How San Francisco's Favorite Grocery Developed a Hiring Strategy to Support Its Growth and Culture

October 31, 2016

In 2003, Sam Mogannam, Founder of Bi-Rite, almost lost one of his most impactful hires.

Liz Martinez joined the company as a produce stocker, and almost quit within first 6 months. She had a complete meltdown,” Sam explained. After a long conversation with Liz to understand what was going on, Sam discovered that her manager was a bad culture fit, and he immediately took action.

“It was a really pivotal learning lesson. It made me realize how important culture alignment is. If someone doesn't mesh well with the culture, it could damage the whole business.”

Now, Liz is Director of Product. Over the past 13 years, she’s made tremendous contributions across the organization, from purchasing to operations, finance and communications.

“She’s had a huge impact on our business, but I almost lost her.”

Some background on Bi-Rite and the company philosophy

Sam is the 2nd generation owner of Bi-Rite Market, which was honored as one of Forbes Best Small Companies in America. With 75 years of history and over 300 employees, the company has grown from a local family-owned favorite to an admired small business. With two store locations, a catering business, a killer ice creamery, and a powerful non-profit, Sam doesn’t feel the pressure to get bigger – he just wants to get better.

“How can we improve our service? How can we offer a better product set?” he explains. “If we continue to hire great people who believe in our mission and vision, we’ll continue to provide an experience for our guests that will resonate - an experience they will remember.”

In a company this size, every single hire can make or break your business. Sam took some time to share some lessons he’s learned about hiring for culture fit and how it improved the business.

First, you have to define your culture

As Sam mentioned, a poor culture-fit can damage employees and ultimately the business. After Liz’s experience, Sam realized he needed to take matters into his own hands.

Sam and his brother, Raph, with business partner Calvin Tsay, started developing the Bi-Rite culture in 2004, right as they were on the cusp of significant growth. First, they took time to reflect on the company history, their core values, and the community they served, which helped them define the company mission: creating community through food, which they have used every day to ensure the entire team is aligned.

Then, they did some research by reading books and talking with industry peers. This helped them decide what direction they wanted to take the company, and the type of people they needed to hire in order to get there.

Finally, they visualized the future. Sam took a class on visioning and understood the importance of a long-term outlook. He collaborated with his entire team to craft a 10-year vision, which helped to create company-wide trust and a greater sense of purpose with specific targets of success. This vision is used for setting strategy not only for how they intend to grow financially, but also how they envision the life for their staff, their community, the environment and the food and service they provide their guests.

Next, create a plan to hire candidates that fit that culture

Once they defined their company mission and vision, they used these principles to identify culture-fit candidates. When Bi-Rite has an open role, the company looks for:

  • Love – Candidates who value relationships, whether they be relationships with colleagues, customers or business partners. Winning candidates want to invest in these relationships and love serving others.
  • Passion – Candidates who are passionate about their work, the industry and the community they serve. The more eager they are about the work and purpose, the stronger results the individual and the company will see. 
  • Integrity – Candidates who think about the impact of their decisions, who are humble, who do what’s right for the company and community. This is foundational for Trust.

How do they evaluate candidates for these qualities? During the interview process, Sam and the hiring team ask candidates questions that stem from these core values, and it helps them assess cultural fit. “I like to ask people about their failures,” Sam says. “How they define failure and how they have dealt with failure helps me understand how the candidate will work though challenges.” They also put candidates on the store floor to see if their behavior also reflects these cultural standards.

One CEO can’t do it all - get a team to hire for growth

When Sam took over the business in 1998, he was involved in everything, including the hiring process. As the business dramatically grew, Sam needed to scale hiring while also sustaining culture-fit.

“We needed to beef up HR and finance, formalize buying roles, and hire 100 people in 3 months to operate a second store,” Sam explained. One part-time HR generalist couldn’t handle that many responsibilities, so Sam brought on a consultant and a few coordinators. Later, that consultant came on full time as their Director of People.

With a more formalized HR department in place, the company dramatically improved their hiring process. They turned to LinkedIn and job boards to source quality and culture-fit talent, incorporated assignments for store associate roles, and created scorecards to assess candidates. Now, time-to-fill is anywhere from 2-6 weeks, sometimes longer for roles with greater responsibility.

To retain the people Bi-Rite worked so hard to recruit, the HR department also created development opportunities for employees looking to enrich their careers and evolved the organizational structure to reflect the company culture and trajectory.

While the HR department helped formalize the hiring process, they aren’t solely responsible for maintaining the unique culture. “My view is that HR is everyone’s responsibility,” says Sam. “Every employee is empowered to make the culture awesome. You can’t rely on one department to make that happen.”

Hiring for culture fit is what lead Bi-Rite to success

Identifying Bi-Rite’s cultural values and formalizing their hiring process has helped the company find and hire the right candidates. These critical hires have helped shape the small company’s success and industry recognition.

But how does the CEO define success? One word: happiness.

“Seeing my staff and family happy is the greatest success,” Sam says. “We work hard together and we play hard together. When we feel fulfilled from life… that’s success.”

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