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!
I was a craftsman for many years, and you captured so beautifully my experience of selling at craft fairs. it was indeed grueling, but rewarding, and I knew I was selling something beyond my craft.
do you sell at any farmers markets in Marin? I buy your beans at Mill Valley Market – would love to see them at farmers markets too.
When my husband and I were dating, we made regular trips to the Ferry Plaza Market. Finding RG there, and buying the beans, was awesome! I have always thought of myself as “bean girl”, and for my birthday, my future hubby got Steve to autograph Heirloom Beans for me. I cherish the book and inscription.