Written by Shawn Parr
Emily Kaiser Thelin’s insightful article ‘Cornering The Market’ in San Francisco Magazine, September 2011 inspired an ongoing conversation at Bulldog that I thought I’d explore further. Her article had an underlining theme that is present in society today — Change Happens and Size Matters. There are courageous companies in various segments ditching gimmicks and saying goodbye to the things people don’t need. And it is the people who run these companies that play role in shifting society’s perception.
Over the past few decades the retail grocery market has been affected by many factors, not the least of which are economic and societal. In the ’60s the automobile transformed America, consumers ditched their boots and drove to the market. This moved the evolution from neighborhood markets to the rise of supermarkets. Next, processed foods hit the mainstream market offering consumers the ability to purchase an abundance of cheap food that could last for weeks rather than spoil in a few short days, which at the time was thought to be a good thing. Today, people are finding a new love for raw foods, and as such consumers are calling for the return of the local neighborhood market. They are asking where food is from, how it’s grown, and the nutrient content and ingredients.
Sam Mogannam owns a neighborhood market in a very busy part of San Francisco. People line-up out the door and around the corner to shop at Bi-rite because Sam has created a community around food. At a young age he recognized the value of food and was bothered by the less-than-nutritious, preservative-packed food offered at most markets. According to Emily, Sam made a promise that if he ever took over Bi-Rite he would run it with his heart, not his wallet — a philosophy Sam sticks by today. He is aware of the thousands of cheap products he could offer his customers with low margins and the slotting-fees he could acquire for shelf space, but he’s not interested. Instead, he takes personal responsibility for each and every product on his shelves. Sam uses a rather unique decision-making model to stock his shelves: eliminate a popular item that makes him uneasy and take a risk on a product that he feels better about and positively benefits his customers, vendors and the market itself. Rather than just focusing on growing his business, Sam refines it by limiting options, tasting produce before it hits the stands, and turning down offers to expand his brand. His editing and focus on customer service account for much of Bi-Rite’s success.
Jim Surdyk also understands the importance of quality products and customer service. Surdyk’s, a wine market and bar in Minneapolis has been in the Surdyk family for three generations, yet hasn’t changed a whole lot. The family believes in uncompromising quality, versus quantity.
The Surdyks know their stuff! Passed down for generations, their commitment to wine is outstanding, insisting on using online expert wine buyers, educated staff members, and cheese connoisseurs. Their fanatical level of expertise has created an outstanding reputation for the market, and a dynamic following.
The dedication of their staff members and their knowledge of products, ingredients, and sourcing impresses me each time I visit their latest offspring, Surdyk’s Flights, in the Minneapolis airport. It’s a very small store that is able to curate a fine collection of products while creating a unique place for people to take a break, connect and shop. Aside from the thousands of passersby visiting the airport terminal Surdyk’s experiences a daily dose of locals coming to purchase a bottle of wine for dinner or grab a sandwich for lunch.
We can learn a lot from Sam and Jim, two business owners who have created successful companies and a loyal customer following by holding true to their values and directing their businesses with their hearts, not just their dollars.