60 Seconds With Bi-Rite's Superstar Owner Sam Mogannam



birite What keeps Bi-Rite Market owner Sam Mogannam up at night? It’s not the grocery store’s forthcoming second location in Nopa. The full-service bastion of ethical eating — with an in-store cheese counter and ice-cream shop — is 100% on track. And it’s not the food: “It tastes so good, it will blow people’s minds,” says Mogannam. No, it’s actually his huge success — the responsibility of nurturing a company of soon-to-be 200 employees all of whom he treats like family. It "keeps the fire in my belly pretty well-stoked," he explains.

We caught up with the good-food purveyor and organic ice-cream slinger at the Jewish History Museum at the launch of Beyond Bubbie, which celebrates Jewish grandmothers and the traditions they pass on through their recipes. Read on to find out what he has in store as Nopa’s next-door neighbor and secrets to zipping through that seemingly endless ice-cream line.

Bi-Rite’s tagline is “Creating community through food.” How will you continue that mission at your new Divisadero spot?
"We are going to keep doing what we do. Community is more than just a neighborhood. It’s an important part of it, but it’s also our staff. We’re going to create more opportunities for the staff to grow and we’ll be hiring for 65 to 75 more jobs. For our vendors — the producers, farmers, and ranchers — we’ll be offering another outlet to sell what they passionately grow and raise for us. And for our guests, people have been clamoring for us to do something in the Western Addition for eight years. We’re blessed to have a farmers' market in the neighborhood, but to get [fresh food] seven days a week is going to change habits. It’s going to empower them."

When’s opening day?
"Sometime in March. We haven’t put a stake in the ground with a specific date, but somewhere around then."

You’re setting up shop next door to Nopa. Any collaborations in the works?
"I’ve known Jeff [Hanak, co-owner of Nopa] for a long time. We went to high school together. He was a year ahead of me and we played soccer together. We share the same ideology around food. The synergy is going to be awesome — just like it is with Delfina and Tartine at our Mission location. We can buy from the same farmers and ranchers and have the same drop-off point. And, we’ll feature some of the same ingredients. So, after a meal at Nopa, guests can extend that experience with a meal they make at home."

Sounds like you and Jeff go way back. What was he like in high school?
"Exactly the same! And just like me, nothing has changed."

Were you both foodies back then?
"We both discovered food at the same time. He went on to City College and became a front-of-the-house guy. I went to City College the year after and pursued the cooking side."

We must ask: Is there a way to cut the line at Bi-Rite Creamery?
"The best secret is to go to the soft-serve window and get a pint and several spoons. Almost all the flavors are ready to go. And a pint is never too much. For two, it’s doable. I finished one by myself the other day."

What’s your favorite flavor right now?
"Meyer lemon. The acidity just brightens everything. The lemon cuts through the richness of the cream. I usually mix it with a little bit of ginger."

Your Beyond Bubbie panel was about traditions — and while you’re not Jewish, you and your mom shared your memories around cooking and eating. Do you have any new traditions in your household?
"On Christmas Eve, since Anne and I have been together, we have dinner for two, just the two of us. Then, the following day we’ll go to mom and dad’s with the entire extended family and their significant others. There are 40 to 50 of us. I just love it."

Your parents started Bi-Rite and you took over the business. How do you stay inspired?
"When you’ve got a couple of hundred people working for you who are working to take care of their families, that keeps the fire in my belly pretty well-stoked. It really keeps me motivated. I love what I do and how it brings people together. It really is fun to see people light up. It’s all I want to do."

Photo: Courtesy of Sam Mogannam