The Father-Son Feud that Built an Empire of Food

For decades, a son’s wayward wanderings clashed with his father’s vision for the family business, but when they finally see eye to eye, one of San Francisco’s great culinary institutions is born.

The Father-Son Feud that Built an Empire of Food

“Before, it was only one hump. I make it three humps, and I make it bigger, so you can sit inside and you see the fruit,” Ned Mogannam beams, pointing at a row of kiwi trees. The leaves of each tree seamlessly intertwine with those of the next, five treetops forming three waves of leaves.

Ned heads into this green canopy. It’s too early in the season for kiwis, but even without the fruit, it’s striking and enveloping inside. “Yes,” Ned smiles. “Art.” His wife Mariette notes the flowers overhead, and their pointing quickly gives way to fervent chatting and the snapping of twigs with the kind of intuitive urgency most of us might swat flies away from our face with.

Days begin early here at what they call Mogannam Ranch, an acre and a quarter of land in Placerville, California’s Apple Hill area. The ranch — an orchard, really — is a lovely picture of efficiency, with blueberries, apples, pears, persimmons, peaches, cherries, nectarines, almonds, figs, grapes and kiwis all growing side by side.

Mariette buries herself in a row of blueberry bushes as Ned leads me around. “I make a sketch, I decide what to plant, and I organize. I make it so when I go to the field, I enjoy every part of it,” he says. “Food is art. Farming is art. Art, art, art.”

Seventy-nine with light olive, taut skin that could easily belong to a fifty year old, Ned moves slowly, but with buoyant energy. He smiles often, and wears his pride on his sleeve, with both fatherly warmth and a boyish verve. Ned applies this same joyful attention to their home at the center of this bounty, in which walls of his own caricatures — the art form he’s been drawn to since he was a child — hang. When they moved in, Ned added more porches, so there’s one on each side of the house. “If the sun is here, I go here. Sun is there, I go there,” he says, pointing to a porch facing east, overlooking rows of blueberry bushes and cherry trees, a small playground he put up for his grandchildren, and a wooden farmer figure Ned commissioned from a local artist.

They purchased the land on a whim thirteen years ago, stopping by in search of apples, and instead buying a home. The land was overgrown and overrun with trash, but the location was just right: surrounded by vineyards, orchards, Christmas tree farms, and the lush forests beyond. During the winter, they retreat from the chill that creeps up the 3,000-foot elevation and aggravates Ned’s arthritis to their long-time home in San Francisco’s West Portal neighborhood.

Aside from what they keep for themselves, everything Ned and Mariette harvest goes to San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market, where it’s labeled “Mom and Dad’s,” or simply “Mom’s.” Any fruit they deem unworthy of Bi-Rite’s shelves become jams under Mariette’s hands, which are also sold at store. Ned and his brother, Jack, ran Bi-Rite market for more then thirty years before two of Ned’s sons, Sam and Raph, took the reigns in 1997. Today, Sam is sole owner, and the store has become a San Francisco institution.

What started out in 1940 as a basic bodega is now two renowned markets — they opened a second store with an in-house ice cream shop on San Francisco’s restaurant-happy Divisadero Corridor in 2013 — each with its own bustling kitchen. Also in the Bi-Rite family of businesses: Bi-Rite Creamery, located both inside the new market and across from the 18th Street Bi-Rite, where it consistently garners lines down the block for its small-batch ice cream; a booming catering business; a non-profit food, farm, and drink education center; a one-acre Sonoma County farm; and a rooftop garden.

Bi-Rite as it looked in the late 1940s (right); Today, Bi-Rite still maintains the original neon sign and tile decorations it had in the old days.
Bi-Rite as it looked in the late 1940s (left); Today, Bi-Rite still maintains the original neon sign and tile decorations it had in the old days.

Through the lens of the current slow food zeitgeist — a increasingly mainstream interest in foods’ provenance and sustainability — and the now-blurred lines between chef, celebrity and lifestyle brand, Sam’s path seems almost natural. He’s a son of an old-school grocer who became a restaurant chef and then owner of a locavore-bent, chef-driven market. In reality, his path was far from simple or straight. When Sam stepped into the family business, it was with great reluctance, after years of resisting Ned’s urging.

Often wearing glasses similar to Ned’s, Sam, 47, carries himself with a disarming ease, and a presence that’s unassuming yet strong. Sam’s pride is subtle, revealed through quick anecdotes about Bi-Rite farmers or waxing poetic about a mandarin peel.

Bi-Rite was a main backdrop in Sam’s childhood. Ned and Jack bought the Bi-Rite market in 1964. They ran it as a simple neighborhood store, carrying some fresh produce, but plenty of packaged food, cigarettes, and liquor.

The eldest of four siblings, Sam was Bi-Rite’s youngest employee, at the age of six. He would make the trip to the shop on his own, taking the streetcar from West Portal to Church Street and 17th. “We tried to instill in them a sense of independence,” notes Mariette. “I don’t know if you could do that today.

“He was jumped once,” she adds, “but he was in high school by then.”

Back then, the Mission District was filled with immigrant families, primarily Italian, Irish, German, and a new wave of Latinos. Neighborhood kids worked at the store, and a few old timers would keep Ned company behind the counter. Often, if the store was busy, regular customers would help themselves to what they needed and pay by honor system later. “We depend on our community, and our community depend on us,” says Ned.

The neighborhood was friendly, but not exactly crime-free. The store was held up a handful of times under Ned’s ownership — frequently enough that he kept a gun and a paper bag with money, to avoid emptying the register, behind the counter. Addicts who hung out in neighboring Dolores Park would often stop by, but rarely rattled Ned. “People in the neighborhood respected him,” recalls Sam’s younger brother, Raph. “They saw how he handled these intense characters diplomatically.”

Ned always kept an eye out for shoplifters, and often knew the perpetrators. He recalls catching students from Mission High, just a few blocks away, stealing from the shop. “I tell them, this is a very bad habit. I don’t want to call the police, but I could call your parents…but I don’t want to call your parents, because they might beat the shit out of you.” Still, he offered: “‘If you need anything, ask me for it. I’ll give it to you. Try me.’”

Sam Mogannam and his father Ned check for quality assurance on produce at Bi-Rite.
Sam Mogannam and his father Ned check for quality assurance on produce at Bi-Rite.

The family says this was always his way — to give without expectations. “My dad grew up not knowing where his next meal would come from. Anytime he saw someone hungry, he would feed them,” Sam recalls.

Every day, a group of homeless would line up outside the store, and Ned would feed them a sandwich and soda. No questions asked; no thank you needed. He was generous to his kids, too, but not without strategy or purpose. He’d pay them twenty dollars a day for their work at the market, a decent wage in the ’70s. If the kids agreed to save their earnings in the bank, Ned would double it. If they didn’t, that was all they got. Over the years, each child managed to save $20,000, thanks to Ned’s matching practice. “That’s how I encourage them to work and save money,” Ned says. “Sometimes you have to do your tricky things if you love your children.”

Sam’s early responsibilities at the store ranged from working the register to mopping and sweeping the floors. He’d do whatever had to be done, encouraged by Ned to never shy away from what he didn’t know — exactly the kind of attitude an underage wine buyer needs to succeed. At age twelve, Sam became the store’s wine merchandiser. “I wasn’t drinking wine, but I was encouraged to experiment,” says Sam. He would talk to the salesman, and convince them to bring in something new, like Beringer White Zinfandel — a brand Bi-Rite would become San Francisco’s number-one provider of.

Some of Sam’s favorite memories from his early Bi-Rite days are trips with his father to the produce market. Before buying anything, Ned would sample it, and ask Sam for his opinion. “I’d be seven years old, and he’d hand me a peach to try,” says Sam. “I’d be like, ‘Nah, it’s not good enough.’ The old guy running the stand would be like, ‘Who the fuck’s this kid?’”

But it wasn’t all peaches and zin. Ned was tough on Sam, the oldest of four. Ned expected Sam to take on the most responsibility and to live by the values of hard work, responsibility, loyalty, and accountability Ned learned in his own childhood.

Born “Nabil” in Palestine in 1936, Ned was the youngest of five. He was just forty days old when his dad left for the United Sates. “People came to celebrate my baptism, and to say goodbye,” Ned says. His father died just six years later.

Ned and his siblings all pitched in to stay afloat, selling their mother’s homemade falafel after school, working quickly to leave time for homework. Their mother, Nima, gave Ned his first lessons in customer service, encouraging him to treat customers to a baker’s dozen and hand out samples to those in line. Ned credits her with his “just try it and make mistakes” attitude.

Despite a promising career in pharmaceutical sales in Amman, Jordan, Ned moved to San Francisco, where his mother and brother were already living, and his other siblings would eventually join them. When Ned arrived in the city, his first stop was his father’s grave.

Ned became a U.S. citizen in 1961, and returned to Jordan five years later with his mother, in search of a wife. The ladies lined up to meet him, but it wasn’t until Ned saw Mariette, the sister of a woman with whom his aunt had scheduled a meeting, that he felt something. Ned fell for Mariette, nearly fifteen years his junior, the day he met her, and proposed just as quickly. Mariette reciprocated his affection and said yes, and Ned’s focus on family soon turned to the new one they built together.

As the oldest child, Sam bore the brunt of his dad’s un-Americanized mindset. As far as Ned was concerned, for example, there was no such thing as just a girlfriend: “‘If you have a girlfriend, you have to marry her,” he explains, though he has since softened his stance on the matter. “It’s not right to just have fun with her. You have to be committed.”

Ned admits that he was easier on the younger kids. “Once my younger son said, ‘Dad I want a girlfriend.” I said ‘Only one?’” he laughs. “Sam said, ‘Dad, why are you tough with me?’ I had changed. I understand American society.”

Sam was a good kid who was too focused on school, sports and work to get into trouble. He took on odd jobs, from cleaning yards to delivering newspapers. “He was ambitious from a young age,” says Sam’s sister, Freida. “It was like he wanted to be a starter, to be older.”

Still, the possibilities of what Sam might be up to made Ned anxious. It’s this worry that, by Sam’s account, led to the lowest point in their relationship. “It was junior or senior year when he started to listen in on my phone conversations,” says Sam. “It kind of put a wall between us. I felt like he didn’t trust me, so I couldn’t trust him.”

By the time Sam was fifteen, Ned had started pressing him to take over the store after graduation. When the time came, Sam refused. Taken by the world of hotels after spending a day at The Palace Hotel, Sam decided to enroll in City College of San Francisco’s hotel and restaurant program. From there, the tension between him and his father continued to grow.

“My dad freaked out,” Freida says. “But Sam knew what he wanted to do, and he did it.”

Ned concedes that it was a surprise when Sam wanted to be a hotelier, and then a chef. He worried Sam would work long nights, and not have the time—or money—for family.

Ned’s disapproval of his son’s career ambitions hung heavy in Sam’s heart. He applied for a job at every hotel in the city to no avail before exploring the restaurant industry. There, he found more rejection. After an exhaustive search, Sam finally found a chef that would take a chance on him, giving him a job as a vegetable prep cook. Endless hours of chopping gave way to greater responsibilities, and Sam moved up the ranks to line cook. Something clicked, and within a few months, he was head line cook.

All the things Ned had worried Sam might be exposed to in high school cropped up in the kitchen. Sam was fascinated by the cast of characters, from the coke dealer dishwasher, who made sure that everyone was taken care of, to the attentive bartender, who saw that the staff maintained a nice drunken stupor throughout the course of the night. “The restaurant ended up failing cause the owners were blown out of their minds,” says Sam. “It was classic ’80s. It could’ve been a movie set. It was very different than the Catholic school upbringing that I grew up with.”

Twenty years old and enamored with this new world he’d discovered, Sam looked abroad to dive into the craft. Switzerland was the one European country that would give him a work permit, so he took a one-year apprenticeship at a Michelin two-star restaurant in Basel.

“My dad was pretty pissed at me at that point,” remembers Sam. But in Switzerland, he deepened his understanding of the connection between food and culture. Tasked with peeling cratefuls of pencil-thin asparagus, Sam gained a greater appreciation for detail. The head chef left no stalk unturned, reminding Sam that even the smallest bit of neglected skin meant a more bitter bite. “I was hooked. I fell in love with the metier. I wanted to pursue it for life.”

When Sam returned home in 1989, his father was fresh off a back operation and unable to carry anything at all. Ned decided it was time to give up the store — unless Sam was ready to step up.

“My Dad really wanted Sam to take over the store at that point,” says Freida. “To Sam, it was like, ‘No way am I going to be stuck in this.’”

He passed on his father’s offer once again, and Ned sold the business, though not the building. “It was very hard for me,” Ned recalls. “It was the lifeline of my family.”

Freida admires Sam for having the courage to say no. “I’m strong-willed, but not as strong [as Sam]. My family is wonderful. They don’t mean to be controlling, but they have a way of…strongly suggesting.”

Though still concerned about Sam’s future, Ned was elated to have his son home, and supportive of Sam’s job at the Pasta Shop in Oakland’s Market Hall. When Sam decided to open his own restaurant, Ned was more encouraging, even giving him a loan to start the business.

“He was excited that I was going to be in control of my own destiny, even though it was a restaurant,” says Sam. “Pursuing entrepreneurship was following a path that he knew, that he was comfortable with.”

Sam was in his element at Rendezvous du Monde, cooking simple, seasonal fare. It was a family affair: Mariette was the pastry chef; his brother Sal handed the salad; Freida juggled the roles of waitress, hostess, cashier and barista; Raph, the youngest, helped out when he could in the summer; and Ned was like a board member-cum-chauffeur.

After about seven years, the restaurant’s landlord hiked the rent, forcing the Mogannam clan out.

Shortly before their lease was up, the new owner of Bi-Rite told Ned he’d fallen ill and was looking to sell the store. Ned saw a chance to bring the business back into the family, but he assumed Sam wouldn’t be interested. So, he and Mariette took a different course.

“I was in school when they approached me about taking over the space,” Raph recalls. “They presented me with this opportunity to turn it into a pet supplies store” — which his parents saw as a solid business plan.

When Sam joined the conversation, he had his own ideas for the space: make it a restaurant. Ned flatly refused. He had seen the hours Sam put into Rendezvous du Monde. Sam wasn’t yet married, but Ned, ready for grandparenthood and always practical, thought of Sam’s future family. “Your wife is not going to like that,” says Ned. “She and the children, they need you, their dad, around. That’s the most important to me — children.”

Sam kept pushing for a restaurant. Ned stood firm. For his part, Raph was open, but had no desire to take on the pressures of running a restaurant. They circled back to the idea a grocery store, and Raph and Sam began to picture a new kind of Bi-Rite, inspired by the delis of New York and shopping in Europe. After two weeks back and forth, Sam said he was in, but only if he could bring his own perspective to the business, and install a kitchen into the market.

“I love this idea,” says Ned of the change that occurred seventeen years ago. They would keep the family business alive, with a new vision. “I respect that man. I saw his determination, and I know he is very creative.” Raph and Sam went in as co-owners.

The Department of Buildings was skeptical of their request to put a commercial kitchen within the market, an anomaly in San Francisco at that time. “We had all these conditions put on us because they were worried we were going to turn it into a fast food restaurant,” says Sam.

The Mogannams were betting on themselves and the Mission, which was still in the throes of a drug pandemic that claimed Dolores Park as ones of its mainstays. They ripped down the bars of the store’s windows — ignoring looks and comments of disbelief — and reopened Bi-Rite in 1998.

Ned says he always knew Bi-Rite would come back to the family. “If not with Sam, then the other children…but I wanted Sam. To be honest, I push. I push a lot.”

This tenacity is part of what’s brought both men their success. Paired with tireless curiosity, it’s what gives Ned the patience, year after year, to harvest and thin the fruit, try new crops, and apply lessons from last year. “He’s almost eighty and he’s still pushing himself every day,” says Sam, adding, “It’s kind of fucked up; I picked that shit up from him.” Then, he pauses and smiles. “No, it’s pretty cool. We’re both pretty focused.”

Not long after reopening, things began to hum. The neighborhood was shifting, slowly becoming a dining destination. Trendy Delfina opened up across the street just a few months after Bi-Rite reopened, while restaurants like the upscale Foreign Cinema and organic Mikano popped up on Mission Street over the next couple of years.

Sam’s concept was working. One day during his second year running Bi-Rite, Ned pulled him aside to let him know that he was proud, proud of all that Sam had accomplished. He acknowledged that Sam’s experiences in the kitchen were worthwhile—without them, he couldn’t have achieved what he had. While Sam had insisted on letting his own passions to drive his career, his father’s approval was tantamount to success. “It was a very important moment for me. It was a long time coming.”

After eight years, Raph left the business for a couple of years before returning to Bi-Rite as head buyer, the role he maintains today.

Much of Sam’s time is now dedicated to instilling the company’s values and culture in employees, and Ned’s presence is felt throughout that culture.

Like Ned’s version, the new Bi-Rite is personal. The business’s modern slogan, “Creating community through food,” is lived out through each of its operations. The employees make eye contact with customers. They’re available when patrons have a question. If returning visitors have the time and curiosity, Sam’s crew loves to chat about how good that aged triple cream cheese was, or to provide a quick primer on beef cuts.

Mariette Mogannam inspects the produce scale at Bi-Rite Market.
Mariette Mogannam inspects the produce scale at Bi-Rite Market.

At the Divisadero shop on a recent weekday morning, Sam hands a passing produce worker an envelope for his birthday. Then, as if on cue, a customer stops to thank Sam for what he’s built. He tells a story about how a cashier let him pay by phone after the fact — honor system — when he forgot his wallet on his first visit to the store: “These kind of relationships are so hard to come by today. It’s so much more than shopping. ”

Just like Ned, Sam sees giving as an inherent to being part of the community. “If someone’s hungry, I feed them.” He’s formalized that spirit with 18 Reasons, Bi-Rite’s non-profit food education space, from which all proceeds go to cooking and nutrition classes for local, low-income communities.

As Sam walks through the store, he adjusts the bags of cherries, tries the apricots — “They’re incredible around this time,” he says gleefully — and checks in with everyone he passes.

Ned’s own attention to detail is renewed, filled with more pride than ever and fueled by his admiration of Sam’s high standards. “When they eat from our farms, I want them to see the difference,” he says. Back on the ranch, Ned stops by a peach tree and demonstrates how he trains the branches to grow sideways, like a tent. This way, he explains, they shade the roots, so the tree won’t need as much water. “I like the air to keep flowing and the sun to hit all the fruits just right. It gives better color and flavor.”

No doubt, Sam’s two daughters will learn about it all first hand, from ranch to register. Neither is traversing the city solo just yet, but Sam and Anne, his wife of thirteen years, are trying to give their children the same sense of empowerment he felt as a kid. Zoe, now twelve, started picking up hours after school, helping out with the produce, and anywhere else help is needed. She’ll be getting to know the market well this summer. Olive, eight, hasn’t started working yet — but could start any day now.