The look you get from the person behind you in the checkout line when they see nothing but snacks and candy in your cart pic.twitter.com/7UDnR8WOB7
— Berkeley Booooo-wl 👻 (@BerkeleyBowl) September 23, 2018
It all started when I noticed a post on Berkeley Bowl’s Facebook account. It was a post of a moody Rembrandt painting called “The Artist’s Mother” of an elderly woman in a black hood, with what can only be described as a scowl on her face. The caption read: “The look you get from the person behind you in the checkout line when they see nothing but snacks and candy in your cart.”
I laughed out loud.
In another post, a portrait of a woman — Mademoiselle de Lancey, painted in oils by French artist Carolus-Duran — with a plunging neckline looks straight at the viewer with a slight nod of her head and just a hint of a smile. The accompanying words: “When he cares about the nutritional profile of organic Brussels sprouts.”
When people don’t know how to test melons for ripeness pic.twitter.com/nFFlZGfKW4
— Berkeley Booooo-wl 👻 (@BerkeleyBowl) August 23, 2018
And another, featuring a dark painting by Flemish painter Michael Sweerts of a man looking back at the viewer as he sticks one finger into the nose hole of a skull. The caption reads, “When people don’t know how to check melons for ripeness.”
The voice is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and is often snarky, always funny. It also provides facts about the various products the Bowl carries. And, it happens to speak German.
If you aren’t yet following the iconic produce market on social media, you should be.
As a regular Bowl shopper, I began to wonder to whom the voice of its social media accounts belonged. But I knew it was a bit like getting to meet the Wizard of Oz. While journalism offers you an excuse to find such things out, or at least inquire, the subject or business doesn’t have to oblige. In this case, she did and they did. And spoiler alert: unlike with the Wizard, I wasn’t the least bit let down.
Which is how I found myself on a recent Monday morning in Berkeley Bowl West Café with Saoirse (pronounced Seer-shah) Snow, social media specialist, and Steve Tsujimoto, Berkeley Bowl’s general manager.
“You’re not supposed to see the person behind the mask,” Snow said. “But people like to imagine who’s behind it anyway.”
Snow is a transgender woman (she enthusiastically gave me permission to say so, in light of the fact that her gender identity has nothing to do with this story).
In a matter of seconds, her thoughts can veer from her pluot obsession (the crocodile egg is her favorite) and the different cultivars of bananas – such as the Gros Michel and the Cavendish – to Irish poet and novelist Samuel Beckett and the Old Masters.
Snow’s love of absurdism and Dada is reflected in how she uses classical paintings to voice thoughts that the subjects may have about… grocery shopping.
“I can’t deny that I’m kind of bougie,” she said. “I have these interests in art and poetry and creativity and photography. Of course, the traditional thing you do with these interests is write about art, or work in a museum. I’m finding a way to use these things I care about, even if they don’t fit the medium.”
When it’s Sunday morning at 10:01 pic.twitter.com/mkytFioGZV
— Berkeley Booooo-wl 👻 (@BerkeleyBowl) August 23, 2018
Snow has strong opinions about which artists make for good posts and which don’t. “I don’t think Picasso is a good one for Twitter because some of his more interesting works are also incredibly depressing, like ‘Guernica,’” she said. “And Jackson Pollock is only good for when your grocery bag accidentally breaks in the driveway.”
But not all posts are about art. There are plenty of pop culture references, too. “Henry Rollins once said ‘as a teen, I heard the second Velvet Underground album “White Light/White Heat” and it was too much for my limited scope of appreciation. It was intense, but I didn’t get it.’ Sometimes your first time at the Bowl is like that, too.”
For “Food Facts Friday,” Snow picks one particular item for sale at Berkeley Bowl and shares all kinds of little-known facts about it. While this one isn’t from a food fact Friday, we learn, for example, that avocados were spread throughout the world because the giant sloth migrated thousands of miles and was one of the only land animals large enough to eat avocados whole and pass the pits.
Searching the web for the new memes but there’s nothing good out there. The search, unlike the Bowl, was fruitless.
— Berkeley Booooo-wl 👻 (@BerkeleyBowl) October 11, 2018
The market’s foray into social media is relatively new, but one could say it’s definitely being noticed.
“Whatever intern is posting these should be paid a lot more, this is quality content,” said one commenter.
“For a long time we were not engaged in it and we don’t believe in advertising,” Tsujimoto explained. “The owners (Diane and Glenn Yasuda) are humble people and don’t like to brag about themselves or the store; they’ve always preferred word of mouth.”
While the owners would occasionally have an employee post something on Facebook, Tsujimoto’s daughter, Brandi, is an Instagram influencer in the world of cosmetics with 80,000 followers. She was constantly telling her father the Berkeley Bowl brand needed to get social media savvy. (Snow says she often looks to Tsujimoto’s feed for make-up tips).
“My daughter’s always telling me ‘it’s all about engagement.’ ‘You can’t just put one post a month and that’s it,’” he said.
Finally, the management team agreed and posted a job description.
Snow has an undergraduate degree in comparative literature from The American University in Paris and a law degree from the University of San Francisco. She worked for the public defender’s office in San Francisco for a stint. She also has a deep interest in art; while in Paris, she spent countless afternoons at the Louvre.
At 30, she is among the first generation of regular Facebook users; she joined when one still needed a college email address to do so.
“I’m still hip with it, I know what the kids are talking about,” she said, noting that she’s been on social media for half her life.
“Twitter also started while I was in college,” she said. “Twitter is my favorite because it’s obviously where I think I’m funniest.”
While in law school, Snow worked as a barista at Berkeley Bowl. After graduating, she knew she wanted a job with work-life balance, and was unsure she could find that in law. When she saw the internal job posting for social media specialist, she knew it was a good fit.
“I kept badgering everyone until I got my way,” she said.
While still relatively new on the job, Snow is aspiring for the Bowl’s social media feed to be as widely recognized as Wendy’s fast-food chain, or Pop-Tarts (both of these brands are known in the social media-verse for their snark.)
Both Tsujimoto and Snow say the store is seeing a quantifiable difference in having a more active social media presence. Recent followers might be there for the laughs, but when new items are promoted, there’s definitely an uptick in sales.
This especially happens with beer; the Bowl has its own dedicated Instagram account devoted to beer followed by enthusiasts who appreciate its large craft brew selection, and that falls under Snow’s purview as well, even though she herself doesn’t drink.
“I talk to the beer buyer to learn the history behind the different breweries and their flavor profiles and I ask a lot of questions,” she said, noting “I only found out two months ago what IPA stands for.”
Snow is an interesting choice for a brand whose owners prefer to stay out of the spotlight. When asked about that later, Tsujimoto said that her skill set set her apart; “She is intelligent, has a great sense of humor, is articulate in how she interprets things and understands not only social media, but the law,” he said.
Snow had worked at the Bowl for years as a barista and applied for the job still presenting as a man; her coming out to her coworkers is a recent development. Tsujimoto said that regardless, Berkeley Bowl doesn’t discriminate in its hiring practices. He added that he didn’t even know until a recent management meeting at which they discussed whether to participate in this article.
Snow has free rein to post as she likes; it’s her unedited voice that comes through.
But every once in a while, she’ll solicit feedback. Like when she recently asked Tsujimoto if she could make a joke about cannibalism. The answer was no.
And once when she didn’t ask, her wife was the one who told her that her oddball sense of humor didn’t quite land.
“I did one post about Prometheus,” she said, explaining that in Greek mythology, it was he who stole fire from the gods and brought it to humanity, and was sentenced to eternal damnation by having eagles feast on his liver. She used “Prometheus Bound,” a painting by Griepenkerl to illustrate it.
“I just assumed that the story of Prometheus is common knowledge, so I posted this painting of an eagle eating Prometheus’ liver, and I wrote something like, ‘That thing when you walk past the meat department and you realize you really want some liver.’ My wife asked what I was trying to accomplish with this,” she said, and then paused for dramatic flair. “I took it down.”
When you see someone with 16 items in the express checkout lane pic.twitter.com/2bpLBfi7Yo
— Berkeley Booooo-wl 👻 (@BerkeleyBowl) September 14, 2018
Snow looks for inspiration by roaming through the store, and it comes to her in different ways; depending on the platform.
“With Instagram, I wait until I get really hungry,” she said. “I walk around with my phone or camera, and just look at the different food until something leaps out at me that I want to eat. Then I either learn about it or try to get out of my own way. The creative, inspired muse part of it happens when you’re not trying, and you want to be able to harness that.”
She continues, “On Twitter, I’m a fan of absurdism and the disconnect between structure and meaning, or between form and content, which I think is why the posts with Renaissance and Impressionist paintings do so well. There’s a difference between the cultural phenomenon of a grocery store tweeting and a 400-year-old painting hanging in the fanciest museum in the world.”
When the news in most of our social media feeds is about our president and the demise of our democracy, wouldn’t you rather read: “How to Talk to Your Children About the End of Stone Fruit Season, on sale at Berkeley Bowl through Autumn. (disclaimer: not actually a real book).”
Or “It’s Sunday! An excellent day to treat yourself to some dried dates. Some amazing, sweet, succulent, addicting, textured, deep golden brown, fragrant, soft-but-not-too-soft dried dates. Or don’t, it’s your life. But honestly, why wouldn’t you?”
This story was updated after publication to make a clarification relating to Snow’s gender identity.