Shopping for salsa ingredients one day in 2000, Steve Sando was infuriated that all he could find were hothouse tomatoes from Holland. This realization prompted Sando to start growing his own heirloom tomatoes, and then to sell them at a farmers' market. As a way to have something to sell before tomato season, he began growing beans, which let to an obsession with heirloom beans.
Today, Sando’s Rancho Gordo, based in Napa, California, sources seeds for traditional and heirloom crops from across the Americas. Since launching the specialty food company in 2004, Sando has collected seed for 100 varieties of beans, from rich, meaty 'Good Mother Stallard' with its velvety pot liquor to the melt-in-your-mouth 'Red Nightfall.' In the process, he has become a minor deity among restaurant chefs and home cooks.
Because he’s the kind of guy who, as he admits, “can’t do things casually,” Sando threw himself into learning all there is to know about heirloom beans. He acquired seeds from Seed Savers Exchange and sought additional heritage varieties on trips across Mexico. “My idea of a good time is to go to market,” he says. “To find seeds is the most fun you can have.” These ancient bean landraces can be lower in yield than modern hybrid varieties and sometimes harder to grow. But when cooked, they possess beautiful variations in texture and taste that make one realize how lacking supermarket beans are.
After acknowledging that he didn’t have the “true grit” to be a farmer, Sando began hiring local California farmers to produce beans for Rancho Gordo. One by one, he found farmers who were willing to forgo high-yielding “commodity” beans in favor of the more challenging heirloom varieties. In 2009, Sando and his Mexican business partner, the Xoxoc (pronounced “sho-shoc”) collaborative, formed the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project, which helps Mexican farmers negotiate international trade regulations and other cross-border hurdles.
The stories of project members are moving. There’s Abel, a farmer who grows dense, fudgelike 'Moro' beans in the state of Hidalgo. As Sando was finalizing his first transaction with the farmer, Abel’s hands started shaking as he punched the numbers into his calculator. “He could not believe he was making that much money,” recalls Sando. “You think, ‘This is all it takes to make a difference?’ We’re getting these beans at a great price and he gets to keep on growing beans.”
Then there’s Maria, also from Hidalgo, who grows delicious ‘Rebosero’ beans. Her grandson was on the way to the United States to try to find work. But when Maria sold her entire crop of beans to Rancho Gordo, her grandson decided to stay in Mexico and help her farm. “It’s a drop in the ocean, but if we can create these markets, everyone wins,” Sando says.
Helping subsistence farmers has been rewarding, but selling the beans, at least in the beginning, was hard. Sando couldn’t get into Napa farmers’ market, so he settled for the much smaller Yountville market, where people want fresh produce, not dried beans. But there was a silver lining: One of the first chefs to discover Sando was Thomas Keller of Yountville’s renowned restaurant The French Laundry. Gradually, word of Sando’s special beans spread across the country to chefs in San Francisco, Boston, and New York, and demand grew. Now, in addition to eight Xoxoc Project farmers who grow 10 heirloom varieties in Mexico, Sando works with another dozen farmers in California, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
When the number of requests from customers for seeds and help in growing beans became overwhelming, Sando in 2011 began a Google gardening group called Bean Buddies, to share seeds and growing information. It now numbers just over 100. “People send me beans from all over the world, and the Bean Buddies do trials for us and report to us,” he says.
One of Sando’s side passions, a love for Mexican movie posters from the 1940s and ‘50s, sets the style for the Rancho Gordo brand. His poster collection decorates his small storefront in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and gives it an aura of Latin glamour that is in keeping with his impressively curated bean collection. The same aesthetic is visible in the Rancho Gordo logo and packaging and in the hip, retro design of Sando’s two books, The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide and Heirloom Beans, a cookbook. “When I worked for other people, I tried to fit in,” Sando says. “When I gave up everything and said I’m only going to make myself happy, that’s when everyone came on board.”