Takeaways: July's Open Networking Meeting on Distribution of Local Food to Restaurants
by Sara J. Rosen
On July 24, 2012, a crowd of more than 65 people gathered in the Thompson Warehouse of the South Street Seaport Museum to discuss innovations in local food distribution to New York City restaurants. Robert LaValva, President of the New Amsterdam Market, welcomed everyone to the historic Seaport neighborhood. Robert described how the area had been home to food markets dating back to 1642. This setting, reminiscent of our local food system heritage and home to a new bustling local market, set the tone for the evening’s panel discussion.
Mary Cleaver, a pioneer in the sustainable food movement, and the Founder and President of the Green Table & Cleaver Co. moderated the panel. She acknowledged that the local food movement has evolved significantly in recent decades. In the 1970s, it was almost impossible to find food grown within a 20-mile radius of the City. Chefs, unhappy with this reality, joined together to advocate for change. While significant strides have been made since that time, the overall movement continues to trend toward industrialization, which does not prioritize the health of our environment, animals or consumers. Several individuals, including the evening’s panelists, are working to change that. They are all pursing innovative strategies to overcome many of the challenges associated with getting good, local food into the City’s restaurants. Mary then turned to the esteemed panel of guests for introductions.
Mike Kokas, Co-owner and Founder of both Paisley and Upstate farms, has been working on managing the supply side of this equation for years. As early as 1989, Mike would purchase goods from farm stands in upstate New York and resell them in New York City. As demand from chefs grew, Mike responded. He now manages a 25-acre vegetable farm in Tivoli, NY that grows organic specialty vegetables for several of the City’s premiere restaurants. He also oversees Upstate Farms, a network of more than 40 small producers that he coordinates to respond to specific requests for goods from some of the City’s most renowned chefs.
Olivia Blanchflower, Project Manager for the Greenmarket’s recently launched local food hub, is working to increase the supply of fresh products from small- to mid-size farmers going to wholesale purchasers across the five boroughs. The project began as a small-scale effort to expand the retail opportunities available to farmers. Excess produce was collected from the City’s farmer’s markets and was sold in youth markets throughout the City. Demand from restaurants, nonprofits and other entities in these neighborhoods increased, which prompted the Greenmarket to formalize and expand its program.
Adam Eskin, Founder and CEO of the Dig Inn Seasonal Market, talked about his foray into the restaurant business after spending years on Wall Street. Adam and his team currently manage five restaurants that offer local, seasonal and nutritious options to New Yorkers. He discussed how difficult it can be to source enough of the necessary ingredients to develop a menu that both honors the restaurant’s mission and hits an appropriate price point for consumers. A portion of Dig Inn’s success can be attributed to the partnership Adam and his team have cultivated with a Long Island distributor. This distributor has adapted its business model and has agreed to build relationships with Long Island farmers to source the ingredients needed for Dig Inn’s seasonal menus.
Jennifer Small, Owner and Operator of Flying Pigs Farm, is a small-scale, pastured livestock operation in Washington County, New York that raises rare, heritage breed pigs, meat chicks and egg-laying hens. Jennifer rounded out the discussion by painting a very real ‘day in the life’ portrait of one of her driver’s distribution runs in the City. Jennifer talked about the 400-mile round trip journey her refrigerated truck makes to the city each week. The truck departs from upstate New York at 7pm and for the next two days, it adheres to strict schedule that entails frequent movements to avoid fines while supplying several restaurants and farm markets with goods in multiple boroughs. Jennifer emphasized how important it was to adhere to this perfectly orchestrated plan and to move enough product over the course of those few days to outweigh the labor, fuel and other costs associated with the trip.
The importance of, and challenges associated with coordination were reiterated throughout the session. Most of the panelists described how difficult it could be to ensure that an ample supply of quality product moved from various farms into chefs’ hands quickly, safely and in a cost-effective manner. Timing is of the essence in this supply chain since items ship when they are at their peak and most at-risk of spoiling. Trucks are the main mode of transportation for these goods, which can be costly between rising gas and toll prices, and the constant parking violations levied on these vehicles. Identifying parking space to unload items, even for a short time, can be an expensive endeavor unless it is done before sunrise.
Balancing mission and business development goals also can present challenges. For example, Dig Inn defines itself as a ‘seasonal’ market. This implies that menu items will rotate, but not always according to customer preference. During the height of Brussels sprouts season, Adam needed to source 3,500 pounds of the hearty green vegetable to meet customer demand. As the supply waned, the popular dish was removed from menu, much to customers’ dismay. In an effort to stay true the restaurant’s mission, Adam had no choice but to take this best seller off of Dig Inn’s menu. That is, until next year.
This tale has implications for restaurateurs, farmers and distributors beyond those catering to New York City. While most of us in the northeast value our seasons, they are not always beneficial for the food sector, especially when we consider that the majority of the country has a growing season that extends throughout the year. As a food producing region, this puts us at a competitive disadvantage. This is something that many consumers are not always aware of since it is possible to purchase almost any seasonal product year-round at restaurants and grocery stores throughout the City. Our collective challenge then becomes how we as a community build awareness about the importance of honoring our seasons and possibly paying a bit more to support the local food economy. If we do not take this seriously now, our local farms and the infrastructure needed to process and move local goods will disappear for good.
In spite of all of the challenges associated with trying to shift to a values-based food economy, Olivia and others agreed that there is no better time to be doing this work than now. There is real energy and political support behind efforts to expand the fresh, local produce in our food system. We must continue to capitalize on this momentum and to build on the relationship between restaurateurs, distributors and local farmers needed to not only sustain the movement, but ensure that it is successful for years to come.
Sara J. Rosen is a FSNYC Leadership Committee member and serves on the Development Subcommittee. Read her full bio here.