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.
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.
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.