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.
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: email@example.com
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.
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.
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