Glenn Yasuda, who made Berkeley Bowl internationally known for its excellent produce, dies at 85

Berkeley Bowl, lauded for its seemingly endless varieties of fruits and vegetables, is in mourning after losing the man who started it all. On the evening of Friday, Feb. 14, co-owner and co-founder Glenn Yasuda died from a blood infection. He was 85.

Yasuda’s son, Gen, will be stepping into his father’s shoes, heading the two stores in Berkeley, according to workers at the store. The Yasuda family could not be reached for comment.

Glenn and his wife Diane opened the first Berkeley Bowl close to their home in 1977 in a former bowling alley on Shattuck Avenue, where a Honda dealership now operates. At the time, Glenn was teaching business education at a local college. Twenty-two years later, in 1999, they moved the store down one block to its current location, a former Safeway on Oregon Street.

The Yasudas opened a second store, Berkeley Bowl West, on Heinz Street in 2009. It has become a regional shopping destination, not least as it is easy to reach from Interstate 80.

The stores have earned a national and international reputation with tourists from Europe and Asia who make it a stop on their travels to the Bay Area. The New York Times and the Washington Post have written rapturously about Berkeley Bowl’s produce, while also commenting on how its popularity almost guarantees long lines.

The bestselling food writer and author Michael Pollan told Berkeleyside that Berkeley Bowl is “heaven for omnivores.”

Yasuda learned about produce from an early age — but under horrendous circumstances. Originally from Japan, the Yasuda family settled down in Southern California, where both his father and grandfather were produce farmers (his father specialized in mushrooms and dried fruits). The family was incarcerated in an internment camp near Cody, Wyoming, during World War II, but continued to farm in that period, according to a Berkeley Bowl general manager, Steve Tsujimoto. The produce department has always been Yasuda’s pride and joy, according to Laura McLively, author of The Berkeley Bowl Cookbook.

“Glenn created one of my favorite places on earth,” said McLively. “If it weren’t for him, I would never have tasted a wiry-haired rambutan, scooped out the oozy green juice of a horned melon, shelled a fresh chickpea, or stuffed a banana leaf as big as my head. Glenn provided the Bay Area with the best and most varied produce around, hands down.”

A framed 40th Berkeley Bowl anniversary gift with former co-owner Glenn Yasuda pictured in the center hangs on the wall at the main Berkeley Bowl store. Photo: Sarah Belle Lin
A photo of Glenn Yasuda by Kimi Kodani Hill from Berkeley Bowl’s earliest days is featured in a 40th anniversary display hanging on the wall at the Oregon St. store. Photo: Sarah Belle Lin

David “Mas” Masumoto, of Masumoto Family Farms near Fresno, said his famed Suncrest peaches got their first home at Berkeley Bowl in the ’90s. He credits Yasuda for helping save his farm.

“We were struggling to find a home for one of our organic fruits, the Suncrest peach,” he said. “I remember going to Berkeley Bowl, meeting Glenn, and telling him we’re farmers. I mentioned the name of our peach. He stopped and goes, ‘I know that variety.’ It reinforced what we were doing on our farm, how we were farming and I realized that there’s a community of people who have that understanding of what great produce is.”

“Glenn helped give us not only legitimacy, but also a sense of a spiritual connection,” Masumoto continued, “Glenn also being Japanese American, we had another layer of affinity about what it meant to be people of color who work in the produce world.”

“He knows more about produce than all of us combined,” said Tsujimoto, who has worked at Berkeley Bowl since 2005. “He probably forgot more produce than we all know. He’s the produce guru.”

Berkeley Bowl is renowned for its varieties of produce.
Berkeley Bowl — which Michael Pollan calls “heaven for omnivores” — is renowned for its huge variety of produce. Photo: Sarah Belle Lin

Yasuda’s commitment to providing a wide variety of affordable and healthy food for the community was evident in his work ethic. He was an early riser, starting work around 2:30 a.m. when the wholesale markets in San Francisco opened. Every morning, Yasuda drove across the bridge and began his tours to find the crème de la crème of produce. He’d then drive back to the East Bay to work at the stores. Until a year ago, Yasuda would hit the wholesale markets up to three times a week, and then put in additional hours in the evening at the two Berkeley Bowls to prep for the next day. He was also known to stop in for a turkey sandwich made just for him, or his go-to: the in-house soups.

“He’s one of those guys who is always here,” said Emese Danko, the Oregon Street store manager. “He worked seven days a week and just had a presence.”

Danko, who has worked at Berkeley Bowl for 17 years, never thought she’d be more than a cashier. It was Glenn — whom Danko called the “hardest working man” she knew — and his vision that prompted her to stay, and eventually be promoted to store manager. “Glenn was not a top-down manager; he was one of those guys that would explain, show and teach you,” she said. “We have people who work here from 30 years ago and it’s kind of a testament to Glenn.”

Glenn Yasuda's personal touches will continue to be seen around Berkeley Bowl through his handwritten signs in the produce section, of which a whole team has been formed, to follow in the likes of his penmanship.
Glenn Yasuda’s personal touches will continue to be seen around Berkeley Bowl through these handwritten signs in the produce section. A whole team has been formed to follow the style of his penmanship. Photo: Sarah Belle Lin

Although the Berkeley Bowl team was aware that Yasuda had fallen ill a week after New Year’s and had been hospitalized, the shock was evident when the staff was informed Yasuda had died, according to Tsujimoto. “It was just a very somber weekend here, a lot of crying,” he said.

Produce manager Cisco Rojas, who’s worked at the main store since 1999, called Yasuda “an excellent mentor with a clear vision.” Berkeley Bowl human resources director Rosalinda Nava said Yasuda always had her back whenever she felt people were giving her pushback for being a young woman. “All my motivation and willingness to do bigger and greater things at Berkeley Bowl are because of him,” Nava said.

From left: Berkeley Bowl HR manager Rosalinda Nava, Glenn Yasuda and Oregon store manager Emese Danko. Photo courtesy of Rosalinda Nava
From left: Berkeley Bowl human resources manager Rosalinda Nava, Glenn Yasuda and Oregon Street store manager Emese Danko. Photo courtesy of Rosalinda Nava

Yasuda’s colleagues repeatedly emphasized his humble nature. “You’d never hear him boast. In fact, he would probably get upset with us just by talking with [a reporter], giving accolades to him,” said Tsujimoto. “That’s the kind of guy he was; he just liked staying under the radar and taking care of his people.”

But Yasuda could also be a controversial figure. He made headlines in 2003 for opposing union memberships at the stores and hiring a union buster to decertify the union. It was a move that soured Berkeley Bowl for many in the community. Yasuda is also famous for his stand against Los Angeles Times reporter John Glionna, who was banned for life after his article on Berkeley Bowl, “Where nuts are off the shelf,” was published. The article describes a customer who was also banned for life after he sampled two different types of apricots in order to decide which one he wanted to buy.

Tsujimoto said Yasuda always planned to open a third and even a fourth store if the opportunity arose. “We’ve been looking, we’re just waiting for the right opportunity because it has to be a right fit for the community and for the customer base,” Tsujimoto said.

He believes Yasuda’s son Gen, who is turning 41, will be a “formidable leader” for Berkeley Bowl. “I really believe he’s going to continue the legacy,” Tsujimoto said. “I don’t think anybody has to worry about Berkeley Bowl selling or closing. We’re here to stay and to take care of our community and our loyal customers.’

Yasuda is survived by his wife and co-founder of Berkeley Bowl, Diane, his son Gen, and two grandchildren, Mirai and Akemi.

“It’s hard to imagine that this famed institution — which has literally shaped the landscape of California cuisine, helped to save heirloom varieties of produce, employed hundreds of people and exposed millions of shoppers to new and exciting produce — was created by someone as humble as Glenn,” said McLively.