Eli Zabar [owner and operator of New York-based Zabar's] talking about doing this at his market and thought it was a brilliant idea and

It's almost impossible to get produce from a grocery store that's more local than that found at Bi-Rite in San Francisco.

On the roof of this 11-year-old store is a 400-square-foot garden, growing herbs, grazing greens (such as chard) and tomatoes.

“I had heard about Eli Zabar [owner and operator of New York-based Zabar's] talking about doing this at his market and thought it was a brilliant idea and a great use of space,” said the store's owner, Sam Mogannam. “We now have irrigation set up on timers, and the store's cooks go up and gather herbs as they need them.”

This garden was begun five years ago, and all produce is grown in galvanized steel horse troughs around the perimeter, because roof was never meant to bear a lot of weight, said Mogannam.

“It's low-maintenance, everything is contained and we have no pest issues,” he explained. “We just make sure the herbs don't bulk up too much and are clipped regularly.”

And while the garden is organic — all topsoil is organic and no chemical sprays are used — it's not certified organic. “It is too small of a parcel to get certified and does not really matter to our customers,” said Mogannam. “They trust us and the story we tell them.”

The rooftop garden has not forced Bi-Rite to hire more employees. It's more a labor of love of the produce staff and anyone else at the store who wants to be involved, he said.

“Simon, our produce manager, is an ex-farmer who was itching to work with the ground again. And our other staff loves it because they understand what it takes to grow food and can then pass their education on to our customers. That, to me, is the most critical part of it.”

The garden's not the only produce the store grows and sells. Recently, Mogannam started farming a backyard in nearby Noe Valley.

“This will be specialty crops for a cooler climate,” he said. These items will include Asian vegetables, peas, artichokes, cauliflower and broccoli. The garden, he added, takes up the backyard of an older woman who wanted to see it put to use.

This year's crop was planted in March, and produce from the garden will likely begin appearing in the store by late spring.

The store has offered produce — including six varieties of apples, plus pears, figs, blueberries, kiwis, tomatoes, squash and grapes — from his parents' Placerville, Calif., farm for six years.

And a year ago, the store began growing produce on a one-third-acre garden in Sonoma, Calif. By the end of last summer, this tiny farm had produced more than 3,500 pounds of tomatoes, 500 pounds of eggplant, 400 pounds of peppers and 200 pounds of basil.

This year, Mogannam expects to net 4,000 pounds of food worth $10,000 to $12,000, on his small plot. But the food is all priced in line with farmers growing comparable crops in the area, because Mogannam says that money's not the goal and he would be happy just to break even.

“We started the gardens because I wanted to get a better understanding of farming and growing so I could understand our suppliers, and because I wanted our staff to learn,” he said.

“For us it's all about strengthening relationships within the community. I think our customers have always trusted and respected us but growing it ourselves brings us even closer to them since we have no broker, distributor, supplier or other intermediaries.

“I also wanted to provide something that continues to separate us from all other grocers, and to share our stories and first-hand experience with our customers.”

And Mogannam shares everything.

“Whatever is not cosmetically OK to put in our produce department, such as bug-eaten greens and cracked tomatoes, we use in our kitchen and deli,” he said. “So we have almost a 100% yield, and we've found that most other farmers can only sell 50% of their crops because of spoilage. Having the kitchen and the deli are really what makes this all pencil out.”

Last summer, Bi-Rite cooks used some of the less-than-perfect produce to make dishes such as gazpacho, and a garbanzo and heirloom tomato salad, to sell in the store.

Having worked in restaurants in Switzerland in the past, the idea of eating with the growing seasons is part of Mogannam's psyche. “They have shorter growing seasons so when different foods came out it was a celebration and there's a lot more appreciation of food,” he said.

However, due to customer demand, he is obliged to offer some out-of-season produce. He imports tomatoes from Mexico, but if he can't get an item organically, he doesn't bring it in. “We never sell grapes or stone fruits from Chile because we know they're not good for the soil and the environment.”

Bi-Rite does plenty of produce tastings in the store — customers can sample just about anything — and some of the vegetables are sautéed, grilled or roasted in the store's kitchen, then sampled in the produce department, to give shoppers simple preparation ideas. “You need people to taste it to realize how good it is. We want people to taste the real flavor,” he pointed out.

Coming up, probably in 2010, Mogannam would like to create some shelf-stable products from his garden's fare, such as canned tomatoes. He also plans to create more heirloom produce varieties this year, especially tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, beets, beans and carrots. “The customers love [heirloom varieties] because they're unique and they can't find them anywhere else.”

In fact, Mogannam hopes to expand every year in both volume and the varieties he grows, and to farm another one to two acres annually.

This spring he'll also launch a subscription service for produce similar to a community supported agriculture program, offering shoppers the opportunity to buy produce boxes that they would pay for up front and then pick up periodically in the store, probably May through October.