In June 2009, the much-beloved Bill and Judy Fujimoto, former proprietors of North Berkeley greengrocer Monterey Market, were ousted unceremoniously from their positions. The community uproar was swift, and high-profile shoppers like Alice Waters and Judy Rodgers (owner of Zuni Café in San Francisco) vowed to take their business elsewhere. And for the last two and a half years, a feud has been percolating in this otherwise sleepy, idyllic neighborhood.
On one side is the California-Hopkins Affiliation of Residents and Merchants (CHARM), a group of thirteen livid neighborhood activists. On the other side is Monterey Market, which CHARM claims started carrying the same products as its neighboring stores earlier this year, but at predatory prices. At last count, the group had secured more than six hundred signatures on a liberally bolded petition that reads:
"The Monterey Market has introduced similar if not some of the exact same products ... in order to lure customers away from the other small shops. This practice is hurting the sales of the Country Cheese Coffee Market, Magnani's (meat), Hopkins Street Bakery, Hopkins Liquor, Freshly Cut (florist), and Mahmoud the Flowerseller."
It continues in all caps, in case you weren't paying attention:
"CONTINUE TO PURCHASE YOUR PRODUCE AT THE MONTEREY MARKET BUT REFRAIN FROM PURCHASING CHEESE, CHOCOLATE, TEA, LUNCHMEATS, WINE, FLOWERS, FLOWERING PLANTS, AND PIES, CAKES AND COOKIES."
Some would say CHARM needs a primer on the invisible hand of the free market. Healthy competition drives business improvement, yes? For instance, when Monterey Market started opening on Sundays, Country Cheese soon started doing the same. And on a recent weekend, Monterey Market had a manned free-sample booth in front of its entrance. So did Country Cheese. "Stores around here have to step up," says Monterey co-owner Robert Fujimoto (Bill's brother). "We are making everyone else try harder."
Members of CHARM claim it's possible for all the little shops to co-exist without competing, as in the past. They say there should be no product crossover (though I do count two flower sellers) on this block of Hopkins Street.
"The previous owners, Bill and Judy, got along with all the other merchants and they never would have attempted to compete with them; they were community-oriented in the best sense of the term," said CHARM member Diane Wolf, UC Davis sociology professor and Berkeley resident. "The current owners seem bent on destroying the sense of community that existed among the shop-owners, if not the shops themselves."
It didn't help Monterey Market's image that its PR agent, a woman named Jill Mizono, was recently caught stealing a signature-filled petition from Country Cheese. Country Cheese owner Shirley Ng has closed-circuit footage of the deed, and owners of Chinese restaurant Lilly's claim petitions were stolen from their store as well. When asked about the theft, Robert Fujimoto said only, "I'm going to hang up now," then did just that.
Laurie Capitelli, Berkeley's District 5 city councilman, said Mizono made a public apology for stealing the petition, conceding that "her emotions just got the best of her." He also said Mizono sent flowers to Ng, who refused them. Capitelli has repped the district for seven years, and said Monterey Market has been the subject of various neighborhood issues since he began. Biggest on the list of complaints: traffic, parking issues, and noise from the market's air compressors. Now, Capitelli thinks that some neighbors who have long been unhappy with the market's bustle are jumping on the CHARM bandwagon. "There's no price-fixing going on here," he said.
Any Saturday morning visit shows the market to be a wildly popular shopping destination. Its parking lot is perpetually jammed, with parked cars spilling onto Hopkins or various side streets. Even if you find Robert Fujimoto and his co-owners to be ill-mannered businesspeople, they're clearly doing something that resonates with shoppers.
Fujimoto said neighboring merchants aren't looking at the big picture. "They think I'm just trying to compete with them but I've got bigger things to deal with," he said. "I'm trying to stay competitive with Andronico's and Whole Foods."
Bill Fujimoto gained a cult following less for his business acumen than for his interesting, top-shelf produce, and for his tireless efforts to help small farmers succeed. He was even the subject of a New York Times-lauded documentary, Eat at Bill's. Capitelli rarely shops at Monterey Market now, claiming the glory days of the market were long ago. Still, he hopes for a consolation prize: peace.
Capitelli has helped organize numerous community meetings, trying to bridge gaps between merchants, neighbors, and the market. He said some shops, like Magnani's Poultry, appear to be gradually letting go of past grudges. But at the end of the day, "I think no amount of outreach will change some people's minds about Monterey Market."
All I Want for Christmas
On another note, I'm looking for good translators to help me with reviews of ethnic restaurants. Hindi, Thai, and Lao speakers would be helpful now but I'll likely need others at some point. If you're fluent in any non-English language and you'd like to join me on a restaurant review, please don't hesitate to email! Jesse.Hirsch@EastBayExpress.com.