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Bi-Rite Market: The Science of Shopping 

Wednesday, Apr 3 2013
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Bi-Rite on 18th Street, a hot Friday afternoon, is bedlam. You'll hear conversations on beef cuts and see shoppers elbowing for real estate at the deli, standing before the wine shelves with a practiced look of helplessness in hopes of attracting an employee for help while eye-gouging toddlers with the sharp corners of their messenger bags.

The minds behind Bi-Rite are blameless for this mayhem, of course. The location at 18th Street opened in 1940, before slack lines and craft beer came to Dolores Park. Through the decades, the shop's space accommodated the customers. Through unflappable customer service and delicious food, Bi-Rite has become a beacon for anyone in San Francisco with functioning taste buds and an apartment with at least a hot plate.

Three weeks ago, Bi-Rite expanded to a new location on Divisidero, next to Nopa. The building was one of the original Safeways, but any traces of that institution are gone. The space is now a cathedral-ceilinged display of kale, spelt bread, and brownie sundaes. Everything that makes the 18th Street location seductive and lucrative is here on Divis, but with electric sliding doors and shelving deliberately constructed to move customers through the store efficiently.

"The theme for this location was the flow of guests," says Kirsten Bourne, marketing director of Bi-Rite. "For example, the produce section has no dead end and the aisle is much wider [than at 18th Street]." Visit both locations in a weekend and you'll see the differences, like how they put the cheese counter next to the deli so the staff can hand out samples from both sections, or how the prepared food is in the same aisle as the queue to order sandwiches — you can turn around to snag chicken liver paté or lentil salads while they build your bahn mi.

Ice cream factored into the layout, too. The Divis location has a scoop shop like the 18th Street creamery to the immediate right as you enter the store. By placing it here, the inevitable queue can form and spill outside and down the sidewalk without interrupting shoppers. As for the store-bought goods, "We were careful to have the pints of ice cream at check out," Bourne said. "People didn't see the selection in the back at 18th Street."

What's dastardly is how once you've received your ice cream sundae, you're unsure what to do next. At the original creamery, there are seats inside and out, and a nearby park in which to gallivant. But with Divisidero's car traffic and narrow sidewalk, relaxing is difficult unless you want to schlep to Alamo Square. So, as one does when idle and presented with well-lit goods, you shop.

We went in for ice cream and, inspired by nutritional compunction, bought kale and spinach. The produce next to the ice cream cashier does that to you, and probably by design.

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Alexander George

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