Produce for the people at Berkeley Bowl

Nick Christopher, supervisor at Berkeley Bowl, knows his way around the produce stand. Photo: Sarah Henry.

Nick Christopher moved out West in the early 90s, drawn to the punk-rock scene here he toured with a band and hung out with Green Day.

These days Christopher spends more time thinking about perfect produce than the perfect tune, as an organic produce buyer for Berkeley Bowl. He started at the Bowl as a dishwasher, and quickly worked his way through various departments, including the deli and bulk section, before rising to supervisor status.

Owner Glenn Yasuda personally trained Christopher in the fine art of selecting fruits and vegetables. The Bowl has a reputation for its large and extensive produce selection, including exotic finds like durian, carambola (star fruit) and horned melon.

Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: Lance Knobel.

Before a sister store, Berkeley Bowl West, opened in June 2009, the Oregon Street market was legendary for parking rage and long lines — an independent store everyone loved but few actually enjoyed visiting. Now that there are two locations, shopping at the first store is reportedly much more manageable.

Christopher lives in North Berkeley and has worked for the Bowl for 12 years.

He divides his time between the Oregon Street store, (originally housed in a former bowling alley in 1977, it moved to a former Safeway site in 1999), and the modern, warehouse-like market on the west side of town (9th and Heinz Streets), which boasts wide aisles and ample parking.

The 36-year-old is featured in the pilot of the forthcoming Kiss the Cook and the Farmer Too, a planned television series on cooking and sustainable farming. We met at the recent Ecofarm Conference, where the program was screened, and chatted last week in the community room at Berkeley Bowl West.

What is your biggest seller?

Bananas. If people understood the environmental impact, including the amount of fossil fuels it takes to get bananas from a plantation (formerly the jungle) in Ecuador or Costa Rica, and ship them here, they might think twice about buying them.

If it was up to me, I wouldn’t sell bananas and I don’t eat them myself. But my job is to keep the store stocked for customers. I’m providing a public service. I don’t judge, I just provide what people want.

What tips do you have for customers?

Buy seasonally, sample, and ask questions. I tell people that the “baby” carrots in the bags are just regular-sized seconds that growers shave down. The large individual carrots are grown for ease of mechanical harvesting. I recommend the smaller, bunched carrots with their greens still attached, which come in a variety of colors, and tend to taste sweeter.

Have you had any requests for produce that are hard to fulfill?

Lots of people ask us for organic jicama. Apparently, it’s really hard to grow, it’s very susceptible to disease. I still haven’t been able to source that. And once we had an entire cooking class ask us to stock organic cilantro with the roots intact. I guess the roots are used to make curry in Thai cuisine. I talked with the farmer and we were able to accommodate those customers. I’m happy to take requests. People can email me: nchris@berkeleybowl.com

A shopper at Berkeley Bowl.

We get our share. But mostly people are grateful; we’re fortunate here in Northern California with the sheer variety and quality of produce. If people were better educated about seasonality, availability, and the effect of the weather on crops I’d field less questions like: “Why is so much of the produce from Mexico now?” Or: “Why can’t I buy eggplant now?” Or: “Why aren’t these peaches as good as last year’s?”

One woman left a voicemail message telling me she opened a package of blueberries labeled organic and said she could smell the pesticides inside. Another wanted me to verify that everything in the produce section was GMO-free. I can’t make personal guarantees beyond the certification and standards that farmers must adhere to. There has to be an element of trust.

People have had a love/hate relationship with the main store. Do you have a story that speaks to that?

I was the supervisor in charge on a day leading up to a holiday, the main store was packed, and it was right before closing. A woman in line was frustrated at the guy in front of her — I think he was kind of slow getting his things out of his cart — so she threw a piece of produce at his head.

It was an assault — by avocado no less — so I had to call the cops. She had a child with her, so the husband had to come down and get the kid. Those kinds of incidents are rare, though.

What have you learned from owner Glenn Yasuda?

He’s passed on his philosophy of providing Berkeley with a huge variety of quality produce, similar to what you can find at the farmers’ market, at affordable prices. He’s dedicated to doing that and has been since he opened his doors in 1977.

Glenn has an incredible work ethic; he’s in his 70s and still going to the wholesale markets six days a week at 3 a.m. He’s taught me that consistency is key and when to push certain produce in the market while it’s at its peak. He doesn’t like to waste food, both from a business and personal perspective, so I always have an eye on inventory with that in mind.

Glenn is fair but firm with farmers. He can tell by taste when a supplier has pumped water into his peaches to get them up to size for sale. He can bite into a cherry and know if a grower has too much gypsum in his soil, which makes for a hardier fruit but can impact taste. He’s always sampling and he’s taught me to do the same.

Produce for sale outside Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: John C. Osborn.

 

How important are your relationships with farmers?

They’re everything. Produce is a very sensitive commodity. I need to be able to depend on my suppliers to bring me the best possible looking and tasting fruits and vegetables. Americans have been spoiled, they want their produce to look a certain way, most people still buy with their eyes, and that’s true of organics too.

Do you have favorite fruits and vegetables?

I juice a lot of beets, carrots, and ginger. I’m a fan of kale, particularly dinosaur kale. We have a new packaged salad mix of organic kale, carrots, and red cabbage that, when tossed with a sesame dressing, is really good. I’m also big on Tokyo turnips roasted with other root vegetables. The green garlic, spring onions, and California asparagus are at their best now.

I’m still blown away by the different kinds of citrus and apples that are available here. Even more than varieties, I’ll choose my fruit by farmer. The apples from Cuyama Orchards — Fuji, Pink Lady, Arkansas Black, Winesap, Gala — are grown in a valley near Santa Barbara and are some of the best I’ve tasted. In the summer I eat the dry-farmed tomatoes from Tomatero Farm in Watsonville.

As for fruit, when I can get them, Chandler strawberries, a smaller, more fragile, super sweet variety, are great. I used to be a Satsuma guy but now I’m partial to a really good navel orange. I like blood oranges too and this hybrid called a Sumo (not organic), which is the size of a navel, seedless like a mandarin, bumpy like a Mineola, and has hints of all these citrus in its flavor.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

Related:
The Berkeley Bowl effect [04.27.10]
Berkeley Bowl workers get new chance for union election [01.04.11]
Berkeley’s food meccas: The new religion [06.11.10]

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  • cwm

    I think the “for the people” part of the title of this post is misleading. The Berkeley Bowl sells produce for profit, not for the people, just like Safeway or Whole Foods or whatever. It sells to a highly health-conscious population, and that population is often progressive, but there is nothing progressive about the Berkeley Bowl as a business. It is no more or less progressive than Pizza Hut.

  • http://www.preservenet.com Charles Siegel

    “Before a sister store, Berkeley Bowl West, opened in June 2009, the original market was legendary for parking rage and long lines — an independent store everyone loved but few actually enjoyed visiting. Now that there are two locations, shopping at the original is reportedly much more manageable.”

    You are missing part of the history. The existing Berkeley Bowl on Oregon St. is *not* the original.

    The original Berkeley Bowl was located in a converted bowling alley a few blocks from the current store on Oregon St. As I remember, it was about 15,000 square feet – a bit smaller than the Trader Joes on University and MLK. It was known for its excellent produce; you don’t need a huge store with a huge parking lot to provide good produce.

    Has everyone forgotten that the Berkeley Bowl got its name because it was originally in a former Bowling Alley?

    As I have said before, in my opinion, it is unfortunate that Berkeley Bowl decided to expand by moving to larger and larger stores, so people drive longer and longer distances to get there. When they became successful and had large number of customers, they could have expanded by building many moderately sized stores, similar to their original store, so more people would have Berkeley Bowls closer to their homes, rather than having to drive long distances to get there.

    That would have been the way to reduce both parking lot rage when you get there and road rage while you drive there. It also would have been far superior environmentally

  • Bryan Garcia

    The original Berkeley Bowl is still pretty crowded and hectic. Although, I go on Sunday afternoon, which is probably the busiest time in the entire week. It doesn’t help that they insist on using gigantic shopping carts. Other stores use much smaller carts. They’re more compact but deeper. Look at Whole Foods carts, for example. It would help a lot of BB would switch to smaller carts.

  • http://lettuceeatkale.wordpress.com/ Sarah Henry

    Not missing, Charles, just a bit mangled. I mention the bowling alley in the piece, but messed up the order of things, which I’ll now correct. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    And, for the record, if you live in underserved West Berkeley, you don’t have to drive “longer and longer” to get to the store. It’s quite conveniently located.

  • Bryan Garcia

    Oh and another thing that would help: have a bagger for every open check stand! Things would move SO much quicker if they had more baggers! Right now, they have a couple that kind of go from stand to stand, even at their peak business on Sundays. I’m sorry, but this isn’t Food 4 Less or Pack ‘N’ Save, I shouldn’t have to bag my own groceries or feel pressured into doing so for the sake of keeping the line moving!

  • DC

    Thanks, Nick! I’m wildly loyal to the Bowl. I used to drive from SF to shop there, and now that I live closer, I bike.

    I’m one of those who asked for cilantro roots (and have kept asking for them!). You used to have it and now you don’t. I have to drive to Richmond to get them, and that’s a big drag. Impossible to make most real Thai curries without them.

  • DC

    Oh, and I never mind bagging my groceries. No biggie.

  • http://www.preservenet.com Charles Siegel

    Sarah:
    Thanks for the correction.

    My point is that the model of smaller stores makes it more convenient for everyone. There could have been one of those small stores in underserved West Berkeley. There could also have been some of those small stores in San Francisco and El Cerrito, for people from those cities who now get on the freeway to drive to West Berkeley.

    Think of Trader Joes. Because they have smaller stores, they have one store in El Cerrito, one in Emeryville, one in Berkeley, two in Oakland, and I don’t know how many in San Francisco. If they replaced six or eight of their smaller stores with one megastore near the freeway exit in West Berkeley, that would obviously be less convenient overall. Do you disagree with this obvious point?

  • EggsWisey

    “Nick Christopher moved out West during the peak of the punk-rock era in the 80s, toured with a band, and hung out with Green Day….The 36-year-old is featured in the…”

    Um, if he’s 36, that would mean he was born in 1975. Which would’ve made him 5 years old in 1980, and only turning 10 years old by 1985. Sorry to break it to you, but the SF/Berkeley/Bay Area hardcore punk scene was already over and done with by 1985. MDC & Dead Kennedys playing outside the National Democratic Convention (on a flatbed truck, when Moscone Center was still that huge parking lot) in 1984 was pretty much the end of that era. While it’s possible Nick Christopher could’ve attended that show and others previous to it, which were all ages, it’s highly unlikely that he did…and is instead under the delusion that the likes of Green Day, Rancid, and other apres “the original scene” johnny-come-lately bands were playing at “the peak of the punk-rock era”. simply not so. real punk peaked before mr. christopher reached middle school. nice that he’s gainfully employed, but if he really wanted to supply produce to the people, he’d be giving away the surplus for free in people’s park.

  • Chris

    Charles:

    You’re completely ignoring the large overhead that would accompany such an approach. Having 5 stores at 10,000 sq ft. will cost more in rent, utilities, etc. than 1 store at 50,000 sq ft.

    Moreover, TJ’s works primarily because the majority of their stock is shelf- or freezer-stable. Coordinating the diversity of produce that BB offers between 5, 10, 15 stores would be a nightmare.

    You have good intentions, I know — but have you thought at ALL about the business side of things?

  • Sharkey

    Charles, if you think you can manage Berkeley Bowl better than their current managers and planners are doing, you should really consider writing up a proposal and meeting with them to discuss it.

    Personally speaking I don’t mind it the way it is now, but I certainly wouldn’t complain about having a store closer to my house. If you really think they could retain the same pricing/selection and profitability through a chain of smaller stores instead of focusing on larger stores and can come up with the numbers to show it, why not show them and see what they say?

  • Russ

    A lot of smaller stores would mean higher prices. Plus all those big delivery trucks pumping fumes all over town. And the bureaucratic process to get the new store built was horrific. You think they’d want to do that four or five more times?

  • Bryan Garcia

    @DC

    But the point is, why should I, the customer, be expected to bag my own groceries? As I said, it’s not Food 4 Less or Pack-n-Save, where that is expected and you get a deeper discount because it is explicitly a bag-your-own store. Virtually every other supermarket bags your groceries for you, why can’t Berkeley Bowl???

    Plus, as I said, it slows down the lines drastically, because many customers choose NOT to bag their own. So the cashier must first scan everything, collect the money, and then bag everything, making it take probably twice as long!

  • r wright

    Oh yeah, Trader Joes- do they still sell their produce in styrofoam containers sealed in plastic…..
    I appreciate Berkeley Bowl and all they do / provide.

  • http://lettuceeatkale.wordpress.com/ Sarah Henry

    @EggsWisey: The word “peak” of the punk-rock scene was mine, not Christopher’s, and since I’m 10 years older than him myself I’m quite familiar with the timeline on the hardcore punk scene in San Francisco. Christopher moved to Berkeley in the early 90s (not 80s, as I originally wrote, I checked my notes and will correct, thanks for the catch). Green Day hit the big time in 1994 with Dookie and there was a thriving punk music scene here, which was simply all I was trying to convey in the intro to this piece.

  • John Galt

    Interesting article… thank you.

  • TN

    The Yasuda family has been in Berkeley a long time. They’ve had the time to see small chains of Berkeley based groceries struggle or fail. We can see that Andronico’s is struggling. And some of us remember the COOP. The economics of running multiple smaller stores seems to be very hard. Even expanding by just one store is difficult. Monterey Market gave up its store in Palo Alto after a few years.

    The Berkeley Bowl has a formula that works. And I appreciate that the store understands that it can make money by selling produce at lower prices but with higher volumes of sales. It is exactly the opposite of Andronico’s approach. I wish that Berkeley Bowl would extend this approach to more non-produce items.

  • DC

    @Bryan: If you want your groceries bagged or are unable to bag them yourself, they will certainly bag them for you. The cashier does so if there is no dedicated bagger. I bag my own because it’s more courteous to the people behind me and makes everything that much faster. If I cared about bagging groceries more than price or selection of produce I would shop at Andronicos. As it happens, bagging groceries is something I don’t care about. I’d rather have lower prices.

  • Jon C

    CWM – Please try to get off your high horse and start enjoying your life. What an excellent article! I learned more about produce from this one article than I have learned in my whole life. Thanks for the info!

  • Anna

    I can’t believe that people are complaining about bagging their own groceries. Too many self entitled people here.

  • Russ

    “For the people” can mean many different things — unless you are using the Berkeley People’s dictionary circa 1960s. If so, the definition is rather rigid. Good article, would love to read more like these.

  • JULIE B

    What a terrific article Nick. You are obviously very knowledgable about and dedicated to your job. As a person who is trying each day to take steps to decrease my carbon footprint, I appreciate the insight and information.
    If everyone enjoyed their work as you do, imagine the positive energy that would ripple out there, and strides we would be taking to a healthier and more informed people!
    Thanks for the glimpse at good!