Glenn Yasuda, the co-founder and co-owner of the the iconic Berkeley Bowl grocery store, died on Friday of a blood infection, Berkeleyside reports. He was 85.
With his wife Diane, Yasuda opened the first Berkeley Bowl grocery store in 1977, inside a former bowling alley at 2777 Shattuck Avenue. It didn’t take long for folks to realize that this was no ordinary market, as publications like the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and LA Times wrote pieces rhapsodizing about the Yasuda’s accomplishments, as the spot, Sally Tager wrote in 1984, “is an exhibition of beautiful fresh products which has to be seen to be believed.”
The grocery store, which in 1999 moved to a former Safeway at 2020 Oregon Street, opened a second location called Berkeley Bowl West in 2009. Both markets have become well known not just as well-stocked regional shopping spots, but for their unique offerings, many of which could be ascribed to Yasuda. As recently as 2008, when Yasuda was 74, the LA Times reported that he continued to wake up before 3 a.m. five days a week, all to “scour several wholesale produce markets, hand-selecting the fruit and vegetables that will soon fill his shelves.” “Before you buy anything,” Yasuda told LAT reporter John Glionna, “you have to smell it, taste it.”
After that article’s publication, Yasuda banned Glionna from the Bowl “for life,” reportedly over the brow Glionna’s reporting cocked at the store’s hard line against patrons who took illicit samples from the store’s stock. It was a move that both bespoke confidence in his company — after all, most spots are inviting reporters to visit their location, not sending them away — as well as how protective he was of his business and brand.
It also reflected Yasuda’s unpretentious beginnings as the descendant of Japanese immigrants who, during World War II, were imprisoned in a Cody, Wyoming internment camp, Berkeleyside reports. His father and grandfather were both farmers in Southern California, a background that set him up for the produce-seeking path he’d follow. “He knows more about produce than all of us combined,” Berkeley Bowl general manager, Steve Tsujimoto told Berkeleyside. “He probably forgot more produce than we all know. He’s the produce guru.”
But while shoppers at Yasuda’s stores described their experience in colorful terms (food writer Michael Pollan, for example, told Berkeleyside it was “heaven for omnivores”), Yasuda was far more circumspect. When asked by a NYT reporter in 2005 about what made his store so unique, Yasuda said, “I don’t know. All the markets are pretty good. We do the same thing.”
According to Berkeleyside, Berkeley Bowl staffers had known that Yasuda had been hospitalized since January after falling ill, but were still stunned to learn that he had died. “It was just a very somber weekend here, a lot of crying,” Tsujimoto said. Now Gen, Yasuda’s 41-year-old son, will take over his father’s role. “I really believe he’s going to continue the legacy,” Tsujimoto told Berkeleyside. “I don’t think anybody has to worry about Berkeley Bowl selling or closing. We’re here to stay and to take care of our community and our loyal customers.”