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Bowling for Produce

June 16, 1999|VERONIQUE de TURENNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's tempting to put an "only in Berkeley" spin on the Berkeley Bowl, a neighborhood grocery with all the hallmarks of this college town.

Founders Glenn and Diane Yasuda's market has a diverse staff, eclectic clientele and a wide selection of eco-sensitive goods. But what really puts it over the top--and makes the only-in-Berkeley tag true--is the Bowl's 18,000-square-foot produce section, touted as the largest in the nation.

According to Food Marketing Institute statistics, the median size of supermarket produce sections is about 2,000 square feet. Some run less than 500 square feet, others approach 5,000.

The Berkeley Bowl makes them look like convenience stores.

Instead of a radish bin, there's a radish aisle with red, purple, white, Easter Egg, French, Sparkler, Snowball, Cherry Belle and Icicle varieties. Ditto for asparagus, which comes in purple, white and green and in different sizes. Potato bins hold the usual russets and White Rose, as well as purple, pink, yellow and green heirloom varieties. Boxes of edible flowers sit next to an array of baby vegetables. Oyster, shiitake, enoki, hon shimeji, chanterelle and portabello mushrooms give off an earthy scent.

Five sizes of artichokes, a dozen types of tomatoes, four varieties of mango, dozens of types of pears and apples, pink honeydew melon, golden-fleshed watermelons, dozens of lettuces and organic salad mixes, red and gold beets, bok choy, yin choy, gai choy and dandelion greens leave shoppers dazed.

And then there's the rest of the place.

The Bowl's deli case is stocked with everything from confit of duck, baba ghannouj and steamed salmon to roasted vegetables, risotto cakes, marinated salads and 10 kinds of olives. In the dairy aisle, two women in long Indian print skirts, Birkenstocks and gray wool ankle socks put duck eggs, organic milk and gum-free cream cheese into their carts.

Wine is displayed by country, with offerings from France, Spain, Italy, South America, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand and California. A 40-foot-long beer cooler that chills half the store is stocked with dozens of national and regional brands.

Next to a L'Eggs pantyhose display, customers measure dried herbs and spices from large jars. Vanilla beans are so fresh that nearby shoppers turn to inhale the fragrance when someone selects a few from the container. "Heaven," someone says, moving closer.

The Berkeley Bowl got its name from its original location in an aging bowling alley. This spring, after 22 years and much urging from local residents, the Yasudas moved their market to the site of a former Safeway. The size of the store doubled and the produce section, already legendary in the Bay Area, took on mythic proportions.

For regulars, a trip to the Bowl isn't an errand, it's a pilgrimage.

"I'll come here and not really know what's for dinner; it depends on what I find in the produce section, which is the most amazing place," says Linda McBride, pausing in front of a glittering, golden wall of more than 50 kinds of olive oil. It takes the Oakland resident 30 minutes to get to the Bowl, but she doesn't mind.

"It's out of my way to shop here, but it's worth it," she says. "There's no place else like it."

Berkeley Bowl, 2020 Oregon St., Berkeley. (510) 843-6929.

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