Eat at Bill’s: Life in the Monterey Market is a video documentary about the phenomenon that is the Monterey Market, a family owned produce market in Berkeley, CA. The focus is on Bill Fujimoto, the market’s owner. Bill’s enthusiasm and experience fuel the enterprise and illuminate the Market’s wide world of small growers and diverse customers.
You can buy a DVD copy here:
Buy “Eat At Bill’s” here.

EAT AT BILLS VIDEO – Excerpt from Lisa Brenneis on Vimeo.

The Monterey Market’s single store supports many dozens of small (and formerly small) farms. Bill’s determination to support the maximum number of small growers and his passion for connecting customers with the very best has attracted a small army of restaurant customers. Bay Area chefs know the Monterey Market’s back room is the place to find the season’s finest.

Farmers across California will tell you that Bill was their first retail customer and that his support was crucial to their success. I was inspired to make this movie because I’m one of those farmers.

My husband Jim Churchill and I own and operate a small orchard in Southern California. Jim and I met when we were both working at Churchill Films, his dad’s film production and distribution company. When Jim and I got married in 1988, he was a part-time farmer with a failing avocado orchard and 80 Pixie tangerine trees. My good friend Jim Maser suggested we try selling our Pixies to Bill at Monterey Market.

I kept telling Jim, “Somebody ought to make a movie about Bill and the Monterey Market.” Jim suggested that perhaps I should be that somebody.

This movie is a celebration of the Monterey Market’s diverse network of customers and suppliers, and a valentine to small enterprises everywhere.

Thoughts on the Monterey Market

Lisa Brenneis writes: I love the Monterey Market. It’s a living example of what a grocery store can do for people, and what people can do for a grocery store.

Monterey Market is packed with food, packed with people, packed with ideas, sometimes it’s just packed solid.

Most of what I love about the Market came from Bill Fujimoto. The Market evolved as an extension of Bill’s interests, attitudes and passions–a legacy he inherited from his folks, market founders Tom and Mary Fujimoto. Bill listens to customers. He’s endlessly knowledgable about where to find quality and value in produce and tireless in seeking it out. He works side-by-side with his great staff; most guys on the floor at Monterey Market know more about good produce than a chain store buyer.

We’ve been selling pixie tangerines and other eccentric citrus to Bill for almost 20 years. We’re not the only growers who consult Bill on national market conditions, inquire about our competition, ask his advice on pricing, or bring him our latest discoveries.

He picked us up when we were just starting out and taught us how to market direct to retail, buying our fruit and making a market for a new tangerine variety. 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.

Bill buys for flavor and rewards quality. Buying and selling ripe fruit is a highwire 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. Hot, responsive customers & Bill team up to coax growers into holding that fruit until the perfect moment. Handling ripe fruit is an art, not a science and everybody loses a little fruit to the compost bin. Small price.

The dominant model in food retailing has become a zero-sum game. Grocery chain operators order and plan months ahead of time. If July rolls around and it’s the best peach crop in 20 years, chain buyers react by grinding their suppliers down on price. They won’t drop the price their customers pay; they keep the markup. And incredibly, they don’t order and sell more peaches when there’s plenty available. According to the chain playbook selling more peaches means you’re going to sell less of something else. Zero-sum. So in a great peach year, peach growers are despondent and near ruin, customers pay the same high prices and, because the peaches were picked green so they taste like cardboard, they don’t buy more.

At the Monterey Market, if it’s the best peach crop in 20 years, you’re going to get good peaches at a great price, and unbelieveable peaches at the best price out there, and you’ll get the first peaches, and the last peaches. Growers will sell a lot of peaches, and customers will buy more peaches than they ever dreamed possible and get peach stains on all their t-shirts and have a great summer.

Bill’s in the middle, cheering for the growers when they bring the crop in, winning the customers by talking up the fruit. Talking to everybody, connecting everybody. Trusting everybody.

Unfortunately, Bill and Judy had to leave the Monterey Market – – their last day was June 3rd, 2009.

Independent grocers with the skills to do what the Monterey Market does are vanishingly rare. The Market is still in there pitching,  the customers are still shopping, and Monterey Market is still our Customer #1. The spirit lives. 

Monterey Market – go visit in person!