I spent part of a beautiful sunny afternoon last weekend watching a documentary about a grocery store.
That's right, a documentary about a grocery store.
Some of you might be thinking that I saw Robert Greenwald's "Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price" or some other muckraking exposé. No, this was "Eat at Bill's," an inspiring, cheerful, and human-scaled tale about the Monterey Market in Berkeley, California, a "three-ring circus of fruits and vegetables" that has not only helped numerous farmers become financially viable, but has probably had a major role in setting food trends in the United States.
The movie is a portrait of the store, its owner (Bill Fujimoto, one of the sons of the market's founder, pictured above pointing out a giant puffball mushroom), the farmers that grow the produce, and the people who shop there.
Much of the film is about Bill and his way of running the store, his way of working with farmers (typically buying whatever good stuff they have), and the challenges faced throughout the year. Thanksgiving, for example, is a week in which the entire nation is shopping for almost the same menu. And so he struggles to keep the store stocked with butternut squash, celery, and green beans. Summer is a time of too much fruit -- the back of the store smells like peaches and nectarines and plums. Bill has a somewhat "wild" way of running things — rarely saying no to good produce — and quips that when he goes on vacation, the store runs a lot more smoothly.
The film includes short interviews with a few Bay Area star chefs, like Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), Judi Rogers (Zuni Cafe), Wendy Bruckner (Rivoli), and Michael Wild (Bay Wolf). The chefs shop in an area in the back of the store, sometimes digging through the cases of produce to find exactly the right flat of berries, or the right yellow tomatoes. Or they phone in their order, being confident that the staff knows exactly what they want. This part of the film is quite fun, as it illustrates the passion that ingredients can ignite in the Bay Area.
Waters even gives Bill a lot of credit for helping to make "California cuisine" what it is. Chez Panisse chefs have been shopping at the market ever since the restaurant opened in the early 1970s, and Waters recalls the times when the restaurant would call Bill, ask "What's good today?" and serve it later that night. Bill also been a matchmaker of sorts for restaurants and farmers, connecting restaurants like Chez Panisse that are looking for special items with the farmers who grow them. In some cases, this has led to long-term relationships. I found it interesting that several of the chefs in the movie run restaurants in San Francisco — Zuni Cafe, Foreign Cinema, Quince — and yet they buy produce in Berkeley.
Monterey Market has supported small farmers for years. Some of the farms that it has helped include those whose names well-known to Bay Area residents, such as Full Belly Farm, Sierra Glen Farm, and Twin Girls Farm. The store acts as a middle market sector between the farmers market and Whole Foods.
And somehow Monterey Market manages to keep prices low. (At least that is what I hear. Although I have lived in Berkeley and Oakland for over 10 years, I have shopped at Monterey Market only once. When I was a student, the issue was logistics, and these days, I live just a short walk from Berkeley Bowl — another independent grocery store probably worthy of a documentary — and I buy almost all of my produce at the farmers market. My memories of Monterey Market are hazy; all I can recall is a divine sense of disorder and diversity, with industrial-looking bins overflowing with produce.)
One of the sections of the film is about Bill's love of giant pumpkins. Every year the store builds a mountain of pumpkins for visual entertainment and for children to climb. Building the mountain takes teamwork, with one worker tossing pumpkins 5 or 10 feet to the next worker, who tosses it to the next, and so on, eventually reaching the one standing on the mountain. This pumpkin toss could be part of a workout in food-crazed Berkeley. I've read about workouts based on boot camps, the activities of firefighting — dragging hoses, climbing stairs, breaking down walls — and swing dancing, so it's not such a far-fetched idea. Add carrying huge pots of water while performing ballet-like moves to maneuver your way through a crowded and dangerous restaurant kitchen, wielding a heavy meat tenderizer, and some other activities all performed at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, of course, and you'd have a workout that could pack the gym.
I immensely enjoyed "Eat at Bill's" and recommend it to all Ethicureans. Look for it in your area at small film festivals, check it out from GreenCine's library (I can't find it at Netflix), buy it on DVD, or catch it on this Wednesday afternoon at the SF Indie Fest at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco.