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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re likely aware that Goya CEO Robert Unanue came under fire last week for publicly praising Donald Trump. The comments sparked a major backlash, leading to boycotts of the brand across the country. Now, many are looking for viable alternatives to satiate their bean cravings, some of which have been amplified due to the pandemic.

Personally, I have always loved beans. (All kinds, really; from British baked to garbanzo to pinto, I just can’t get enough.) So when Covid-19 hit, I was beside myself with rage that all of a sudden everybody else jumped aboard the shelf-stable bean boat, too. And it wasn’t even just the cans flying off the shelves, either; people were snatching up dried beans (my preferred form) left and right.

Fortunately, some of the smaller spots near me started getting in Rancho Gordo products, a Napa-based enterprise specializing in unique varieties of dried heirloom beans, as well as corn, grains, herbs and spices and other quality sundries. What started out as a farmers market table has expanded nationwide over the years, but even after nearly two decades in business, it wasn’t necessarily a household name. Until 2020, that is.

It’s taken us by surprise, the response,” Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo, tells me over the phone yesterday afternoon. “We’ve seen a 122% increase over the last year. Last year was one of our best years ever, and we’ve already beaten it. And it’s only July. It’s shocking.”

In fact, the explosion in interest is now prompting Rancho Gordo to increase production. “We’re investing a lot in new farms and acreage to hopefully yield the volume up.”

Of course, some of the growth ramped up even pre-pandemic, owing to a bean boom among the foodie community, as well as an influx of gifted instant pots at the holidays, and a desire to eat less meat.

And then, as recently as the past week, there was the “#GOYCOTT”.

I ask Sando whether they’ve seen any immediate influx in the wake of Unanue’s polarizing statements. “It was just really tone deaf, right?” he muses. “We’ve definitely seen a bump, but it’s not humongous. I don’t know that we’re exactly the same customer.” While Goya does offer dried products, what they’re perhaps best known for is canned convenience, and a standardized catalog, which is not the Rancho Gordo way. 

Then again, neither is applauding the president. “We actually give up not just some of our profits, but all of the income from the Mexican imported beans, to a group in Arizona called No More Deaths that supplies water and legal assistance to immigrants trying to come in. So we’re kind of the opposite of praising President Trump, is what I would say.” 

Rancho Gordo also teamed up with Xoxoc, working closely with Mexican farmers to produce coveted heirloom beans. “When we went down there, they thought we wanted them to grow beans for us based on what we had, and I said, ‘No, I want to know what your grandmother’s beans are.’ And they were like, ‘…nobody wants those…’ and I was like, ‘That’s exactly what I want.'”

Farmers are paid market value, and the relationships Sando and his partners have built with them are now going on 12 years old.

All we’re doing is creating opportunities. It’s not charity, there’s no government involved, it’s just three business people (my partners in Mexico, the farmers and me) trying to make a deal. There’s a way that everybody can win, and that’s been a goal of mine.”

Sando also enjoys scouring local Mexican farmers markets on the quest for new varietals. “My idea of a good time is to go to the mercados in Mexico; almost every time there’s something. Some of the beans are pretty, and some of them are not pretty but they have amazing flavor. (It all balances out.) There’s always more to discover.”

He gives me a specific example of this: “There’s a bean we have called moro, as in Moorish, like from the Moors, and it looks like it’s been painted with an exotic design. I saw them in Puebla, and they were mismarked, and I’d just been obsessed with them. We found out they were right in the neighborhood where my partners are in Mexico, and they had no idea about them. So it was fun helping them rediscover their own roots, and now we have this great bean.”

(Like many of the other items Rancho Gordo offers, that one is sold out at the moment, but Sando is hopeful that supplies will be replenished soon.)

It’s clear from even just a short phone call that Sando is deeply passionate about beans. (And I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel completely thrilled to be speaking to a fellow enthusiast, aka “bean freak”, as he lovingly terms it.) Maybe not everyone will agree that “exciting” or “revolutionary” are the right words to describe what Rancho Gordo has built over the last twenty years, but to me, that’s exactly how I’d classify Sando’s work; just looking at the available products (some of which I’ve never seen or hear of before), I genuinely get a buzz.

(A brief pause to quote from the Rancho Gordo website, where Sando makes a point to mention the following: “Please indulge me one last thought. As you cook these heirloom beans and other grains and ingredients, keep in mind that we have a common New World culture with Mexico and the rest of the Americas. What you are doing isn’t exotic and esoteric. It’s continuing traditions that are well-established for a reason.” Memorize it, everybody!)

While I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Rancho Gordo as a Goya alternative (because in a lot of ways, it’s more like an antithesis or an antidote), and while not everyone can be expected to convert overnight (which is probably good news for Sando as he and his partners navigate scaling up production so quickly), it’s businesses like this that I hope will become the norm in the future; not just quality-minded and zealous, but dedicated to socially responsible practices whereby, like Sando says, everybody can win.

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In addition to Rancho Gordo products, you can grab any/all of Sando’s books:

Supper at Rancho Gordo (RG Books), The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide (Timber Press) and Heirloom Beans: Great Recipes from Rancho Gordo (with Vanessa Barrington) (Chronicle Books)

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