Monterey Market mirrors the city’s fresh faces and variety

By Molly Bentley, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday May 03, 2002

The man in the cowboy hat walked into Monterey Market like a poor man’s Johnny Cash. Dressed in black, right down to the leather vest and matching boots, he coughed into a closed fist and strode passed the Japanese cucumbers and fresh bread and into the sliver of a liquor isle.  

It was 9:30 a.m.  

Unlike the real Man in Black, as incongruous as this cowboy appeared, he failed to turn heads. It’s Berkeley, after all. And Bill Fujimoto can sum up his his clientele as succinctly as he does his produce.  

“There’s variety,” he said, referring to turnips at the time.  

These days, however, there’s more variety than ever at Monterey Market. As Berkeley’s Asian and Latino populations have grown since Bill’s father Tom began the business 40 years ago, the store has expanded into soybean paste soup, dried seaweed, “cloud ear” fungus and a wide selection of chilies. 

“Berkeley is a cosmopolitan neighborhood, ethically and culturally,” said Fujimoto, whose father immigrated to California from Japan and started the business in 1961 on a corner across from the market’s present location. “Everything has a cultural reason for being here.”  

It also has an economic reason. Fifteen years ago, the vast majority of the store’s produce came from California, which meant that many foods were unavailable off-season. As national and international food trafficking supplied merchants with seasonal food year-round, people came to expect tomatoes and mangos in winter. To stay competitive, said Fujimoto, with the chagrin of a businessman whose compromise brings profits, Monterey Market went global. Today, much of the market’s off-season produce comes from the same wholesalers who supply the large chains. The food originates in Israel, Mexico, Chile, and other foreign countries. Fujimoto said he would rather buy locally, where he knows the farmers and their growing methods. In California he can even follow the weather and consider its affect on crops.  


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“When it comes from Mexico, you have no control over the growing practice,” he said. A clerk stocking tomatoes later whispered that the “quality wasn’t as good” with the imported foods. Still, Fujimoto said that as the buyer, he takes full responsibility for what’s in the store. He grew up working along side his father and, he said, and can tell you what everything in the store tastes like raw. 

A man considering the grapefruit turned to a checker. “What’s the difference between a Pomelo and a Oro Blanco?” The answer is lost among squeaky carts and two women chatting in Italian. You are as likely to hear a romance language, Farsi or Mandarian at the market, as you are English.  


On a recent Tuesday, a Chinese woman hustled her son indoors, where the market smells at first of oranges, then of the dankness in a root cellar. Here an elderly woman furiously sifted through yellow onions. She selected and discarded rapidly, like a secretary through index cards, and filled a clear bag. Her friend sorted red onions and spoke in Slavic language.  


“Are you going to use those?” asked an Indian woman, waiting behind them. She saw that the bags didn’t hold onions at all, but onionskins.  


“It’s Easter dye,” said the red onion woman, who said that she boiled them in water with eggs. The dark skins turn the eggs purple. And the yellow skins “turn them yellow or brown, depending on how long you soak them.” she said. “And it’s all without chemicals.”  


The women left, narrowly avoiding a cart of bread. “You can barely get around here,” a clerk named Mickey, admitted, “it’s all road blocks.” Which is how he likes it. 


“It’s like shopping in a time warp,” he said, “the way things used to be.” He said that the small size and earthiness remind him of shops he went to with his parents in the 1950’s, before the slick commercial stores took over.  


Monterey Market has retained its homegrown feel, even as it bows to some forces of modern economics. It is now a corporation - for tax purposes - but it is still a family business. Fujimoto took over the store – along with his two brothers and sister, who have minimal roles - after his father died six years ago. He still calls it his “father’s business.” He said that he returned to the market after a short stint as an engineer where he earned more money, but felt like an anonymous drone.  


“In engineering, if there’s a problem it’s well documented and then filed away,” he said. As a storeowner, he has to act. “If there’s a rotten batch of tomatoes,” he wants to know right away, and they’re tossed. 


The lack of formality appeals to Mickey. “It’s not so modern,” he said, comparing Monterey Market with the bigger corporate stores, where he used to work. “There’s no ATM, there’s no intercom. The prices are just called out.” Not just prices. 


“Mickey!” a cashier shouts over the heads of customers, one bread isle and four cash registers away. “You’ve got a phone call.” 


The market’s variety reflects cultural traditions, Fujimoto said, which helps keeps the customers loyal. He doesn’t turn a profit on hard-to-find items like Cardoons, and he doesn’t try to stock everything. Although one wonders what leafy vegetable he’s over-looked. “Everything we have in the store is for somebody,” he said. That may include soft dried cuttlefish, displayed near the cashiers, or something more ordinary.  


The man in black emerged from the liquor isle empty-handed. He turned the corner and landed in the baking section. A checker shows him a tube of vanilla beans. “Like these?” he asked.  


“No, those are beans,” said the man. “What about extract?”  


He was handed a small bottle of Pure Vanilla Extract. The man turned it over in his hand, “Ah – yes.” He smiled from under his black Stetson, and headed for the cashier.