Fujimotos’ departure from Monterey Market a tough blow to local food chain

By Carol Ness

Calling Bill and Judy Fujimoto's forced departure on Wednesday from Berkeley's Monterey Market — after two years of family dissension over their vision for the business — a tragedy isn't a stretch.

For those who don't know it, Monterey Market is one of the pillars of the Bay Area food scene, a small, jam-packed grocery store beloved by chefs, farmers, and consumers alike. For decades, Bill has cheerfully supported local farmers, even those with just a few crates of ripe stone fruit in the back of a station wagon, and helped dozens more to grow their business. His and Judy's pivotal role in the Northern California farm-to-fork food chain was the subject of the documentary "Eat at Bill's," available on DVD.

We can't know what will happen to the market now, and perhaps, with Bill's siblings in charge, it will keep chugging on as a mighty engine of the local, sustainable food movement. I hope so. And Bill and Judy will survive and thrive, surely.

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Bill and Judy Fujimoto at the tearful June 2 farewell

But Bill's decision to step down as the market's manager/guru marks the end of something precious, something that matters — and not just to the people in Berkeley who shop there, not just to the farmers whom Bill Fujimoto has supported and encouraged to bring flavor back to fruits and vegetables, not just to the Bay Are restaurants like Chez Panisse, Zuni Café, and Oliveto that have built their reputations (in part) around the quality of the produce Bill's brought them.

It matters to everyone who shops for dinner at farmers' markets instead of Wal-Mart and believes in (and depends on) the emerging local, sustainable food chain. That's because the decision that things needed to change at the Monterey Market (OK, a little cosmetic sprucing-up might be in order, but...) tells me that integrity and trust — the values Bill built the modern market around — aren't being recognized as the reasons for the Monterey Market's enduring success. It's not only because it sells sweet juicy cherries and peaches at good prices that it's thrived, even in the current economy.

Not coincidentally, the same values form the bedrock of the sustainable food movement — and that idea that other things, I don't know, profits, maybe? — could trump them should matter to lots of us.

In building the market, Bill did more to help build California's sustainable food networks than most people know. And he'd be the last one to tell you. He's the most modest man I've ever met, and had to be tricked into cooperating with tangerine grower/filmmaker Lisa Brenneis for her documentary about him, "Eat at Bill's."

Brenneis and her husband, Jim Churchill, saved their family ranch in Ojai by introducing pixie tangerines, a wonderful but unknown variety, with Bill's support. As he always did when farmers brought around a few baskets or boxes of ripe berries or tender greens to Monterey Market's back door, Bill tasted, loved the fruit, promised to buy their crop at a fair price no matter what, and talked pixies up to the chefs at Chez Panisse and elsewhere. (You can read Panisse pastry alum David Lebovitz's paean to Fujimoto here.)

Wrote Brenneis, in an open letter to friends and fans of Bill's (posted on the Churchill Orchard's website):

He picked us up when we were just starting out .... Farmers up and down California can tell you the same story, 'Bill was my first customer.'

Many growers you buy from direct can afford to sell you 2 pounds of dry-farmed tomatoes at the local farmers' market because they dropped off 650 pounds at Monterey Market on their way into town. Ask them.

Describing the way Bill worked, she wrote:

Bill buys for flavor and rewards quality. Buying and selling ripe fruit is a high-wire act that very few grocers even attempt, and you can't do it at all unless your growers and your customers trust you enough to shoulder part of the risk. Bill earns the trust of his customers, repeatedly rewarding risk-takers by delivering that rarest thing-a ripe piece of fruit in full flavor.

Unlike chain supermarkets and big box stores, Bill Fujimoto insulated his farmers from the ups and downs of wholesale produce prices. So whether it was a good peach season or a lousy one, they got a fair price.

Bill said it all more simply though, on Monterey Market's website: "Our philosophy is to run a village-based business that supports both the local farmers as well as the local community. We sell tasty and healthy organic foods at great prices."

The details of the family fight that led to Bill's decision to resign as manager haven't been revealed, but the general outline is sadly familiar among family businesses — and family farms — that are torn apart when one generation gives way to the next.

Bill's father Tom founded the market in 1961, and his sons and daughter inherited but things perked along just fine for years with Bill at the helm, until one brother, Ken, died two years ago. Apparently that changed family dynamics enough to let disagreements boil over.

Bill told me he's can't talk much about the situation now. His letter to friends and family (posted here) said this: "Recent actions and 
involvement from the Board of Monterey Market has forced me to examine very
 seriously whether my vision of Monterey Market, a vision that I shared with 
my late brother Ken Fujimoto, is in line with the remaining Board's vision."

Bill will remain on the board, along with his brother Robert, Robert's wife and two sons, and their sister, Gloria. He'll also be chief operating officer, he wrote.

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A large crowd turned out to thank the Fujimotos.

On Wednesday afternoon, at the end of his last day as market manager, a spontaneous gathering of friends, neighbors, and customers filled the street outside the market to mark the moment. I wish I'd been there. Lisa Brenneis' father, Jon, who lives in Berkeley, and his friend Travis Fretter, provided this account (and these photos):

Yesterday afternoon's gathering at Monterey Market was very fine, and emotional. A crowd of about 200 people filled the street adjacent to the parking lot (the cross street of Hopkins), and when Bill and Judy came out, everyone started clapping and continued with enthusiastic applause for a really long time. Tears and cheers.

Bill made a short statement, along with a few interjections from Judy, that was all about how much he loves what he does and that the strength of it all comes from the farmers, staff, and community of shoppers. Someone supplied a box of delicious cherries for the crowd, Bill and Judy were decked with leis, and everyone stood about talking, sharing thoughts and memories. It really came across as a heartfelt demonstration of support, thanks, and appreciation for the tremendous contributions Bill and Judy have made to so many communities these past many years.

In hopes that the decision can still be reversed, the community is rallying around Bill, and talk of a boycott by farmer suppliers and customers has flown around the Internet.

Brenneis announced that Churchill Orchard has suspended sales of its tangerines to the market. "While not supplying Monterey Market will hurt, and not having it there to shop at will also hurt, it's meant to be a temporary thing. It's meant to help Bill & Judy get the control of the Monterey Market that will allow them to run it as they have in the past," she wrote.

But no one wants to drive the market out of business, and a petition urging customers to boycott the market, posted at a Friends of Monterey Market blog, has been taken down.

Brenneis urged customers and suppliers who want to indicate their support for Bill and Judy to write to the market's board of directors 
at 1550 Hopkins St.,
 Berkeley, CA 94707.

"Independent grocers with the skills to do what Bill does are vanishingly rare," she wrote. "If the Monterey Market turns into a dull-normal "gourmet" corner store with expensive prices and the same produce you see elsewhere, Berkeley will be a darker and colder place."

The sustainable food world will suffer, too.

Carol Ness is a Berkeley writer and farmer groupie who has eaten irradiated
strawberries, let pastured chickens peck at her toes, and tasted 15 kinds of
organic milk in one sitting, all in pursuit of information about sustainable food.
Her work has appeared mainly in the
San Francisco Chronicle.

7 Responsesto “Fujimotos’ departure from Monterey Market a tough blow to local food chain”

  1. benetta says:

    I want to express my opinion on your support for Bill Fujimoto and the Monterey Market.  Your support hurts the Japanese American community; and we support his siblings.   It brings back memories of when my parents lost their farm in the Sacramento area.   Bill’s family was interned at Gila River, Arizona, and my family was interned at Topaz, Utah.  Bill’s siblings experienced the struggle and suffering living in the internment camps.  Bill was born after the war.  He was fortunate. Because you want to take away what his siblings believe as their father’s legacy is a shame.  I knew his father and he would be ashamed of Bill for not compromising with his brothers and sister.  He certainly did not have to leave.  It was his choice.  Is Bill interested in only “Bill’s Place” or hanging out with the “elites”?  Personally, I think he sold out.  Again, we have Americans taking the livelihood of others. 

  2. matt says:

    I'm curious benetta because it sounds like you have some insight, what was Bill's father and his brothers and sister's vision for the market and how does it differ from Bill's? Correct me if I am wrong but it sounds like you are upset because perhaps the products at the market changed or things got more expensive? Demographic or class change in who was shopping at the market? Excuse my ignorance, I am just an onlooker from Los Angeles. Matt.

  3. amy says:

    To the post below "Benetta", I'd like to response that your comments are not only ridiculous, but I find them racially offensive and I am offended.  I am a 4th generation Japanese American and you are implying that people who did not endure the camps are lesser than people who did.  And, I'm not sure how you are tying together the Japanese American internment experience with the business of Monterey Market or more specifically, Bill Fujimoto.  I happen to know that Bill ran the store with his older brother Ken until his death a few years ago who fully supported Bill along with his Dad that he worked with for many years.  I think that it is YOU who is selling out and are disgracing the Japanese American community with your toxic words and suggestions.

  4. berry guy says:

    I am a former employee of Montery Market, a Japanese American born after the war to parents held in the internment camps and father who fought for the 4022.  I don't think my sisters and I had it that differently, two of us born in camp and two out.  My parents worked really hard after camp and raised us to be hard-working upstanding- people, Americans who are of Japanese descent.  I cannot see how you tie together the Japanese American experience and  the business of Montery Market together.  In addition, I have known or worked for Tom, Kenny and Bill Fujimoto.   The three men many have disagreed from time to time on specific issues of running a business but their philosphy and fair treatment of the employees, customers and farmers was consistent and respectful.  If anything Bill has carried Montery Market to his father's vision, fair pricing, quality produce and groceries, customer service and staying ahead of the trends- or rather the long lasting trend real food.  I find the comments about Bill connected to the Japanese coummity offensive.  As a Japanese American I know that Montery Market has supported the Japanese community and that the Japanese community has supported Montery Market- but more importantly Montery Maket has supported all communities that make up it's customer base- especially the Bekelely Public Schools. If supporting more than the Japanese community is selling out- then what about the people support only the Japanese community.  I agree with Amy who really has sold out?  Besides his decision to leave or be pushed out doesn't have anything to do with with being a Japanese American. 

  5. I am a Berkeley resident and have been a loyal Monterey Market customer for over 25 years.  I found that the produce and staff service declined in the past few years.  It almost seemed that prior management was not interested in improving the market.  

    Since June 3, the staff seem to be happier and the produce seems more consistent.  I had a talk with Robert who seemed to be one of the new management.  I am looking forward to improvements and better service at Monterey Market.

    The so called restaurant and customer boycott appalls me.  If Bill was behind it, he should be ashamed of himself.  Lets give Monterey Market a chance to continue its family tradition.  Life goes on.

  6. Joshua says:

    I don't think Bill sold out in anyway, and could never see it happen.  As a person with Japanese American heritage I too find it offensive that some one could equivocate this as a blow to the "Japanese-American" community.  Sorry, but I know Bill and Judy are proud of their heritage.  We are not accountable for where and when we are born,  we are accountable for our actions, and Bill worked his butt off at that store and for that store and the greater community of foodies and health conscious people (and his employees to boot!).  Benetta needs to really reevaluate what they are thinking as they basically don't know what they are talking about.

  7. Shopper says:

    I was out of town & didn't even know about the change at MM. Went shopping today, late afternoon to stock up for the weekend. Several checkout stands were closed and the lines at the open checkouts snaked around the aisles. This is rare for a Thursday afternoon. No attempts to open up more checkers and considering the July 4th holiday, I found this strange. I hope this isn't the future of the Market.