Bay Area Latina women sharing their 'selfless devotion' to heirloom beans

"I don't know, we just attract each other. It's like a family," says Mayra Barajas, a 12-year veteran of the workforce.

Lyanne Melendez Image
Friday, October 14, 2022
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Napa's Rancho Gordo sells 25 to 30 kinds of beans that come from small farms in Mexico and the West Coast, with a workforce made up with mostly women.

NAPA, Calif. (KGO) -- Among the foods trending recently in California are, beans. We're not talking about the kind you find in a can, these are heirloom beans. More chefs are adding all types of beans to their menus. Today, Rancho Gordo in Napa seems to have cornered the market and is operated mainly by Latinas.

"Mayra, dona Juana, Carlita, pueden acomodar las cajas por favor?"

Mayra Barajas calls on her coworkers to start loading empty boxes.

A simple command sets off a chain reaction of sorts.

We are at the Rancho Gordo warehouse in Napa, where the workers seem to have a "selfless devotion" to beans.

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Lyanne: "What I've noticed here, which is amazing, is the number of women here. It's like a force. How did that happen?"

"The environment is so nice. I don't know, we just attract each other. It's like a family," explains Barajas.

"You know, women get things done, a lot!" says Steve Sando as he laughs.

He is the owner of Rancho Gordo who pays his workers a living wage. It's no surprise the retention rate here is high.

"The difference is we weren't built to sell, we were built to be here as part of the community so we treat people with respect," adds Sando.

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They sell between 25 to 30 varieties of beans. Most come from small farms in Mexico and growers on the West Coast.

"These are called Vaqueros and you can use this as a pot of beans or you can also use it for chili," explained Ana Garibay, another worker who often drives the forklift.

Like a wine with hints of vanilla or licorice, each bean variety has a distinct flavor and texture.

"For example, we have Rio Zape which that one really has a chocolate flavor and we have the cranberry that is more creamy, we have some taste like almost like you're eating meat," points out Barajas.

These are flavors and texture you cannot get from canned beans.

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Barajas is quick to spread the bean dogma. She started working here 12 years ago when there were only three employees.

Back then they were packaging only 500 bags a day, that number today is closer to 10,000.

"Now a lot of people are learning about our beans, they are very popular so they know they are super good, so they are like 'Oh my God we want their beans,'" she adds.

It also helped that several years ago, chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry discovered them and included them on the menu.

"And everyone wanted the Keller beans." We asked him which of the many beans Keller ended up selecting. "Vallarta, which is a real obscure bean from Jalisco and we've been doing it for years because of him," reveals Sando.

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Customers can purchase gift boxes with a recipe book included for the non-believers. There's even a bean club with 20,000 subscribers. The waiting list to join is 18 months.

"Rancho Gordo does facilitate that aspect that you can do anything," says Monica Gutierrez, another of the many Mexican American female employees.

We were fortunate. One of the workers cooked chili that day using Rancho Gordo beans, of course.

That so-called "aspect" of doing anything includes sharing their most treasured family recipes from different regions of Mexico with their own variety of beans.

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