1. When it comes to the business of food, how is Bi-Rite disrupting the industry?
I think our mission—creating community through food—kind of goes against the norm. For us, it’s not just about operating for profit. We look at our entire community, and we respect and value them. Each of our stakeholders, our guests, our staff, our vendors, and our environment needs to be valued equally. The minute one is valued over the other, the balance is lost, and someone gets the short end of the stick. Our society spends a lot less money on food these days since we’re polluting it and genetically modifying it, all for the sake of efficiency and the bottom line. We have not taken a step back and acknowledged that we’re poisoning our people. If businesses are going to exist in the next 50 years, we need to ensure that our society is healthy and able to work.
2. At what point in your career did you learn that doing things differently can pay off?
There was a culinary competition that I wanted to enter while I was in cooking school in 1988, and typically the teachers would help the students prepare the presentation for the competition. But I had an out-of-the-box idea that the instructor said was a bad idea. As a result, he didn’t offer to help, but I did it anyway. I put this vegetarian paté together to bring to the competition the following morning, and I ended up winning first place. Everyone is stuck in a box, and you’re not going to get anywhere if stay on the same path. I’m just going to do things my way, and as long as I stay true to my soul, things will work. I didn’t want to follow in everyone else’s footsteps.
3. Aside from selling food, there are also Bi-Rite books. How does this extension of the brand fit into the Bi-Rite vision?
I view myself as a feeder; I love to feed people. I also view our role as teachers. We’re all about empowering people to understand and appreciate where their food comes from, connecting them with farmers and ranchers, and we always want them to recognize that there’s a human behind this food that they eat. We want to give our people the tools to feed their families better. These books let us share that vision with other consumers outside our community so they can demand better food and eat better no matter where they live. What’s been really cool is how many other retailers have bought these books and changed their practices as a result.
4. At what point in the business did you know that it was a good idea to expand beyond the Market to the Creamery?
We tried to expand a few years before we opened the Creamery, but we weren’t ready to take on a second business. My wife is a pastry chef, and after we had kids, she started baking for the Market out of a rented kitchen. We were looking for a closer, more permanent home in which to keep baking. We found a location across the street and started making ice cream. We wanted to make really good ice cream. We were the first shop in San Francisco to make ice cream with local, organic milk. Within a month, we blew our sales forecasts out of the water. We knew within a couple of months, once the lines around the block started forming, that it was a bright idea. Since then, there have been dozens of other ice cream shops doing the same thing, using great milk and serving salted caramel ice cream to their guests. You know the minute people start copying you that you nailed something.
5. What businesses or people do you look to for inspiration in terms of staying creative in business?
I look a lot at others in the hospitality business. I love how really great hotels run and how smart restaurant operators run. They have a tremendous focus on guest service, just as we do. I also look at tech companies who are always comfortable doing things out of the box. It’s part of our culture that we love taking risks and aren’t afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes make us stronger; we learn from them.
6. What advice do you have for other business owners who are being disruptive in an industry in terms of setting new standards?
Don’t be afraid of mistakes. You have to take risks. You have to think about how to differentiate yourself. You have to take a step back and think about where you want to be in two, three, four, or five years. Lay out a good vision of what will make you successful. It’s amazing how empowering that is. Every time an idea comes to you, see if it fits with your vision and mission; if it doesn’t, then walk away. So often, small businesses lose sight of the goal because the goal hasn’t been articulated. It is also a lot easier to get buy in from your team if they know where they are going. There is that great quote, "if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together."
[Spiral Staircase: Mark Higgins via Shutterstock]