Produce for the People at Berkeley Bowl

by Sarah Henry on March 18, 2011 · 29 comments

in berkeley bites,food businesses,fruit,sfgate site,vegetables

Nick Christopher, produce manager at Berkeley Bowl, knows a thing or two about fruits and veggies. 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.

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.

Christopher lives in North Berkeley and has worked for the Bowl for 12 years. He divides his time between the first store, housed in a former bowling alley, and the modern, warehouse-like market on the west side, 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.

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

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

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 telling me she opened a package of blueberries labeled organic and 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, so the husband had to come down and get the kid. Those kinds of incidents are rare, though.

The award-winning contemporary design of Berkeley Bowl West conceived by architects at Kava Massih.

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.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was cross posted on SFGate.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi March 18, 2011 at 10:19 am

Assault by avo. You just don’t know the behind the scenes drama until someone gives you a peek, do you?
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Sterling Earrings Giveaway by Silverworks

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Sarah Henry March 18, 2011 at 10:22 am

And that, Melanie, is what I love about my job. Who knew the danger lurking in the produce aisles?

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Alisa Bowman March 18, 2011 at 10:32 am

Oh Sarah, we don’t have stores like this where I live. At my nearest grocery store, I’m lucky if the produce doesn’t have mold on it. At the nicer one, we have the long lines and parking rage that you mention, and it’s still not quite as elaborate as what you write about here. I’m interested in seeing this TV series.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..Group therapy- How to tell if it’s worth it

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Sarah Henry March 18, 2011 at 10:39 am

I hope the show gets off the ground — it’s an intriguing concept. As for the Bowl: I like to bring out-of-town and overseas guests to the market so they can ogle all the variety on display.

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Jennifer Margulis March 18, 2011 at 10:47 am

I used to shop at the Berkeley Bowl when I lived in Cally in the early 1990s. But it didn’t look anything like in the photo!

@Alisa, these are among the reasons you NEED TO MOVE TO ASHLAND DEAR. Our Co-op is way better than the Berkeley Bowl. Sarah, come see for yourself! It’s so much cheaper (especially the organic CALIFORNIA produce. Explain that one…)

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Sarah Henry March 18, 2011 at 11:07 am

I see a road trip north in my future. Stay tuned, Jen.

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Nick March 19, 2011 at 2:18 pm

@Alisa: please…

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Alexandra March 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm

I love that a customer requested GMO-free. I wish we did not need to make this request. I wish there were labeling in America. Perhaps with folks like Nick at the helm, paying attention to customers’ requests, we will start a trend towards more healthy living, rather than less, where most of us are heading, I am afraid.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Whats Up on Main Street

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Sarah Henry March 18, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Yes, the locals here are always questioning authority, the conventional wisdom, and even the produce guy about the validity of the paperwork certifying whether something is organic or GMO-free.

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Jane Boursaw March 18, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Fascinating. I love that he’s a punk rocker, and also that he walks the walk. I never really thought much about bananas because I do love them. Will have to re-think my stance on ingesting them so often…

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Sarah Henry March 18, 2011 at 4:00 pm

And, if you do rethink banana consumption, Jane, I highly recommend reading this fascinating New Yorker story on the cultivation of this popular crop:
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/01/10/110110fa_fact_peed

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Vera Marie Badertscher March 18, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Sheesh,that guy is so CUTE! I can’t imagine him in a mosh pit–much better suited for his current nosh career.

Vera (Okay, its getting late and my pun defenses are down.)

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Sarah Henry March 19, 2011 at 11:18 am

That is one seriously bad pun, Vera, but you’re forgiven, given the hour.

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merr March 19, 2011 at 6:09 am

What an incredible design for a market. I am not one who, ahem, enjoys grocery shopping, but the environment here looks irresistible!

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Sarah Henry March 19, 2011 at 11:19 am

It certainly makes grocery shopping easier when people aren’t crammed in on top of each other fighting for access to the shelves, Merr.

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MyKidsEatSquid March 19, 2011 at 6:24 am

I love the smaller, bunched carrots too. At one grocer, they’re bunched with purple, yellow, and orange. They’re beautiful and it’s true they taste sweeter.

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Sarah Henry March 19, 2011 at 11:19 am

Agreed, MKES.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. March 19, 2011 at 9:13 am

Being able to sample all that incredible produce in the name of education – that sounds like heaven! (Though the, er, demanding customers would bring me right back down to earth.) So glad Chris is spreading the word on your side of the country.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..The Telltale Hamantaschen

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Sarah Henry March 19, 2011 at 11:20 am

Customer complaints go with the territory — bit like the feedback we writers get in certain circles (check out the comments on the Berkeleyside version of this story to see what I mean, Casey.)

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Christine March 19, 2011 at 9:19 am

This was so informative – thank you for sharing this. I’d like to hear more specifics about bananas. How might a store engage in informing its customers without sounding too preachy and yet helping nurture real change? I can sense from this what a delicate balancing act it all is.
Christine´s last [type] ..Blue- blue hat

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Sarah Henry March 19, 2011 at 11:21 am

Do read the New Yorker story, Christine, referenced above. The banana dilemma is a fascinating one.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart March 19, 2011 at 3:07 pm

I think it’s tough for any business that has good products but a poor overall experience. My fav restaurant, for example, has (or had, until recently) great food, but terrible service and a dining environment that doesn’t work for me. So, we always get/got takeout.

Recently, though, they botched their signature dish three times in about 6 months (after 10+ years of reliable food quality). Since we live a good 30 minutes from the restaurant, I don’t know that the food is “bad” (or at least not up to their usual standards) until it’s too late.

The first time I contacted the owner. He was very sweet about it. The third time he seemed really snotty and defensive. We haven’t stopped by since. It’s really a shame because I like giving my biz to small, family-owned, local companies, but once certain expectations are set, it’s hard to see them slide.

That’s my long way of saying that I’m not sure I’d put up with crabby people and long lines … no matter how good the produce was. :o)

I also wonder about how stores can help educate customers … like with big signs that clearly say, THIS is what’s in SEASON now. Just a thought.

P.S. Now I feel badly about liking bananas too.
Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart´s last [type] ..Fearful Dog Training Update- The Cheese Meter

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Sarah Henry March 22, 2011 at 10:22 pm

I used to run into people at the Bowl — far more patient souls than I — who were just sort of Zen about all that waiting in line. I think one academic/intellectual even referred to it as having a Communist “bread line” quality. It is Berkeley after all.

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Sheryl March 21, 2011 at 9:52 am

How I wish we had a store like this in my neck of the woods. I’m always disappointed in the quality of produce, and am forever on a mission to find the perfect orange, peach, watermelon…what have you. Love the pics, too. So colorful.

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Sarah Henry March 22, 2011 at 10:23 pm

Thanks, Sheryl. You’re such a healthy eater I’m sure it’s frustrating trying to find top-notch fruits and veggies.

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Melanie Haiken March 22, 2011 at 7:04 am

I remember discovering the old Bowl when I moved to Berkeley in the early 1980s when seeing that kind of produce selection was mind-blowing – something you never saw anywhere else. The owners were truly groundbreaking. Now we have farmers’ markets and everything else but it’s nice to know it’s still going strong and true to its mission.

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Sarah Henry March 22, 2011 at 10:26 pm

I’m sure the Bowl stood out back then, Mel, and it still does now. For some folks, it is the supermarket of choice for one-stop shopping where real food is for sale.

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