Organic Broadcaster

Good farmer-chef pairings—like bacon and eggs—depend on timing

By Bailey Webster, MOSES

Most chefs choose to order from large food distributors, getting everything they need in one phone call. They don’t want to bother remembering which farmer sells the best potatoes or who takes orders on Tuesdays. They get the food they need delivered on time in the quantities they want. The middle-man removes the need for chefs to make relationships with the farmers who grow their food. Many would argue that the efficiency gained by buying and selling through a distributor makes any flaws in the system well worth it. But for a handful of chefs committed to sourcing locally from farmers in their area, it’s more about relationships than efficiency.

Birchwood Cafe 
For over 20 years, the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis, Minn., has been committed to building relationships with local farmers and businesses. Their website lists over 30 local farms that supply the Birchwood with vegetables, fruit, grains, meat, and dairy. Chef Marshall Paulsen keeps an impressively complex ordering schedule in his head, which requires over 12 hours of staff time per week. Multiple people are involved in ordering. They order directly from farmers as much as possible, filling gaps with orders from Co-op Partners Warehouse, an organic foods distributor based in St. Paul.

The Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis layers heirloom tomatoes from Riverbend Farms on its seasonal BLT. Farmer Greg Reynolds also supplied the restaurant with peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, and yellow squash over the summer. Photo by Birchwood Cafe

Paulsen said they try to accommodate the farmer’s preference when it comes to ordering. Some farmers prefer emailed orders, while others like to get a phone call or text message. The Birchwood has been purchasing from most of its farmers for 10 years or more, so the process is fairly routine. However, Paulsen acknowledged that it could be quite daunting for a chef who is used to ordering from a single distributor to think about managing accounts with several local farmers and their different ordering preferences.

The Birchwood’s weekly ordering process begins on Sunday, with staff taking an inventory with a customized “fresh produce guide” that helps to determine what is needed for the week. About a dozen email, phone, and text message orders go out to farmers on Sunday afternoon. It takes about four hours from start to finish. On Monday, they order dry goods, dairy, and meats, also from local farmers. This takes another four hours. Tuesday is a quicker maintenance order from Co-op Partners, for things the Birchwood has unexpectedly run out of, or that can’t be procured locally (such as lemons, or items that are not in season). On Wednesday, staff spends another 2-3 hours ordering from local farmers. On Thursday, they take inventory and place orders for the weekend. Some ordering happens on Friday and Saturday as well. “Every day, we order,” Paulsen said.

In addition to preferring different ways of receiving orders, farmers have different requirements regarding lead time. Some farmers need 2-3 days’ notice before they can deliver. Others will do next-day delivery. Some items are ordered well in advance. For example, this February the Birchwood committed to purchasing 500 pounds of blueberries from Blue Fruit Farm. This is enormously helpful for farmers who have time and energy to market their produce in the winter months, and are overloaded with work during the harvest season. Farmers will also sometimes bring extra produce when they do a delivery, giving the restaurant staff the opportunity to check their inventories and purchase more on the spot if they need it.

It would seem that relationship is at the heart of good farm-to-restaurant partnerships. Paulsen said of the farmers he’s been working with for a decade or more: “We know their dogs’ names; we’ve been to their homes.”

During the summer, the Birchwood hosts a “Crop Mob” every month on a local farm. Staff and guests from the restaurant visit the farm to help with a project. Birchwood provides lunch once the hard work is over. The events are free and family-friendly. Birchwood also hosts a “meet-and-greet” at the restaurant, for diners to meet the farmers that supply their food. At a crop mob two years ago, hosted by Heartbeet Farm, several staff members took kittens home with them. They have been beloved pets ever since.

For farmers who are just beginning to sell to restaurants, Paulsen recommends going around and meeting chefs and restaurant owners. “Develop a relationship,” he advised. “If they can put a face or story to the person they meet, they will be more inclined to buy from them.” He also said it’s important to make an appointment rather than just dropping in. Chefs are very busy people, and if they are working in the kitchen or on the line, they aren’t going to want to hear about your potatoes. “Unless it’s a Sunday afternoon after brunch, and you happen to have a bunch of stuff we just ran out of,” he laughed.

Riverbend Farm
Greg and Mary Reynolds of Riverbend farm in Delano, Minn., run a CSA and sell to 15 different restaurants. When they started farming, they found it challenging to get into the co-op market. All they could seem to sell were hard-to-grow or low-margin items. Nobody was selling directly to restaurants at the time, and that’s where they found their farm’s niche. They also really enjoy selling to chefs. “Chefs are excited about the produce that comes in the back door,” Greg Reynolds said. “They have plans to make people love every bite.”

Reynolds draws parallels between farmers and chefs, pointing out that they are both in a high-stress business. “Farmers have to deal with the weather and the seasons. Chefs have to deal with the whims of the food scene and the mysteries of popular food trends. Sometimes I think we are both dealing with things we don’t understand.” Reynolds sells to both the Birchwood Cafe and Café Alma, and likes working with their head chefs, Matti Sprague of Café Alma and Marshall Paulsen of the Birchwood.

“Some chefs can be tyrants in the kitchen, have a lot of ego, and there are some real jerks. […] Chefs like that are no fun to work with, so I don’t,” he explained. “One of the great things about Matti and Marshall is that they are good leaders—hard-working, very talented—and if you walked into the kitchen you would probably find them peeling horseradish, chopping up zucchini or assembling a pan of hotdish for lunch. Characteristics like that might have something to do with why their staff sticks around so long.”

There are a few challenges for farmers working with restaurants. Chefs are always looking for something new that can’t be grown in Minnesota, or isn’t in season. Because people are so disconnected from their food source, “restaurant season does not line up with the seasons in the physical world,” Reynolds pointed out. For example, as soon as temperatures rise in the spring, people want to eat spring foods. Chefs are putting things on their menus well before they are available locally.

“By the time the grass is turning green in mid-April and we have had a few sunny 70° days, they have peas and asparagus on their menu. Most years the frost has barely come out of the ground by then,” he added.

Reynolds actively uses the Riverbend Farm story to market their produce. He writes a newsletter for their CSA, and sends it to the restaurants they work with so that the chefs and staff have some idea of what happens on the farm. Most of the people they sell to have been out to visit Riverbend Farm. “They can see how we take care of our land and crops, and know why we do it,” he explained.

After years of working with restaurants, Reynolds has some sage advice for farmers just getting started. “Work to grow the market for local food. The well-known and established local food restaurants have farmers that they are already working with and may not be looking to throw in with a new start-up. Get out and do some marketing to new restaurants and places that you think ‘should’ be buying local. Unfortunately, you are going to have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince.”

He also cautioned against being too accommodating to restaurants. “Be careful not to work for $3 an hour. Restaurants are struggling with raising their prices to cover higher wages for back-of-the-house staff. Their overhead is pretty well fixed so the only place to cut is food costs. Low prices are a direct path to ruining your land, exploiting your workers or making less than minimum wage—none of which are good options.”

That’s where telling your story comes in. “Unless there is a difference between us and everyone else, why not buy Florida tomatoes that were picked green for slave wages and shipped up here?” If you can demonstrate why your product and story is superior to the one coming off of a Sysco truck, you can justify charging what it’s worth, Reynolds said.

Café Alma
Café Alma takes a different approach to its relationships with local farmers. While the restaurant also sources the majority of its products locally, the restaurant website doesn’t highlight local farmers the way the Birchwood website does. Alma takes a more subtle approach, preferring to allow the food to speak for itself. “At Alma, we believe that food and cooking should tell a story of a place and time,” explained Chef de Cuisine Matti Sprague.

Sprague cited many of the same challenges that Marshall Paulsen of the Birchwood has, including managing weekly ordering to prioritize local farmers. His ordering schedule is different during the growing season as a result. ”Consistency is always a challenge,” Sprague said. “The growing season in the Upper Midwest is short and temperamental. We take on the challenge every year of working with more product and different farmers. We could always defer to ordering from fewer suppliers or ordering less local product, but that would be contradictory to our goals.”

Relationship is a central theme for Café Alma as well. Sprague really enjoys working with local farmers. “The connection is invaluable. Being able to deal directly with farmers really makes me appreciate the product so much more.” He also sees similarities between farmers and chefs. “There is a common link that is shared not only between the farms that we deal with, but between ourselves as chefs and farmers. Each of us strives for a high quality product and works hard to support our local community.”

Sprague values his relationships with individual farmers. “Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farms is one of our most cherished accounts. We’ve been doing business with Greg for many years and we even plan a yearly trip to his farm with the chefs of Alma to visit and prepare a meal for him and his team.”

Sprague offered this advice for farmers who want to sell to restaurants:

  1. Ask what ingredients chefs are interested in working with and be honest about your capabilities to supply them.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the hours of operation. Chefs are unavailable during lunch and dinner rush.
  3. Invite chefs and their staff to visit your farm!

Working with local farmers isn’t for all chefs, and selling to restaurants isn’t for all farmers. But for those committted to open dialogue, it’s a match made in heaven—kind of like bacon and eggs.

Bailey Webster is the events coordinator for MOSES, and an organic vegetable farmer.


From the November | December 2017 Issue

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