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Stormy weather for a fruit and vegetable icon

June 8, 2009 |  3:30 pm

Bill 

The storm stirred up by Bill Fujimoto’s recent resignation as manager of Monterey Market in Berkeley might seem surprising to some. But in Berkeley, perhaps more than anywhere else in the United States, passions run high over produce, and under Fujimoto’s direction, Monterey Market became iconic for its support for small-scale local, and sustainable farming, its reputation parallel to that of the nearby Chez Panisse.

Fujimoto’s knowledge of produce varieties, seasons and growing areas, his contacts with farmers and his encouragement of them to plant neglected or little known specialty items, such as Sierra Beauty apples and Pixie tangerines, have amplified his influence far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. And more than his expertise, his humility and integrity have inspired intense loyalty in the market’s suppliers, customers and employees.

“Bill Fujimoto is the only one of his kind in the United States,” said John Kirkpatrick, a citrus farmer in Lindcove, Calif. “I’m looking for other markets to sell to.”

But now, Fujimoto is out after a dispute among family members.

The market, which has about 50 employees and annual sales of $16 million, was making more money then ever. “The last couple of years have been extremely profitable,” said Fujimoto. “Before that, we were just kind of puttering along.”

But it faced significant challenges: The market’s leading competitor, Berkeley Bowl, which has flourished with a mass-market business model, was planning a huge second store, which opened last Thursday. Fujimoto offered to buy out his siblings, or to be bought out on the same terms, but they refused either deal, he said. His brother Robert, now the president of the business, declined comment.

An e-mail message that Fujimoto sent to friends and family on May 12 mentioned “disagreements in vision” as central to the dispute with his siblings, but Fujimoto, who remains a 20% owner of the market, preferred not to discuss details. “It wasn’t about the money,” he said. “It was way too stressful for me to be at the store. I did not believe that it was going in the right direction, and I had to leave.”

As he finished his last day of work at the market, on Wednesday, a crowd of 200 gathered to bid him goodbye.

The next day was the first workday in 30 years that he didn’t get up at 1:30 a.m. to call and visit the wholesale produce market; normally, he went home around noon to sleep, and returned to the market at 5 p.m. “It hasn’t hit me yet,” he said. “It still feels like the weekend.”

Some growers and restaurant owners have said that they will boycott Monterey Market under its new management. “The only thing we want is for Bill to somehow regain control of the market,” said Lisa Brenneis, a tangerine grower who felt so strongly about Fujimoto that she made a documentary about him, "Eat at Bill’s," that will be airing on the PBS station  KCET-TV  later this month.

“It’s very, very bittersweet,” she said.

-- David Karp

Photo: John Brenneis 

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