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Seeking Lowly Beans Led to Culinary Wonders

What started as a quest for heirloom legumes grew to marketing unique Mexican comestible discoveries

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by Jenn Garbee

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Steve Sando’s career path seemed, to the uninitiated, almost heroically directionless, zigzagging from a gig as a wholesale clothing marketing rep to an on-air martini-shaking DJ for an Italian radio station. Then the ebullient 53-year-old finally put down some roots—literally, founding a wildly-influential heirloom bean business in 1999. Over the last 15 years he has changed the way lots of Americans think of a simple pot of legumes. And that was just the beginning. A few years after Sando started his company, he decided to reinvent the way he did business from the nutrient-rich ground up—and along the way, revolutionize the working lives of the myriad small farmers and craftspeople he worked with on a regular basis. Today, Sando’s Napa-based company Rancho Gordo taps its founder’s considerable marketing savvy to help promote native Mexican crops to more consumers by creating ever-growing demand in the U.S. The result has been renewed hope for a stable financial future for many small family businesses.See also: The Path to Transformation Starts by Becoming an OptimistSando became obsessed with obscure legumes in the late 1990s, when beans with names like Xculibul, an almost chocolate-y black bean from the Yucatan, were hardly American dinner table staples. Frustrated by the lack of varieties available, Sando began selling exotic, home grown heirloom beans like Black Calypsos, nicknamed “the orca” for its uncanny resemblance to the whale, at farmers’ markets. One farm stand customer in those early days was foodie-God Thomas Keller, who promptly ordered several varieties for his four-star restaurants French Laundry and Per Se. Where Keller goes, many follow, and before long gourmet beans were as hot as pork bellies and orange-hued uni. To meet demand, he expanded his circle of small growers in California. Within a few years his company, Rancho Gordo, became the go-to heirloom legume purveyor for many high-end chefs and more recently, bean-loving home cooks (he still commissions U.S. farmers to grow many varietals). But for Sando, something more than a pinch of salt was still missing in all of those bubbling pots of beans. Finding small farmers willing to grow heirloom beans, a notorious finicky crop with low yields, was proving increasingly difficult. Then, on one of his frequent heirloom varietal-scouting trips to Mexico, he was struck by the local economic impact of cultivating beans in the U.S. that have their historic roots in Mexico. “They’re losing business,” says Sando. “Longtime heirloom bean growers are being forced to give up [multi-generational] family fields, get other jobs, if they can even find them.”See also: Inside Ann Patchett’s BookstoreThat realization convinced Sando to approach Xoxoc (pronounced “sho-shoc”), a small exporter specializing in native foods like xoconostle (dried and salted prickly pear cactus), about partnering to bring more high-end indigenous Mexican products to the U.S. “I think we haven’t always been particularly good neighbors to Mexico. We’re all on this continent together—why aren’t we trying to save our native foods together?” Xoxoc owners Gabriel Cortés Garcia and Yunuén Carrillo Quiroz have introduced Sando to heirloom bean varieties from tiny villages that he otherwise never would have tasted, nor been able to save. Sando has expanded his product line beyond beans, importing heirloom varieties of hominy, oregano and chia, an indigenous plant primarily grown in Australia. In the process, he has formed relationships with his purveyors that go well beyond a trade deal. Two years ago, Sando met a group of women in Guerrero who grow their own cacao, fire-roast and stone-grind it to make the tablet-style chocolate traditionally used in mole. “The chocolate was incredible, but really, these women were so amazing, I had to buy some,” recalls Sando, who placed a substantial order on the spot. “I was just hoping I could figure out how to sell it.” Today, Rancho Gordo buys three quarters of the cooperative’s production capacity. The income has enabled the matriarch to employ more family members and build a larger facility to increase production. Sando enthusiastically recounts a half dozen similar stories about connections with vendors that have moved him. Most recently, a group of farmers invited him down to an annual festival that no one outside the village has ever been included in. “That’s the sort of thing that makes me cry today,” he says. “They are so grateful.”See also: Being My Mom’s Caregiver Saved MeThe partnerships have also been a boon for Rancho Gordo’s business. As more chefs and food-centric home cooks hear about the products, Sando plans to expand into more indigenous foods, as well as explore possibilities in South America. But for now, Sando is just happy that he can finally see a subtle shift in American palates, and perceptions, after fifteen years. “When I started selling beans, some people didn’t want to know a white ‘Italian bean’ was actually native to Mexico. They wanted to believe it was Italian. Now, they appreciate that it is indigenous.” Sando may have started out with an eye on his company’s bottom line, but he ended up making conscientious choices that amounted to whole lot more than a hill of beans to the small businesses he supports.Photographs by Cedric Angeles