Monday, June 22, 2009
Eat At Bill's
(Above: Judy and Bill Fujimoto)
One day many years ago, I was complaining to a friend that I would never buy another tomato again because I was tired of tomatoes that taste like soggy cardboard. And she replied, "Haven't you heard of the Monterey Market?"
Everybody in Berkeley has their own variation of this story. The Monterey Market was our introduction to seasonal, organic, locally grown fresh food.
It gave birth to a movement that changed the world. California cuisine, neighborhood farmer's markets and every natural food store, from Whole Foods to the Berkeley Bowl - all trace their origins back to the Monterey Market and the man who has run it for the past 31 years, Bill Fujimoto, one of the nicest guys on the planet.
There are two kinds of ways to run a business. One is the paranoid model, in which you do unto others before they do it to you. That means squeezing the highest price out of your customers and paying as little as possible to your suppliers and employees.
That wasn't Bill's style. He took the long view and insisted on paying his farmers a decent price for their produce, keeping them afloat financially until they could get their business on a firm footing.
And if they had more than he could sell, he'd buy their entire crop anyway and eat the loss himself.
"I want you to be in business next year," he'd explain.
He also paid his employees a living wage and kept his prices as low as possible, far less than you'd pay at the supermarket.
If a customer asked him if the pears were ripe, he'd whip out his knife, cut one in half, and say, "Why ask me? Here, have a taste."
Longtime customer Teresa Wong remembers one time when she was about to buy the most expensive peaches in the store.
"Bill came rushing up to me and said, 'No, no, no, Teresa! You don't want to get those! These over here are cheaper and are really good!'"
Among his most loyal customers are the Bay Area's finest restaurants, including Chez Panisse, Eccolo and Bay Wolf.
"We've been shopping at Monterey Market since we opened in 1975," says Bay Wolf co-owner Larry Goldman. "To have someone like Bill, who can talk with our chefs with the same knowledge and passion that they have for the produce and the growers, has been incredibly exciting."
It's been a win-win-win situation all around. Bill created a community between the people who produce food and the people who consume it. And in the process, he started a revolution.
But, unfortunately, this golden age is coming to an end. Monterey Market is a family business - it was founded by his mom and dad, Mary and Tom Fujimoto - and two weeks ago Bill was forced out in a coup d'etat.
Customers and growers are both outraged, and many are threatening boycott. But, characteristically, Bill is taking the high road.
"I'm a Buddhist," he says. "Nothing lasts forever."
There will be a community celebration from 2 to 5 p.m. on June 28 at King School Park, near the corner of Hopkins and Colusa, to honor Bill and his wife, Judy. Considering all they've done, both for Berkeley and the food community, it will be a privilege and pleasure to say thanks.