It’s Saturday night, warm for San Francisco, and the line at Bi-Rite Creamery stretches around the corner onto Dolores Street. Just a few doors down at the Creamery’s soft-serve window, the swirl of the day is balsamic strawberry and vanilla. Under a neon glow, flowers and pumpkins, melons and apples are piled up in front of the brightly lit windows of Bi-Rite Market across the street, where savvily curated, compulsively purchasable groceries lure dinner-party goers and dinner-party throwers alike.
And tonight, another Bi-Rite business is in full swing: the bigger, newer, cooler home of 18 Reasons, where a long communal table is packed with friends and neighbors listening to a twangy banjo band, sharing $5 bowls of cannellini-bean soup and $3 bottles of Trumer Pils as part of its monthly Soup for Supper program, this time in conjunction with Slow Food’s $5 Challenge. Behind the public room, splashy with bright murals by local artist Zoltron, is the company’s new stainless steel commissary kitchen, where Bi-Rite workers prep salads for tomorrow’s deli case.
Face it: on this block, it’s Bi-Rite’s world. Which, it seems, given the company’s success, and its lively involvement in the local community (and economy), is just how we like it. Think about it: here are a lot more jobs on this block than there used to be, back when it had a single bad hippie restaurant, a tiny barber shop and a couple of junky secondhand stores. A lot more small farmers, cheesemakers, winemakers, jam-makers, and tiny sea-salt caramel businesses are getting paid, thanks to getting their products on these shelves. Now, with the opening of its bigger space, 18 Reasons can reach out to more people with its mandate of community food education and engagement.
Olivia Maki, 18 Reasons’ events coordinator, is excited about this. “We hated turning people away,” she said, when they wanted to come to popular events. “Now, we have a lot more space,” she noted, as well as, in the evenings, the use of the spacious commercial kitchen for dinner events and cooking classes. The old Guerrero Street space, a cramped storefront with a miniscule galley kitchen, was a challenge for an organization doing frequent sit-down dinners and food-based events. How did they manage it? “We spent a lot of time pushing metro racks full of half-prepared food down the street,” she laughed.
What’s coming up, now that they’ve got both marble counters and elbow room?
“Rosie Gill, 18 Reason’s program director and I are particularly excited about all the children’s programming we’ve got coming up. That’s really going to be our focus for the next year. Food education, working with kids, that’s a big part of our mission.”
As is bringing people together to eat, talk, schmooze, and think. Maggie Spicer, a volunteer and co-curator, with Tia Paneet, of the rotating art installations, was also tonight’s soup-maker, using a Tuscan-style sage-and-bean soup recipe from Bi-Rite’s upcoming cookbook/shopping guide/manifesto, Eat Good Food, out next month from Ten Speed Press. The bigger space allows for bigger art, in this case enormous murals inspired by Ronald McDonald, weeping for his sins, and the Japanese tsunami, envisioned as an ominously grinning, skull-faced girl, Sue Nami. The murals began as street art on the plywood panels shielding the windows during construction. Graffiti, and commentary, followed, and the paintings became collaborations between Zoltron and local artists Bodhi Freedom and Hollis Rhodes, among others.
Even the bathroom is its own mini-gallery, thanks to The Bathroom Residency, part of The Residencies, a long-term project by artist Julie Kahn. Each quarter, Kahn plans to create a new nature-inspired installation, passing the job onto another artist after a year. Twigs of eucalyptus poke out of the walls in the shapes of two autumn constellations, Scorpius and Sagittarius, while a box of scrolls, helpfully labeled “Bathroom Reading,” explain the concepts behind both the project and its current installation. White and bright, the room still manages to be serene, at least until the unsettlingly aggressive Dyson hand dryer roars into action, a MiG jet attacking the dastardly enemy of freshly rinsed hands.
Outside, the ice-cream line persists, fed by the post-pie crowds from Pizzeria Delfina across the street. Appetites, it seems, know no bounds.