Bi-Rite Versus Amazon Go

A community-oriented grocery and the corporation led by the world's richest man each expanded in San Francisco last week.

Bi-Rite Cafe at Civic Center Plaza . Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

Two food businesses opened in San Francisco last week, mere days apart. One is about personal connection and the other about the social trend toward a lifestyle without it.

Bi-Rite Market, the 70-year-old, family-run grocery store and full-service deli with locations on 18th Street and Divisadero Street, opened a cafe in Civic Center. Meanwhile, the corporation owned by the world’s richest human being opened a cash- and cashier-less convenience mart in the Financial District. The differences couldn’t be starker.

Bi-Rite serves Sightglass Coffee, avocado toast, lentil bowls, affogatos, yogurt-and-granola parfaits, and everything else you can plot on the wholesome-precious axis. There’s a full kitchen on site, the whole thing is designed with its surroundings in mind. It’s next to a new playground. Its base is granite, to match the City Beautiful architecture. It can shut down at night as tightly as WALL-E riding out a dust storm.

 

Purists may take grouse over any privatization of public space, but Bi-Rite Cafe is a harmonious asset to a challenging neighborhood, one that people dismiss with fear-mongering hysteria — “open-air drug market” — as if it were total anarchy over there. (Disclosure: I was an on-call bartender for Bi-Rite Catering from 2009-14.) But the point is obvious, to take a difficult spot and make it feel welcoming, in a virtuous cycle.

Meanwhile, Amazon Go is designed for people not to have to wait in line, use cash, or interact with others. Your basket is your “cart”: Pick something up, and you’ll pay for it when you leave. Put it back, and it’s automatically deducted from your total. You don’t even need to Be on Your Phone. As with Eatsa, the robot-quinoa mini-chain, it’s not that there are no humans involved; they’re just kept largely out of sight. (Attendants in orange help you troubleshoot the Amazon Go app that you have to download.) But who makes those Korean Bulgogi Burger kits, and who informs shoppers that they pair well with a “bold red”?

On opening day, Sam Mogannam, Bi-Rite’s principal owner and public face, was out wiping down tables and chatting. No one expects Jeff Bezos to helicopter into Amazon Go for a meet-and-greet, but hopefully it shows up on more than a spreadsheet.

Look, Amazon Go is about the easiest food-related thing in the world to pick on after Stockwell, the ill-conceived start-up formerly known as Bodega. It is low-hanging fruit, barcoded and pesticide-coated and dangling from the tree of the algorithm of good and evil. It embodies the fetishization of convenience, taken to its logical endpoint. Although it leaves you feeling like you just got away with shoplifting, being there has an inescapably deadening quality. The initial product stock feels random, a clutch of grab-and-go sandwiches and Spindrifts alongside mass-market products like Morton Salt, ReaLemon, and Betty Crocker whipped frosting. Overall, it’s equal parts airport dining concourse and a sad corner store, with a bit of Blue Apron.

You can also buy a $5.99 mug that reads “Just Walk Out.”

Bare shelves at Amazon Go at the end of a busy day.

It’s tempting to say that the lesson here is that “community” is solely for the affluent, and it’s easy to blinded by its romance. In many ways, as democracy bleeds out and dies and oligarchy munches on its carcass, America is turning into the orbital cul-de-sac from the movie Elysium. It’s also true that Amazon Go falls under the same corporate umbrella as Whole Foods, which caters to an almost identical demographic as Bi-Rite — whose spinoff, incidentally, sells organic apple juice for “kids and kids at heart” for only $1.

The nebulous, Jane Jacobs quality of how a business fits into a wider sense of place remains inescapable. Call it soul if you want, or maybe the opposite of soullessness, but there is a social responsibility to feel like you are in and of the city. We note its presence or absence even during commercial transactions where workers have been trained to smile and be friendly. It’s what leaves us personally wounded when our favorite barista moves on and gets a career-track job in their chosen profession. Bi-Rite’s purpose is to connect eaters to the land, to the producers, to the foodshed, to each other. You may feel occasional sticker shock, but only because we’ve been propagandized to believe that food from an industrial system is best when it is as close to free as possible.

It isn’t. Amazon Go is optimized to slice against the grain of that awareness at a perfect 90-degree angle. Is it bad or wrong to shop there? No. Even the best of us, from time to time, just needs one item and wants it cheap. Or we get a cold or have a crappy day and don’t want to engage with anyone right then. But the more we have the option to shun one another, the more accustomed we grow to preferring that option. And it’s no exaggeration to say that the result is the stratification of society in mutually hostile camps. Remember: You can just walk out.

Bi-Rite Cafe at Civic Center Plaza, 52 Grove St. 415-710-0633, biritemarket.com/cafe

Amazon Go, 300 California St. No phone, no website.

 

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