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The year was 2003. Steve Sando had spent the previous few years mostly idle at his Yountville farmers market stand.

At the time, his collections of colorful and oddly shaped heirloom dried beans were more a curiosity than a product people wanted to purchase. To entice would-be customers he took to placing an assortment of beans into a bowl. He found the prop nearly irresistible to passersby who’d stop, grab handfuls of the small, hard-as-rock fabiforms with colors that ranged from porcelain white to midnight violet, each textured differently, from slippery to wrinkled and ranging in size from tiny BB-like spheres to those looking more like golden doubloons.

But even with this new intrigue, sales were rare. Although they were beautiful, no one seemed to know exactly what to do with a bag of uncooked dried beans that had unfamiliar names such as Wren’s Egg, Nightfall, Good Mother or Yellow Indian Woman. Or worse still, they might confuse them with other products.

“Some people would walk by and say, ‘Oh look, roasted nuts. I just love nuts,” Sando said. “I’d watch in horror and try to stop them when they tossed a few into their mouth.”

One day in 2003, Thomas Keller, who would eventually become Napa Valley’s first three-star Michelin chef, strolled through the market, pausing and pondering the bowl of beans.

“He purchased a few bags of Vallarta beans that day — tiny and delicate and nearly extinct at that time — and then the next week he bought a few more bags,” Sando said. “As soon as he left, I was swarmed by people wanting to buy beans.”

Eventually Keller served Sando’s beans at all of his restaurants, which led nearly every other chef in the country to follow in his footsteps.

“To have my beans served at the finest restaurants in the world gave the beans (and me) validation,” Sando said. “One day, Keller came to my stand, leaned in and told me that what I was doing was important. What a thing to hear!”

That year, Sando sold 200 pounds of dried beans. By 2018, his Rancho Gordo brand was selling 600,000 pounds of roughly 35 different types of specialty heirloom beans. Sando has not only grown a successful Napa Valley-headquartered business, he’s also transformed the way thousands of chefs, cooks and “bean freaks” think about sourcing, cooking and serving legumes. But Rancho Gordo almost never happened.

Steve Sando

Sando grew up in Marin in the late 1960s. His mother, a nurse, and father, a former illustrator at Disney, divorced early. Neither initially embraced the revelation that their son was gay and pudgy in a time when both were often considered more akin to a subjective character flaw to fix rather than an objective reality to welcome.

After a few start-and-stop college attempts, he left home seeking direction and companionship. Time in San Francisco led him to a spiritual six-month trek in India, followed by Santa Fe, London and back to the Bay Area in 1982, where he found his first successful career at the newly launch Esprit clothing and apparel store.

“Esprit had a big impact on how I think about brands and running a business,” he said. “By the time I was 22, I was overseeing million-dollar purchasing decisions and also how a company can run smoothly when employees are given respect and encouraged to be who they are.”

The company also provided free Italian language lessons and had an office in Milan that inspired Sando onto his next adventure.

“After five years, I moved to Italy with the intention of working at Esprit, but that didn’t work out,” he said. “But it did get me into radio.”

On a whim that highlights Sando’s fearlessness and his heuristic method of self-discovery, he called Milan’s local radio station — 88.3 — and pitched a new program that played American jazz and discussed cocktail mixology lore. To his surprise they accepted, and days later Sando’s voice could be heard over the Italian airways.

“Had I ever been on the radio? No,” Sando said. “Was it something I’d completely thought through? Not exactly, but it was fun and people responded with enthusiasm.”

After six months, Sando headed back to San Francisco but was “penniless” and again unsure of his next move. Bouncing from job to job he built a resume that’s comparable with many who lived in the Bay Area during the 1990s: a few tech startups, his own web design company, a music-review business and magazine, a new diet concept with beans as the key food, and various other fits and starts as he traveled headlong toward his 40s.

“I was getting a little desperate,” he said. “I was having some successes, but nothing seemed to stick. At one point I just said, ‘Screw this, I’m moving to Napa. I’ll grow a small garden and work at Target.’”

During those years, he also married, had two boys, divorced amicably and found a growing interest in heirloom vegetables.

“When I got to Napa in around 2000, I planted some seeds that I’d ordered from the Seed Savers Exchange,” he said. “That year was nearly perfect and everything just grew. I thought my success was my innate skill as a gardener, but it wasn’t. It was just that in this place anything will grow. In reality, over time I learned I am not all that great a farmer.”

That year, with an overflowing harvest of heirloom vegetables, he wanted to open a farmers market stand. First he tried unsuccessfully to procure a spot at the Napa market, but they had no interest in this new upstart with no track record.

“It’s closed now, but Yountville was the scrappy cousin of the Napa and St. Helena farmers markets,” he said. “They took me in with open arms, but once I’d sold out of all my tomatoes I was wondering what I could sell through the winter. So I put some dried beans I’d been growing into a bag and used Photoshop to make some labels with the image of a 1940s Mexican starlet and called it Rancho Gordo.” (he had purchased the web address and name for his failed bean diet idea years earlier).

‘Bean freaks’

Since its launch, Rancho Gordo has grown into a bean phenomenon that has thousands of fans whom Sando refers to lovingly as “bean freaks.” Over the years, he’s found that his most adventurous customers are always on the hunt for the new and rarest of beans.

“A few years ago we started a bean club — sort of like a wine club — almost as a joke,” he said. “But it took off so fast — up to 5,000 — that we had to cut it off, and now we have 1,200 on the waiting list.”

Members of the bean club receive products and beans that are not available to the general public, often because of limited quantities.

The Mexico connection

The majority of beans Rancho sells are grown on the West Coast of the United States, but some of the most obscure and rare beans are being imported from Mexico. Sando has found many of these uncommon products in small villages, and to help locate and navigate the challenges of importation, farmer relations and bureaucratic red tape he has partnered with XOXOC, a Mexican company that specializes in procuring and exporting heirloom products.

Through his partnerships and his own initiative, beyond beans, over the years Sando has published a half-dozen cookbooks and now sells herbs and spices, grains, rices, special salt to help soften beans, chilies and hot sauces. Other offerings include chocolate made the traditional way from cocoa beans — roasted on clay pans before being stoneground along with soft-bark cinnamon — or heirloom white-corn posole (hominy); Azul; sweet-sour or salty versions of dried prickly pear; and earthen clay bean pots that have been burnished by hand using quartz stones.

“It’s really difficult to import anything other than bland hybrid crops grown for international markets,” Sando said. “It seems to me trade policies often discourage genetic diversity and local food traditions, but by partnering with XOXOC we work directly with the local farmers so they can continue growing heritage crops. The way I look at it, by creating a market for these products we’re encouraging the preservation of local traditions.”

His own tariffs

For the products sourced from Mexico, Sando has recently increased prices 5 percent. Writing in his blog, he explains:

“Our government recently decided to threaten a 5 percent tariff on imports from Mexico, with the fees escalating up to 25 percent. Five percent doesn’t sound like much, but you have to realize the beans are a food crop. They’ve been growing for six to nine months, followed by cleaning and packaging, and they’ve been planned long before that. It’s taken us years to develop these relationships, and these actions have [already] taken their toll.

“In response…[Rancho Gordo] is adding a 5 percent charge to all of our Mexican imports and donating this money, 100 percent, to No More Deaths, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid to migrants and refugees, focusing on the deadly Arizona border.”

The beans

Writing in his first book, “Heirloom Beans,” Sando extols the many benefits of the humble bean but recognizes that if they didn’t taste good he’d have no interest:

“…heirloom beans are romantic, beautiful and good for the soil and the body. What’s not to like? The reality is that if they tasted ordinary, none of this would much matter to me. I’m happy to eat healthy food, but if it tastes like dirt…there’s not much point. The real magic of these beans is the flavor.”

Bucking the current pressure-cooker “Instapot” trend, Sando says that using one reduces the quality of the “pot liquor” (broth) and suggests cooking beans in a slow cooker set on high for four to six hours, covered with 2 inches of water, a dash of salt, a sautéed chopped white onion with minced garlic, oregano and olive oil is all that is needed. Others add in lard, bay leaf (or avocado leaf), spices and a host of other additions.

As an experiment, I cooked various beans using a host of techniques and recipes. My results suggest that Sando is correct regarding the bean broth. My Instapot is just too fast (26 minutes) to produce the viscous and intensely flavored liquor that results from hours on the stove (set on low for five to six hours) or my slow cooker (set at high for five to eight hours, depending on the size of the bean).

Unlike most store-bought beans that have languished in storage or on a store shelf for years, Rancho Gordo beans are little more than a year from their harvest, so soaking the dried beans in water for an hour before cooking is optional.

After a dozen experiments and taste tests with family and friends, I found it a little hard to accept that the best method for any of the beans tested — the chewy-chocolaty Rio Zape, creamy Corona, the barbecue-ready white lima, super-tender Marcella (actually Sorana, which is a cannellini, but Sando named this after his deceased friend and inspiration, Marcella Hazan, the author of “Classic Italian Cooking”), or the pinnate-flavored and fluffy Yellow Indian Woman or the dense and earthy Moro — is to simply soak them in clean cold water for one hour, rinse thoroughly, add 3 inches of water over the beans and cook for six to eight hours on high in a Crockpot.

The result is a surprisingly rich bean broth and plump beans that have nuanced flavors and a mind-boggling range of textures — from whipped-cream fluffy to beefsteak chewy depending on type.

When I served the beans to my family, they, too, were surprised. My millennial daughter, who is equally concerned about the environment and frivolous spending, was particularly intrigued.

“This might be my favorite,” she said, thoughtfully chewing on a large Corona bean that I’d added into our stir-fry instead of another type of protein.

My wife and I nodded in agreement.

“You know that if everyone switched from eating beef to eating beans the U.S. could almost meet greenhouse-gas emission goals,” she said.

We ate for a while in silence, pondering her words, and I was equally surprised by the interplay between flavors — soy sauce with beans and bok choy, delicious.

“How much do these cost,” she asked.

I explained that most Rancho Gordo beans cost around $6 a pound, which, according to Sando, makes 6 cups of cooked beans.

“Wow — we should eat more beans,” she said, almost exasperated. “If we did, we’d cut down on our grocery bills, eat healthy, tasty food and help improve our environment with one simple dietary change.”

And Thomas Keller seems to agree. In the forward to “Heirloom Beans,” Keller writes:

“Beans have sadly not reached the same fervor and acceptance in the United States [as other food products], which I find unfortunate. This is why I give my support to Steve and his pursuit of bringing heirloom beans to the fore. His efforts make me feel hopeful on several levels: 1) that his work will help beans find the rightful niche in our culture that they deserve; 2) that on the agricultural level he will continue to generate more attention to the importance of sustainable farming…; and finally, 3) that after reading ‘Heirloom Beans,’ his readers will come away with an understanding of why we are committed to helping him spread the word and why we give Rancho Gordo beans a place of honor at our restaurants.”

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