The Rancho Gordo founder spills some legumes on finding new varietals and making pandemic success sustainable.
There are 333 million people in the United States, most of whom are neither familiar with nor interested in the minutiae of beans. They cannot tell their alubia blancas (small Spanish-style white beans) from their ayocote blancos (midsize Mexican white beans); it’s possible they do not care. And at the same time, there are currently 27,000 people on a waiting list to join the 20,000 people already in the Rancho Gordo Bean Club—27,000 people waiting for the opportunity to receive quarterly shipments of surprise artisanal legumes.
These are Steve Sando’s “bean freaks,” devotees of the reigning king of beans and the ever-growing catalog at Rancho Gordo, his heirloom bean company. When Sando started selling beans in the early aughts at the Yountville Farmers Market (the fancier Napa market wouldn’t take him), it wasn’t clear to him how many bean freaks there would be. There would be a lot, it turned out. The bean freak Thomas Keller started using Sando’s Vallarta beans at The French Laundry in 2003; soon everyone was doing it. The beans inspired rhapsodic and regular attention. In 2018, Sando got the New Yorker profile treatment. “This man,” Food & Wine declared the following year, “will get you so amped up about beans.” And then came the COVID-19 era.
The pandemic was not good for much, but it was a boon for beans; in 2020, Sando reports, sales doubled, although he took no pleasure in the reasons. (“People were freaking out.”)What he does take pleasure in is the fact that, since then, the appetite for beans has not dropped off. “We’re back to our regular growth pattern,” he says, a steady climb of 10 or 15 percent each year. “So the really nice news is that people are still eating and cooking beans.”
I called Sando—who estimates he eats a half-cup daily, under normal circumstances—to discuss the state of American bean eating, the ascent of the bean freak, and my own bean broth anxieties.
You’ve made the choice to keep Rancho Gordo, as you put it, “niche.” You don’t have a distributor, and you don’t sell in major grocery stores. Does that ever feel at odds with spreading the gospel of good beans?
I have always been very hesitant about working for the mainstream. Because I grew up gay and somewhat marginalized—not really, but somewhat—and early on, I thought, “You’re never going to be in the big boys’ club, so create your own club, and make it as appealing as you can.” And I’ve always had lots of friends. I think that works for Rancho Gordo as well. Like, this isn’t mainstream. Most people don’t cook. A lot of people don’t even understand why you would make your own beans, when you can buy the canned ones, and then actually, why would you even eat them? But we’re a niche of people who are off-center.
We have had opportunities to be sold in certain mainstream stores. And it’s like, “Nah, you know what? I’d rather please the bean freaks.” That’s where my joy is: How would someone like me react to this great new recipe? A typical shopper is like, “How high do I heat the oil?” They’re starting at square one—which is great. And we do that too. But my true love is helping bean freaks get excited.
Help me with bean broth. I’d say I remember to do something with it . . . 50 percent of the time? But I know that’s bad. It’s liquid gold!
It’s a gift. If you make beans, you have this delicious free soup, we always say—the bean broth. And if you have lots of it, and you don’t know what to do with it, I love saying things like, “Well, the next time you make rice, replace some or all of the water with the bean broth.” And everybody goes nuts. “Yes! That’s a great idea.” It’s pretty thick, but it adds protein and flavor that wouldn’t be there. And I’ve done it with brown rice as well, although brown rice is not as open to taking on flavors. Soup is the most obvious thing. I poach eggs in it. I’ve had people tell me that they make bread and replace some of the liquid with bean broth, but I don’t make bread, so I don’t really know how that works.
You can also always put a couple straight beans in your meal, too, whatever it is. And that’s the other thing: People are like, “What should I make? I need a recipe!” I’m like, “Yeah, but just add it to everything.” So, you make a salad? Throw in a handful of beans. It doesn’t have to be a bean salad—you’ve made a mixed green salad, with radishes and onions, so maybe you throw in a couple of beans. If you’re doing rice and peas, maybe throw in a couple of beans.
How do you find new beans for the lineup? Walk me through the bean scouting process.
We have a newish bean, the Chiapas black bean—my business partners [Yunuén Carrillo Quiroz and Gabriel Cortés García] sent it to me from Mexico. They’re also two of my best friends, which is kind of handy. They said, “We’ve got these great beans in Chiapas; is it worth working with them?” I was like, “There’s no way we need another black bean.” We have so many! But they sent me three or four, and one was really good. It’s medium-size, and it’s just incredibly velvety in texture. I couldn’t believe it, but I was like, “Yes, we’re going to add another black bean.”
They did this one on their own, but traditionally, Yunuén and Gabriel pick me up at the airport in Mexico City, and we start going either to Veracruz or Michoacán, all over. And they say, “Oh, there’s a bean farmer we know,” so we go and meet them. And when we’re going to a market, which we do, too, we’ve learned that Gabriel, who is more Indigenous-looking, has to go first, and they talk to him. Then Yunuén comes, and then, if it seems like it’s going really well, I come—believe it or not, a lot of Indigenous people are not into fat gringos. I used to be offended, but now I totally get it.
I have a list of beans that we’re waiting to do. I think we’d make more money and be a more efficient company if we really just focused on the ones we have, but then you just meet a new bean and say, “Oh, I have to have that. It needs to be known.”
It’s a gift. If you make beans, you have this delicious free soup
I want to talk about the elephant in the room, which is that beans—most beans—get a bad rap.
I think the difference between commodity and heirloom beans is that commodity beans provide really great cheap protein for a lot of people. And they’re very healthy, and they’re helping to feed the world. But the goal is really ease of harvesting, consistency for canning. It’s not flavor at all—flavor often doesn’t even come into the conversation. Whereas with heirloom beans, it’s like, “No, these actually taste like something.”
When I first started [Rancho Gordo], I would do events sometimes with county health departments, and they were super well-meaning, but they would have all these recipes that were designed to hide the taste of the beans—“Your kids won’t even know this has beans in it, and it’s super healthy for them!” Ooph. That has no appeal to me at all. And, actually, the health aspect doesn’t appeal to me. I know it’s super important, but I love them because they taste great. And by the way, they’re healthy. And by the way, they’re super green. But to me, the appeal is the taste.
Do you ever get tired of beans? Like, “I cannot eat another bean.”
No, never. I don’t. I get sick of a particular pot of beans—on Sundays, I cook a pound and eat them throughout the week, and by Thursday, if I haven’t had a dinner party or people over, it’s like, “Okay, I’m done.” A pound is a lot for a single person. So I will get sick of a pot, if I’m pushed. But, you know, you can always puree them and make a dip. And then you eat them faster than you ever imagined.