Local Food Hero: Carmelo Sigona

I like farmers’ markets. They’re a great opportunity to put a face to the food you’re getting, and you usually end up with a pretty decent haul for a reasonable price. But what I don’t like about farmer’s markets are their transience; I travel often and I don’t like that my local farmers’ market is only open for 4 hours on Sunday morning. Getting fresh ingredients is hard enough, it sucks to be out of town for a weekend and not have good veggies for the week. Fortunately, there is such a thing as a permanent farmers’ market, and I had the opportunity to interview the one of the founders of my favorite place to shop for local, fresh, seasonal groceries. They also have a great selection of grass-fed meats, pastured eggs, and wild, line-caught fish.

Sigona’s is a year-round farmer’s market open seven days a week, with two locations in the Bay Area, in Redwood City and Palo Alto. Carmelo Sigona and his brothers have created an incredible environment in which they spread the idea that good food should be fresh and not cost you an arm and a leg. It’s a bit of a long interview, but I had a blast speaking with Carmelo, and you can really see his passion for food.

Tell me a bit about Sigona’s Market, its history and how you got started.

There were four brothers originally that started the business and we had always worked in produce. I started working in produce when I was 13, back in the day when it was unbelievably seasonal. Back in the 50s the berries would come in for 3 or 4 months and that’s it and every season would have its own scents and the feeling that this was truly delicious and you have to get it now. Refrigeration and precooling wasn’t too good back in those days but that’s when we all started. My mother’s father was in the produce business, so we had uncles who gave us jobs in the business. We all went our separate ways to go to school and work but then came back when my youngest brother bought a little retail place when he was about 18 and he asked me to help him run this place with him. We were distributing from farmers in the Morgan Hill and Gilroy areas at a very young age. We would take their product and bring it up to supermarkets, wholesale houses, and have outlets for them. We took it to our uncles and cousins and people who we knew at the markets and gave them a good return on their money so they kept doing business with us. That was our beginnings. That’s how started. We kind of grew from there. There is a 101 bypass where our three retail places went in and put us out retail-wise. We came up to Redwood City about 26 years ago. We started over here and there was really no farmer’s market and we were getting everything direct from the farm in season. It was a big hit, people really liked it. To us, that was the only way to do it; the supermarkets buy this other stuff out there and we saw the hydro-cooled peaches, and nectarines and plums and we thought “this is a slam dunk.” They’re off in their world being worried about shrink and having the farmers worried about retooling everything in the industry. You see they grow it naturally, but they pick it green and firm, put it in freezing water, hydro-cooling it, and then put in huge bins and pack it with machinery. Their big idea was to not have the shrink; they weren’t so concerned with how customers don’t like to see their produce shrivel up on the windowsill rather than get ripe, but it cut their shrink way back so the whole industry moved in that direction. The small farmers, who didn’t have the big bucks to do the retooling were left out in the cold, but they kept their sense of integrity. When we came up here, we had this extreme edge over the supermarkets that we didn’t realize. Picking everything fresh that day and bringing it up was such an advantage, but that’s the only way we knew to do it. My father had a little farm that he took care of and it was a model of how we grew up. We always ate fresh-picked from his 7 acres. He grew grains, typical Italian stuff: swiss chard, big long squashes, tomatoes, fava beans, basil, oregano and other herbs and some tree crops. He also had chickens and we had fresh eggs. Now they call them “Pastured Eggs”, to me they were just eggs! You crack them open and they were a deep, deep orange. And you go away to school and you buy some eggs at the super market and they spread out and splatter with this pale yellow yolk that tastes like I don’t know what! And the chickens were the same thing, “pastured” and are out there eating whatever they eat in the 7 acres they’re roaming on. The meat is so different, it’s got no fat, strong chicken flavor. So we were used to those kinds of things and then people’s buying habits really changed to this phase where people expected things to last forever. And we’re kind of caught in a dilemma of how do you give someone a product that isn’t precooled and get them to use it as quickly as they need to use it, versus giving them things that will last a week or two. Most of our greens are coming in from Salinas, so if we get it picked that day, we put it in water, clean it and refrigerate it, it lasts a long time. We like to work with the public to educate them on what these different things are. Like heirloom tomatoes. You know they may not look like the ones you’re used to looking at, but the complexity you taste, that’s the nutrients. We try to find farmers who aren’t overwatering and try to have them pull the water early a few days.

You mentioned that you’re trying to educate the public on what produce should look and taste like. Has the public been receptive? Have you seen them change their opinions with their wallets?

It’s really shifted back to where it was in the 50′s when people really had an appreciation for food and for cooking at home. Everybody wanted to get the very best and people are now shifting back. There’s a lot of knowledge that’s been lost, like how do you cook escarole or other greens? The public is now coming into this arena where they now want to know about these things because they’ve lost the knowledge. But it’s not lost forever they really want to understand what they’re getting, how to use it, what else is out there, what else is good for me and what else do I not know about that we carry in our store.
Our olive oil is really typical of this. Most people figure “I’m buying cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, that is great! I hear Spain is the best, I head Italy is the best, I hear local California is the best.” And then we go, we’ll it’s all good, but here’s the real deal.

So anyone who walks into the store sees the olive oil and all the fresh olives, and they say “Oh my goodness, what is all this?” Where did that love of olives and olive oil originate?

Well we started purchasing from an olive grove Picholine olives and pressing our own oil. The Picholine olives we had were really buttery and you let them stay on the tree and they’re even more buttery. There was an old-timer doing this who was organic but didn’t want to get certified. So we had to call it pesticide-free. So we got pressed his olives and bottle it and every year we have this delicious Picholine olive oil, this one cultivar that people loved. We went from that to tasting it 6-8 months into and something didn’t taste good. We realized that the olive oil was going rancid in the bottles. We started looking for sources that had fresh olive oil. We found this guy that educated us, and this was 5-6 years back, and he taught us that the polyphenols and the oleic acid are what keeps the olives fresh. Pick them green, press them green, and press them within 3-5 hours. That whole process preserves the olive oil. On top of that, when you get a strong cultivar, like a Picual, that thing will last a good year. The weaker cultivars, the ones that are more mild in their polyphenols won’t last as long, but they’ll still last a good 8-9 months if they’re processed right away. So we found these things not only taste fantastic, they’re super healthy for you. Within 6 months, when the local stuff is finished, when Europe is finished, the Southern Hemisphere was just pressing, Australia, New Zealand, Chile. Now you get olive oil that’s fresh pressed again; you get this rotation going. So that’s what drove us to olive oil; it’s not labels like “cold-pressed” or “extra-virgin”, those are all labels that the government lets you put on. The definition of extra virgin is .8PPM or less and you can call it extra virgin, so you can put whatever in there, a really super oil and put it with one that’s low quality and meet that criteria. Most of ours are .1-.3 PPM. We have chemists measure it on a regular basis. And the more I use it, the more crazy I am about it! And new ones come in and we’ll taste 4 or 5 and pick two. And this one guy that’s going around the world picking these olives for us, Mike Bradley, is doing a fantastic job.

In the topic of organic, you work hand-in-hand with a lot of these local farmers, have you seen a change in how they deal with an increased demand for governmental regulation?

They’re really moving into it. The grandfathers who were dealing with are kind of gone, and the sons and the grandsons are taking over. It doesn’t cost a lot and there isn’t much to do, it was just some of the old timers just didn’t want anyone on their property. All the new guys are in favor of getting everything certified because they want to move more and more land into that direction. It takes quite a while for them to get their land the way they want it to move into organic. Most of them that we deal with even if they’re not organic, don’t want to use sprays, organic or synthetic. They’re working toward getting their crop rotations. Timmy Callow is meshing four or five different crops of berries right now. Once you spray either organic or synthetic [pesticide], you kill all the bugs and then you have to support that all the time by spraying. It’s a purely economic factor; they don’t want to keep doing that. If you look at the environment, a lot of these farmers are living on the land with their families, and they don’t want to put stuff on there that’s going to last forever and hurt their family. Clean growers are the ultimate in caring for the land. We deal with Daylight farms in Half Moon Bay, and they don’t use any sprays. But if we were able to have her certify herself with the government, it would still help us sell product.

From the food quality perspective that I try to represent, a lot of people aren’t even aware of the difference in food labels. For example, most people don’t know what organic means or what the difference is between cage free and free-range eggs. Do you still see those kinds of misconceptions in the public?

It’s very frustrating for me to delve into the labeling and what the government will allow. You can have a small amount of trans fat for example and still not have to put it on your label. The whole idea of cage free and then free range, and now the new term “pastured” is just confusing to the consumer. We’re used to thinking that free range is what they’re calling pastured now. And you read Ominivore’s Dilemma and you learn how they move their chickens from place to place and that’s kind of a way that farmers are doing things to work for them in the food model. On a real farm if you have pastured eggs like my father did, it’s a completely different egg and a completely different chicken. But the labeling is designed to make exceptions. Like with cage-free, we have this mental image of chickens running around free, but really, they just kind of run together with very little space. It’d be nice if they were out there if they were out there foraging and doing what chickens do. We’ve just hooked up with this lady who has pastured eggs out of Pescadero. She bought the eggs, hatched the chicks, and she has about 200 chickens now. You have to find the sources, the people who are into this stuff. A lot of the sources we have want to make the food right, so you don’t have to fight with them to leave it on the trees a few days longer. Or we have them pick them a day early if we notice they’re coming in bruised. And I think because the public is screaming for organic items, they want the taste, they want the health, they aren’t buying so much with their eyes anymore. You look at the Kent mangos and compare it to Tommy Atkins, which is a high color, thick-shell mango. And then you look at the Kent mango, and it’s all green. No one’s going to buy that. But you educate the public, this is the best tasting mango. And if you base it just on looks, people go for the Tommy Atkins. But the Kent mango is far more flavorful. It’s the same thing with heirloom peaches or nectarines or plums. Some of them don’t have as much blush you’re used to, and maybe they’re a little soft, but we have to educate the public that this is what real fruit looks like. The deal is, if they’re purchasing stuff and you don’t have a ton of loss on our end, right now we have 22% shrink that we have to take off to counter-reduce or it goes to donation or whatever. It’s hard to survive with that much shrink. It’s hard not to bring in the stuff and have that kind of shrink. It’s nice for the public to understand, “well, this tomato is a little bit soft but it’s super juicy. It’s not mushy, this is the way you want it.” Or the peach might have a little tiny bruise on it, that’s just because it’s sitting on another peach on top. It’s not a bruise that goes through, really. It’s good for the public to understand that.

What do you wish the average consumer knew about food quality?

I think it’s the importance of supporting some of these smaller farmers who don’t have the high-tech pre-coolers that cut cost. I’d love it if customers pay a dime more for a bunch of something, because it is well worth it to keep that quality going. It’s a give and take situation, you want your consumer to understand what they’re getting and you want do the very best for them and still have them pay you a fair price.
Also, I really like the heirloom stuff that we have. They don’t look the best, and to be honest, the biggest draw on tomatoes is that traditional hot house tomato on the vine that looks so beautiful. I can’t tell my customers not to buy that hot house because that’s what they’re asking for, but I do try to tell them how good these heirlooms are and to give them a shot. We’re just starting to introduce heirloom spinach and it looks gnarly! It’s not the overbred, smooth leaves you see today, but the kind I grew up with that’s really healthy stuff.
I would also like people to be turned onto the healthiness of greens. I’m surprised that they don’t fly off the shelf, and I think it’s just because people don’t know enough about it. They’re all really easy to cook if you take the time to learn. Five or six minutes of sautéing and you’ve got a great meal. As a society, we’ve shrunk the choices that we have because people aren’t buying the same things they used to. We have a hard time getting in escarole, which is an old Italian favorite, because people aren’t interested in it even though it’s so versatile.

Speaking of cooking, you’re an avid chef as featured on the “Cooking With Carmelo” section of the website and the YouTube channel. What are some of your favorite things to make?

Definitely greens because they’re so quick and easy. I also love to do whole grains like farrow, wild and heirloom rice with some onions and peppers. Broccoli rabe, kale, mustard greens, collard greens, any of them are good sautéed with a little bit of olive oil and some onions and garlic. You can do anything with them from a Hispanic dish to an Italian dish to an American dish. I’m doing this thing now with our Arbequina olive oil with some quinoa and escarole sautéed with some onions and a poached egg on top. And the whole deal takes 10 minutes. The greens take 5 minutes, poach the eggs while the greens are going. In 6 minutes, you have a gourmet meal that’s really healthy. I like the really healthy things. I like the greens. That’s where I lean to when I’m cooking. Recently, our friend, Dave Quiboa, who I get mushrooms from, and still do, he gave the factory from Morgan Hill to his daughter and got into commercial fishing. He’s doing the salmon. That salmon’s eating krill. It’s so full of fat, omega 3. You research it and you find that it’s really good for you. So cooking a piece of fish like that, and cooking the grass-fed beef, and figuring out how to cook it right, which is for me, it’s getting a cast-iron skillet, and searing it on both sides, popping it in the oven for a few minutes, let it come out and rest. And then the grass-fed beef, which is another super healthy thing, it tastes great, just rub in some salt and pepper– it tastes great. I can put a coriander crust on the salmon, sear that on both sides, put it in the oven, and in 5-6 minutes, you’ve got a succulent and moist salmon. You compliment that with salad and greens. Salads are so easy. Everyone’s in a hurry. Baby mustard greens, baby kale, baby spinach, all these super powerful vitanutrients in these greens and then add dressing and toss it up, how easy is that. And then you got your proteins, and your grains, then you’re done. I love cooking easy simple meals that are super healthy. It’s hard to miss.
Interviewer: That’s very much in line with the way that I do things. We really emphasize food quality above all else, so this is very much in line with your philosophy. Like you said, it reminds you a bit of the way you grew up. The only big difference is we do very little, if any, with grains just because they’re highly processed foods and have some gnarly digestive implications sometimes.
I was reading your article, I remember, we grew up in SF. My parents moved back to the farms when I was 15. I stayed but I visited. There was a park there. My older brother and I would just run through things. Back in that day, TV was just getting going, Walt Disney, Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket. As a kid, I remember just wanting to live off the land. We didn’t know what was in the water but we were just drinking whatever water was there and running the hills all day.

How has social media, like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, influenced the way you do business?

I think we were always doing this type of thing where we felt like we wanted to put our heart into getting a really good product. We always wanted high-quality. That has continued and it hasn’t changed. We just kind of woke up and realized that not enough people know what we’re doing and not enough know what we have. We need to start shouting it out. At one point, 3-4 years ago, business started going down more and more. Then, social media started coming in but we couldn’t afford the full page ads, TV or radio commercials, but we could do e-news. We can hire a full time marketing person and talk about what we do. We shifted towards having a marketing strategy. We continue to look for products that are healthy and good for you. We love supporting small vendors. There’s a ton of people that come in. So, if they have a farm product or something that they’re creating, we’ll look at it and examine it. We’ll try to support what they’re doing if we feel that it’s a good-tasting product and good for you. We’ll also go for desserts and sweets. Like, we have some angel fruit cakes these ladies are bringing in. These guys from Hungary are doing chimney cakes. Those are really good. The gelato thing, Massimo Gelato, over in Watsonville are supporting him. Mary Anne’s ice cream as well. We’re giving them our cantaloupes. We make different things with our farm products and their products. We support the small people and really get involved with them. With Massimo, he’ll have his boysenberries, which he’ll pick very ripe. In the industry, when the boysenberries are bleeding, that’s when it’s good. We take his bleeding boysenberries and mix it with ours, and then we’ll have bleeding boysenberry gelato. We also take heirloom apricots from a small farmer, and make our blenheim apricot thing. We also make heirloom apple pie by taking heirloom apples and spend all day creating this. We’re doing that kind of thing. With Mary Anne’s ice cream, every year we do a batch of cantaloupes and people love the cantaloupe ice cream.

So, I think what was really intriguing to me is the experience we had with the Red Boat fish sauce. I tweeted about this great fish sauce. Can you tell me what happened from there?

So, I have two people that buy. John is our main buyer for non-produce items. Another person does a lot of ordering. If it’s a small item, like the fish sauce, we won’t sell 100 cases a week. Sometimes we get 20 requests for stuff a week or sometimes we’ll think it’s okay to bring in or maybe not, based on if it’s not going to move, it’s not that healthy, or it has ingredients we don’t like. But when I heard about this fish sauce, I told Alex to get on this! Alex calls the guy who’s doing this fish sauce. He came out to meet us personally and shows us how he makes it, why his sauce is so different and why it’s so different. I’m actually allergic to unclean foods, so eating at restaurants or eating bottled stuff that doesn’t have all-natural ingredients, I would break out in hives or bumps or reactions to it. When I heard about the fish sauce, I really wanted to get in on it

What are some of your food secrets in general? Your own personal food secrets that you wish people knew.

The olive oil comes to mind. I can talk about it for hours. When I start talking about olive oil to people who are friends or acquaintances, I’m very passionate about it but I have to hold myself back. I’m just crazy about it. it has so many health benefits, and it tastes so good. For us, it’s only been 5-6 years that we got into this fresh-press olive oil. There are so many perceptions about what good olive oil is. When they taste this stuff, it’s crazy good and I think that it’s incorporated into so much of your food to get healthy and also to get great flavor, too. I made a pesto the other night at some party I was invited to. I used the Portuguese Arbequina and everyone went nuts. I used a different recipe where I’m using the l locatelli and romano one part and three parts of the reggiano. There’s a lot of basil in that pesto and I shrink it down with olive oil. As for secrets, I make a vegetable frittata with that pesto. I will use zucchini and broccoli. This last weekend, I used a batch of broccoli and caramelized onions, which goes in the bottom layer, and I put the broccoli and pesto over that. Then I put all the egg whites and a couple of yolks over it. Touched it with cheese on the top, and baked it. I used olive oil for the flavor. That’s one of my secrets.

[Editor's note: don't worry, I'll get Carmelo to read It Starts With Food soon!]

The Lazy Caveman
  • Therese

    Love Sigona’s!!  Love the interview.   Sigona’s always smells so fresh and clean; the air seems to vibrate with health.   It is always a pleasure to shop here and to support a business that provides quality produce at a reasonable price.

  • Patrick Timpone

    Great interview. Sigona’s sounds like a place I wish were in my neck of the woods! I’m so glad that more and more people are becoming hip to the idea of eating local. Thanks for putting the word out.