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Remembering Our Days at the Farmers Markets

A recent post on our Instagram account has lead me down a nostalgic path. I've always been fortunate but looking back over the years, I had to work really hard to get so lucky! 

(with the great Annie Sommerville from Greens Restaurant)

People forget. I forget! In the early days, I sold the beans almost exclusively at farmers markets. I couldn't get into the Napa market (which was idiotic but a tale best saved for another time), so I did the Yountville, Calistoga, and St Helena markets in Napa. I quickly expaned to the Grand Lake market in Oakland and the Marin market at the Civic Center in San Rafael. 
It was rough. I had visions of something like a salon where we'd discuss the virtues of Coco beans for a cassoulet versus Tarbais but the early discussions for the most part were much more basic than that. Many were very confused why they'd even bother to cook beans and many others expected them to be as cheap as they were at their food co-ops. 
I was exhausted but it was fun and I was learning a lot. Mostly I was lonely and people weren't buying much but those who did got quite a show. I think coming from Napa, I tended to discuss the beans like wine. For some, this was not cool, and for others, it was like finding a pal. I stuck with my new friends and decided early on not to worry about the naysayers. Stick with my tribe! 
My favorite memory was of customers who seemed to like me and would buy a pound of beans more out of pity than anything. They'd cook them and they'd be back. And every week they'd want to try something else. It's electric when you've taken an ingredient for granted your whole life and you discover that this little stretch of happiness was right under your nose the whole time. 

My life was wildly busy. On market days I'd have to get up in the dark and drive and drive. I have a memory of watching dawn come up as I crossed the Oakland Bay Bridge. I had my favorite tunes on the CD player and I was drinking hot, sweet milky espresso from my thermos. The van was warm and it dawned on me that I was happy. You're not always aware of when or why, so it felt like a lucky moment. 

I also remember someone at the San Francisco market asking for some Mexican beans we were importing and I explained that in California certified farmers markets, you had to sell food that was produced in California but we did have them in our shop in Napa. 
"I don't want to go all the way up to Napa, for chrissake!"
I noted that I did exactly that by coming to San Francisco, every week! 
Chef Dominique Creen demos at the SF market with our beans. 

It was when chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Yountville leaned into my booth and said, "What you're doing is very important" that I decided any marketing or talk I did about beans should be about flavor. That was the story. Health, superfoods, green growing, etc, were all true but the main story was the neglected flavor. I've met so many brilliant chefs and home cooks because of the beans. I would love to name-drop but I'll spare you that, for now. 
I doubt it's much different, but in those days so many of the customers referred to their markets as "church" and it's no wonder. We're often so isolated and online that we forget what it's like to be part of a community. I felt people were buying more than beans. The were buying the experience of buying beans, if that makes sense. I understood I had a role to play beyond taking their cash, and that's part of what's made this adventure so worthwhile. 
It is a grueling lifestyle and as much as I loved it, I was thrilled to have a brick and mortar store. First in Napa and later, in the San Francisco Ferry Plaza. I loved that store, but the real success stories there seemed to be stores with pre-made food or food to go. A store focusing on a single ingredient was interesting but not a good business model. It was a fine experiment and we're all proud of it. 
Thanks for indulging this little trip down Memory Lane. There is no way Rancho Gordo would have worked without the certified California farmers market system. I'm so glad that we were a part of it! 


Mary Hinson

What fond memories this evokes. Sometime in the late ‘80s or early ’90s, I picked up an Oprah magazine while at my hairdresser in Tucson, AZ and read about how much Oprah loved Rancho Gordo beans. I live in AZ and had never heard of Rancho Gordo. At that time, my husband and I visited the CA wine country about once a year. We usually stayed in San Francisco for a couple of days right near the Ferry Building and then headed to the wine country. At that time, I believe, Steve set up in front of the Ferry Building but the day we were there, Steve was not. We headed up to Napa the next day to the Rancho Gordo store. It was amazing and we bought a variety of beans. I began talking with a fellow customer and asked him what his favorite bean was and he said Good Mother Stallard. I asked why and he said he loved the broth. I believe he was the chef at the Jimtown Store. Needless to say, I added them to my collection. We’ve been buying Rancho Gordo beans ever since. We’re hooked- they are the only beans I buy. Everything from Rancho Gordo is amazing— the beans, spices, popcorn, hominy, cookbooks, chili’s… I’ve given so many gifts from Rancho Gordo and my family and friends are now hooked. Being vegetarian, Rancho Gordo is a staple in our house. Huge thanks to Steve Sando and the Rancho Gordo family. You have literally changed our lives and the lives of so many others for the better!!


I remember when you were at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market at your small table selling beans and fresh tortilla chips. All so good!

Carol Troy

I was the photographer at St. Helena Farmers Market starting in 2007, and bought your beans for the spectacular label art direction, thank you.

Mary Kay

Fun to read this as I have a pound of corona beans simmering away in my clay bean pot right now. I was in the Bay Area, visiting from Oregon many years ago, and took a chance you’d be around, and stopped by the place with the roll up garage door. You were there, and sold me some beans. Heard about you on the old eGullet site. So happy you stuck with it all these years!

Ann Venables

The Ferry building is where I first found you. I was in SF for a weekend with a friend. I don’t remember what kinds I bought but I also got a small wooden spoon that I still have and use to stir my beans as they cook.

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