Sexy and bold looking beans from Rancho Gordo: these aren’t your granny’s beans! Bay Area native Steve Sando brings a touch of glamour to his indigenous “New World” heirloom bean company, which was founded in 2001. The Napa headquarters for his company, Rancho Gordo, is decorated with movie posters from 1940s and ‘50s Mexican cinema. Those posters serve as the inspiration for Rancho Gordo’s unique packaging, which feature images of beautiful Mexican women from that era. That is but one creative spin Sando has been put on marketing a food group often relegated to the bulk bin aisles.
Come summer, it’ll be interesting to see how many of Sando’s posters will make it to his soon-to-open store inside the Ferry Building. Rancho Gordo will move into a space currently occupied by the Scharffen Berger Chocolate folks. Sando sells more than two-dozen types of beans, and Rancho Gordo’s new brick-and-mortar presence will let him expand his offerings to include stone ground chocolate, banana vinegar, grains, corn tortillas, and other products that complement the beans.
Sando originally started his heirloom & heritage bean business from his dining room table, when he was searching for heirloom tomatoes and could only seem to find ones that were from a hothouse in Europe. Many of his beans are rare and endangered, and Sando travels to Mexico and Central and Southern America for research and discovery. In the beginning days of Rancho Gordo, Thomas Keller became a customer and word soon spread. Other famous fans now include Annie Somerville, Marcella Hazan, Deborah Madison and Paula Wolfert. Rancho Gordo quickly grew into a bona fide operation, with much of the bean production done in California. In 2008, he co-authored Heirloom Beans: Recipes from Rancho Gordo (Chronicle Books, $22.95), with Vanessa Barrington, who was profiled on Bay Area Bites in early 2011. His next book was The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower's Guide: Steve Sando's 50 Favorite Varieties (Timber Press, $19.95).
Sando recently talked with Bay Area Bites about the move into the Ferry Building, a book he’s working on, and more. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Bay Area Bites: How did the Ferry Building move come about? How does that fit into the history of Rancho Gordo?
Sando: I have been selling at the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market for eight or nine years and have long been interested in doing a store there. It seemed like the right time to pursue that and I went to my business advisors. They told me that we grew 34 percent last year. Knock on wood, I haven’t taken any money to keep the business going. I live really humbly and let this thing grow. We are taking a line of credit to open in the Ferry Building, but there’s no debt. The most amazing thing is that I did this during the recession. I hear horror stories. We fill a real demographic need for real new world food. We’re not doing Mexican food per se but we do acknowledge that this area was Mexico at one time.
I started Rancho Gordo ten years ago without any sort of agriculture or business background. My professional career began at Esprit, where I was a sales rep. I did all of these different things after that for work and didn’t find my stride. My plan wasn’t to have a bean company. It just happened. I had decided that I’d be a screw up and have a nice garden and maybe work at Target. But everything with Rancho Gordo all worked out.
For our chefs, beans are a drag to ship. Once we open in the Ferry Building, it will be easier for a lot of them to visit and pick up more product. CUESA and the Ferry Building have been really encouraging. Early on, Thomas Keller decided that what we’re doing was groovy – that reaction definitely worked its way down, or up as it is.
Bay Area Bites: Tell us about your Bay Area upbringing.
Sando: I grew up in Sausalito and watched the food revolution. I wasn’t thinking I’d be a part of it, but in high school I worked for the farm worker boycott. We asked people to boycott grapes and lettuce. That was my ‘ag background.’
Bay Area Bites: Did anyone ever teach you about beans when you were younger? Why focus on beans for a business?
Sando: We had taco night when I was growing up, with doctored up Rosarita beans. That’s where my love of beans came from--I could eat them out of a can, I loved them that much.
It seems that we should know our own food before we lose focus. Before, people tried to do beans and had the focus be mainly on the health and vegetarian qualities. I have no interest in health and vegetarianism and feel that vegetarians don’t own beans per se. There was a complaint that my Heirloom Beans book did not have enough vegetarian recipes in it... There is a great bonus that beans are so healthy and are so green to grow. When you make meat, you grow food for cows. With beans, you put the seeds in the ground and have the protein. I’m interested in the green aspects but really most interested in the bean’s flavor.
I am researching a new book on beans and looking at dishes like pasta fagioli and cassoulet. I am finding Jewish dishes and Spanish dishes. Beans are a great ingredient for main dishes, yet too often they are put off to as side dishes or forgotten. The book is still in the proposal stage and we are conceptualizing it.
Bay Area Bites: What are your favorite heirloom items?
Sando: I love heirloom corn because the quality is so much more interesting and there are different varieties. My palate can tell which valley this corn is from, and when they still have a dried corn flavor. It’s not as distinctive then. I just love heirloom melons.
Bay Area Bites: Part of your work at Rancho Gordo is traveling and bringing back heirloom varieties. What have you been traveling for lately?
Sando: I asked Marcella Hazan, “What is it that you can’t get?” Then I try and find it. I asked Marcella and she said Sorana beans. I love to drop a name and it’s fun to just ask folks like Marcella. If you’re a young farmer, you can’t just have beets and chard anymore.
We’re getting more European varieties of beans from working with Georgeanne Brennan. Her husband worked with us on projects and her books are great. We found French Tarbais seed but call them cassoulet beans due to a terroir issue. Georgeanne was really key in her work with early vegetables and bringing the seeds over.
We’re working on getting pottery along the Oaxaca and Guerrero coast and importing stuff from Los Reyes. There’s no glaze on them, and the sides are just really thick so they don’t break. I love the pottery for cooking beans. We’ll be on the coast hunting for pots.
Bay Area Bites: Where do you like to eat and shop for food in the Bay Area?
Sando: I live on Mount Veeder, which is the mountain between Napa and Sonoma. For shopping, I have so many friends who grow food. I get the rest of what I need at the Mexican market.
I shop at Mexican markets around here for sour prickly pear, known as xoconostle. It lasts longer off the shelf and adds sourness to mole dishes. I like Lola’s markets in the North Bay.
I used to go to Bombay Bazar. My city (San Francisco) is changing a lot. I had a great 20 years there but now it’s losing a lot of things I used to love.