Dorchester’s Daily Table
A Gleaning Oasis in the Urban Food Desert
Written onFebruary 13 , 2015
Chef Ismail Samad first made his name in New England when he and business partners Alice James and Liz Ehrenberg opened the Gleanery Restaurant—a Putney eatery that serves first-rate fare made from farm-gleaned “seconds.”
When launched in 2012, the Gleanery created an immediate sensation with such upscale dishes as jasmine-beet purée served with scallops and jalapeño, venison-rutabaga stew, and seared chicken, lemon-rosemary gnocchi, mushroom purée, and roasted Brussels sprouts. All these recipes are sourced in part with surplus seasonal produce from Vermont farms—slightly bruised or misshapen but still-delicious veggies rejected by farmers’ market shoppers—and local cheeses aged a bit too long, but still very flavorful.
Ismail hails from Cleveland, where he trained first as an environmental biologist, then as a chef. His work in fine Cleveland and New York restaurants opened his eyes to the “crime” of food waste. Gleaning, he says, is an idea whose time has come. “The success of our restaurant proves that the concept of gleaning really works!”
Now he regularly commutes between two jobs: as partner and executive chef at the for-profit Gleanery and as executive chef in a new venture, Daily Table, which is about to take the gleaning revolution to a whole new level.
When Daily Table opens its doors this April in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a neighborhood of Boston, this urban nonprofit retail grocery will offer fresh produce and a selection of healthful, tasty, oven- and microwave-ready take-home meals, mostly at a price that beats McDonalds or KFC: $3-5 per entrée, allowing a family of four to eat for $12-$16. And the meals will all be made with recipes created by Chef Ismail.
This new and unique foodie venture isn’t found in an upscale locale, but in the urban food desert of the Codman Square District of Dorchester—a low-income, working-class, ethnic neighborhood long deserted by big national grocery chains. Residents previously forced to choose among the empty caloric offerings of burger, pizza, and takeout joints, will now find all the basics at Daily Table: fresh veggies, fruit, meats, convenient take-home meals, and a gallon of milk or loaf of bread for $1 or less.
The secret to those low prices is gleaning. Daily Table is the brainchild of former Trader Joe’s president, Doug Rauch. He’s fond of telling the media that 31 percent of all food produced annually in the U.S goes uneaten—$161 billion thrown away every year.
Rauch’s Daily Table turns this negative into a positive by gleaning excess and overstocked food from Boston-area producers and distributors, and collecting food that’s near, or just past, its “sell by date” from grocers. Blemished apples and oddly shaped peppers, and donated meats, dairy, and breads nearing expiration, will be expertly prepared and repackaged for sale at fast food prices.
Ismail sees this as a groundbreaking new model to provide Americans with inexpensive, healthful food choices that, among other benefits, could help curb the U.S. obesity and diabetes epidemic. “If you stop seeing the $161 billion surplus as ‘food waste,’ and start seeing it as not wasting perfectly good food, there’s a huge shift in mindset,” he says.
“One of our biggest challenges is people’s concerns about ‘sell buy’ dates,” he admits, “But those very conservative dates are arbitrarily set by producers, which means that a great deal of safe, high-quality food ends up in landfills. It’s a matter of education, of not throwing out the whole basket of berries because of one bad berry.”
However, Ismail stresses that the goal of Daily Table isn’t food recovery. “It is to retail healthy foods cheaper than fast foods. To do that, we must keep costs extremely low, which means we source 60 to 70 percent of our supply via gleaning.”
“Our second goal is to make people happy with what’s on our shelves, assuring it’s tasty without being super-salty or sugary,” Ismail says. “Most of us Americans are addicted to sugar, and we expect it in food we buy. At Daily Table we’ll nudge behaviors in a more healthful direction—a huge educational challenge. But we ultimately want people coming back not because our food is healthy, but because it’s delicious.”
Daily Table’s doors at 450 Washington Street open into 10,000 square feet of retail space rented from the Codman Square Health Center. Wide, brightly lit center aisles will be lined with beautiful fresh produce, gleaned and sourced from the Chelsea Produce Terminal, South Shore Organics, and other providers. Locally hired employees and volunteers will carefully sort gleaned produce to assure quality.
That same on-site crew will convert produce into tomato sauce, salad dressing, a line of smoothies, and cold-prepared entrées ready to take home, heat up, and eat. You might find Daily Table lasagna, or beef stir fry, but attention will also be paid to the diverse ethnic tastes of Codman Square, a neighborhood shared by African Americans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Cubans, Vietnamese, and other nationalities.
Daily Table will boast two chicken and two beef dishes daily, a vegetarian and seafood offering, plus stews and soups. Using the example of a kale, white bean, and sausage soup, Ismail explains how the ingredients might be procured and enjoyed. “The kale is gleaned from Clarke Farm in Carlisle, Massachusetts. The sausage might be a short coded item, which we freeze before it expires. You can sample the soup at our tasting counter and take home a quart for around $2. That’s a big plus: instead of grabbing a bite, we’re helping families reestablish the tradition of gathering around the dinner table for good food and conversation.”
If you want to make your own soup, the ingredients will be available at a great price, and the free recipe, too. Don’t know how to cook? Daily Table will have a teaching kitchen where locals learn to prepare healthful and flavorful meals.
What do people think of the Daily Table concept? The principals—founder Doug Rauch, executive director Rudy Rubenis, senior director Fredi Shonkoff, and executive chef Ismail Samad—are making the rounds of community meetings to find out.
Many locals are excited about Daily Table’s potential. “As a resident of this neighborhood for 25 plus years, I am delighted that we continue our tradition of innovation,” exclaims Candice Donahue Gartely on the Dorchester Reporter website. “I will be the first to take advantage of this new model of healthy eating.”
The Dorchester Codman Square Daily Table is the first to open in the pilot phase. If successful, Daily Tables will open in Boston, New York, and other cities.
When asked if the innovative retail nonprofit gleaning model will thrive, Ismail answers, “Yes! If we keep our conscientious commitment to quality at a fast food price, then people will keep coming back. They’ll trust our product and be proud to have us in the community. They’ll be our advocates and become the drum majors for Daily Table.
“They’ll tell their friends and family: ‘Hey, it’s cheap, it’s tasty, it’s good for your kids, you gotta go there!’ We all—the entire society—choose unhealthy food options because we don’t have the time or money. Daily Table is an opportunity to start changing that.”