Interview: Shakirah Simley of Bi-Rite Market | Punk Domestics

Interview: Shakirah Simley of Bi-Rite Market

Shakirah Simley is the Community Coordinator at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, a sponsor and participant in the Good Food Awards. She took a few minutes out of her very, very busy schedule to talk about the path from her first fresh apricot through launching a food craft business, and on to one of San Francisco's most esteemed community businesses. Thanks to her jammy and community work at Bi-Rite, she was just named one of Zagat’s 30 under 30.

Have you turned your food craft hobby into a business? The submission window is open now through July 31 for the Good Food Awards.

You've had quite a journey, in your own words "a Harlem-raised girl who didn't taste a fresh apricot until her first visit to the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market." What was the spark of inspiration to begin making preserves? 

First, it was just exposure, going to the ferry building, seeing fruits and vegetables I'd never seen before, things that were just not my background. It blew me away! The other part is that everyone had backyard fruit that was going to waste. In terms of food justice and food access, it's a shame that food goes to waste, so wanted to know how to turn that into value added products, especially in areas that could be so-called food deserts. The environment in the bay area is ripe for that. There were not many others in the market at the time who were bringing a different conversation to artisanal food production. So I set out to teach myself, and I spent tons of hours in research. When I finally started producing jams, people were all, "did you make this?" Yes, I really made this. 

Prior to your current position, you had a small jam startup called Slow Jams. When did you decide to make the leap to make jam commercially?

My inspiration was drawn from the bounty of available produce in the Bay Area, but also imagining an equitable system where we've reclaimed our food knowledge and traditions. Not wanting to half-ass it, I enrolled in a business planning course through Women's Initiative for Self-Employment and was accepted into La Cocina's Incubator program. During this process, I went from my home kitchen to producing at my first shared commercial kitchen space(La Cocina), from selling to friends to selling at Bi-Rite, online, at events, and a few retail contracts. By putting myself out there as much as possible and leveraging my networks, my business, brand and story was able to gain a lot of momentum. And exposure - from being on, to FoodCrafters with Aida Mollenkamp to the Katie Couric show more recently.

What was involved in going commercial with your jam? What were the pitfalls?

Making the jump to a commercial kitchen was terrifying, but after a few failed "sets", burns and tears and curse words, I finally got my recipes to scale. Understanding how to produce artisanal-quality food on a larger scale is the key in all of this and having the determination, patience and pure hustle to do so is another. If you're an excellent preserver and you're ready to make the jump –awesome. But keeping up with customer demand, understanding the wild world of retail,  identifying opportunities for expansion that will actually pay your bills, and being consistent in your product are some of bigger hurdles. Lastly, I think the CA Cottage Food Laws will definitely help ease more preservers into the market, but ability to scale will determine who makes it and…who doesn't.

And then you went to Italy! Tell us about it. 

It was really intense, a yearlong process to submit application for the Fulbright scholarship to the University of Gastronomic Sciences. I spent weeks or months on the proposal, had to get approval from my alma mater, get recommendations, and go through several rounds. All of this is facilitated at the State Department. I was surprised to make the first round. For that Fulbright, the State Department gives only one approval to a US citizen. But I had amazing professors who wrote great recommendations. I was extremely grateful and overwhelmed.  Studying (and living!) abroad for the first time in my life was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had. It opened my eyes as a producer, but also an advocate and an African-American. I'm not done traveling yet; I have a lot more to learn. I think my thoughts here sum up my experiences quite well.

When did you join Bi-Rite? What programs are you working on there? 

I joined Bi-Rite in Feb 2012, post-Italy. I currently manage the community giving and outreach across the Bi-Rite Family of Businesses (18th St Market, Divisadero Market, Creamery, 18 Reasons, Bi-Rite Farm, Bi-Rite Catering). My job is develop and implement a community strategy that not only elevates our current efforts but create deeply impactful programs along the lines of youth employment + empowerment, serving local schools, supporting the communities in which we operate, and sustaining a good and just food system.  I also develop recipes for and make our in-house jams and preserves for our PUBLIC Label line and teach canning classes at 18 Reasons. In addition to my work at Bi-Rite, I work as a grant consultant for Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded initiative working with underprivileged youth across the US to change their school food systems. 

Tell us about PUBLIC Label. I love the community aspect of the product. 

We created our PUBLIC Label line to bring more transparency to your typical store brand. Unlike the private labels of other grocers, we know the exact (short!) story of every one of our products: where it comes from, who produced and how it was made. It’s been an incredibly exciting process, working directly with farmers, artisanal producers and our staff and guests to develop some awesomely tasty goods, like San Marzano tomato sauce, stone fruit jams, wine, extra virgin olive oil and spicy pickles. On my end, in developing our preserves, it’s been super fun to have a supportive environment that allows me to be creative, and share the same high standards for quality.

What are your philosophies in food preservation? 

Preserving isn't some "twee trend", but is practical, necessary skill and a way to connect communities to the land and to each other, across race or class lines. For the past several years, I've worked extremely hard to refine my craft, through owning Slow Jams, by studying in Italy via a Fulbright, and now creating preserves under Bi-Rite's PUBLIC Label and teaching at 18Reasons and beyond. This MSN Grio article speaks well to my approach to preserving

What new products are in development? What would you like to see next for PUBLIC Label?

Exploring more ferments like kimchi, and we're doing it a little different than the traditional, using kale for example. I've developed more seasonal recipes, and it's time to start working with a copacker to produce the recipes I've developed. If something special comes in, I'll make a small batch to get it on the shelf and test it out, and it it's a success, we'll develop it up to larger scale. We've been doing this for a while, and people get excited about it. One of the reasons I like working here, is we can do this sort of thing, working with farms to get amazing produce for excellent preserves and have them be competitively priced at the level of quality people expect from Bi-Rite. This is my favorite time of year. You feel so productive. I have nocino going, vinegars, plum jam, all kinds of things in my pantry. It's fun to be at home and do small batches, test recipes and think about how we could bring them to market.

Have you submitted anything to the Good Food Awards this year?

We are submitting a few things, but I can't say what. Of course, we will be one of the main sponsors once again, so we're interested in seeing who will win. Many Good Food Awards winners are on the Bi-Rite Market shelves. We want to celebrate that. 

Recipes - Techniques - Tools