A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Eat at Bill's, part 2

(Above: Bill Fujimoto and his wife, Judy)

Last June, after I wrote about Bill Fujimoto (the man who made the Monterey Market in Berkeley the mother church of the seasonal food movement) getting the heave-ho after 31 years, I got a ton of phone calls and emails from his loyal customers, all saying the same thing: "Please let me know where he ends up so I can shop there."
Well, Berkeley's loss is Lamorinda's gain. He's signed on as a consultant with Diablo Foods in Lafayette, where he's happily turning the produce section into a mini-version of the Monterey Market.
"The management is treating me wonderfully," he says. "They're allowing me the freedom to do what I do. And the customers are great. I thought appreciation of seasonal foods was just a Berkeley thing, but these people are real food people. I had no idea it was so pervasive."
He's also impressed with the staff, many of them veterans with as much as 20 years' experience.
"They only thing they didn't have was a buyer," he says. "That's my role."
Which means that instead of buying produce from a catalog to fill a designated space on the shelf, whether or not the item is in season, he inspects everything personally and buys only whatever is top condition that day.
"Strawberries are always better when you see them before you buy them," he says. "Some days, the tomatoes might not be at their best, but the greens are. So I'll pass on tomatoes that day and load up on greens, instead."
Just like old times, his day starts around midnight, when he wakes up without an alarm clock and starts phoning growers to find out what's hot and what's not that day.
Then he goes back to sleep for a couple of hours. But he's up again in time to be at the Oakland produce district at 4 a.m.
He selects only the best of the best, loading the produce in the back of his pickup truck and driving to Diablo Foods, where he's setting up the produce by 6 a.m.
All the while, he's indirectly instructing the staff in the fine points of seasonal produce buying.
"I teach the only way I know how," he says. "By example."
He's also introducing them to his favorite growers - contacts that will stand them in good stead long after he's moved on to his next project.
"I'm only a consultant," he says. "My goal is to eventually make myself unnecessary."
Then, just like the old days, he's back home in Berkeley by noon for his daily midday nap.
But unlike the old days, that's the end of his workday.
"I used to wake up again at 2 and go back to the Monterey Market for the afternoon shift," he says. "Now I actually have a life. I can actually have dinner with my wife. I'm working hard and enjoying myself, and I've lost 18 pounds!"
After he was so unceremoniously dumped by the Monterey Market last spring, there were dark mutterings of a boycott by both customers and growers. But Bill is having none of it.
"I'm a Buddhist," he says. "Everything always works itself out. Besides, the employees are like my family. How can I wish them anything but the best?"

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