The Challenges of Sourcing Locally

The chalkboard at DownStreet Eats, Cabot
The chalkboard at DownStreet Eats, Cabot

Written By

Elena Gustavson

Written on

August 22 , 2014

The sun is up, the kids are stirring, and as I sit at my kitchen counter in Cabot with a cup of strong black coffee in hand, I review my list: 7 a.m.,Kids to School; 8 a.m., Craftsbury; 9 a.m., Hardwick; 9:45 a.m., East Hardwick; 10:30 a.m., Kitchen.

It’s going to be tight.

You see, I own a small eatery in a small town, and like many other restaurants in Vermont, my menu is heavy with local ingredients. Although I’ve been picking up local meat and root vegetables with little problem over the winter, it is now a beautiful mid-June morning, and a few of our local farms have begun harvesting fresh greens and herbs. When I put the last two pounds of day-old, slimy, West Coast grown organic greens in our chicken bucket a few weeks before, I had resolved to no longer buy greens until they could be purchased closer to home. Fortunatley, I had Peace of Earth Farm in Albany which sells beautiful shoots and sprouts, to tide me over until now.

Pete’s Greens, an organic vegetable farm in Craftsbury, has just released their salad greens for wholesale and I’m on my way to pick up my first bags of Vermont-grown mesclun, baby spinach, cilantro, and basil—the stars and supporting cast members on my menu of Asian-influenced food. It is exciting, but my enthusiasm is tempered by the pressure I am feeling to get back to the kitchen. Two-and-a-half hours later, after kissing the kids good-bye and chatting with a teacher, I drive down the dirt road to Pete’s Greens’ plywood- and tin-covered, warehouse-like structure, where my greens await me in the room-size cooler.

Back in the car, I point myself in the direction I have just come from and head into Hardwick, stopping first at the Center for an Agricultural Economy’s Vermont Food Venture Center to sneak into a freezer to pick up Under Orion Farm’s beef and maple syrup, wishing I had time to chat with my former colleagues but knowing that time is against me. As the sun climbs higher, I keep my fingers crossed that I am early enough to snag a parking space on Main Street in Hardwick where, at the Buffalo Mountain Cooperative, Peace of Earth Farm has left me bags of shoots in the cooler and I’ll grab a block or two of Vermont Soy tofu and other ingredients I might have overlooked earlier in the week during my typical Monday morning ordering frenzy. Pulling out of a prime spot in front of the store, I swing toward East Hardwick and Snug Valley Farm, where Ben Notterman will load up a couple of boxes with ground pork, sausages, and shoulder from his chest freezers, while I scratch the ears of the farm dogs and chat with his folks. By now it is 10:30 a.m., and with my face to the sun, I head back to my kitchen in Cabot to get the restaurant ready for dinner.

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Like many people, I like the story behind my food. I’ve been fortunate to get to know many of the people who grow the food I eat, and my respect for their work knows no bounds. The food is fresh, beautiful, delicious. By purchasing it, I’m investing my dollars into people and businesses that I respect, and I am convinced that many of those dollars will then stay and benefit the community in which they reside.

Yet as a business owner, and a business with marginal profits at best, time is money and, well... money is money. On this morning, reviewing my invoices as I unload my bags and boxes into the coolers and freezers, I gulp a little. I just spent quite a few dollars, and I worry that if the patrons don’t come, and keep coming, it will be a struggle to pay the bills. Running a small restaurant in a small town with a young family in tow is rewarding, but challenging. I take a deep breath, start calculating my food costs versus my potential sales, and decide I can stretch things a bit more by featuring the fresh, yet fragile greens in our popular Vietnamese rice roll, and as an accompaniment to the savory jeong (Korean pancake).

Time is short now and there is much left to do to prepare for dinner. Popping in the door mere minutes before the first of my crew arrives, I have little time to think about much else beyond what is right in front of me. Our prep is broken into increments of time, punctuated by clean up and dishes, then more prep and more dishes. Although we are hours away from opening the doors, I know that those hours will slip past quickly and that rhythmic efficiency is key to being prepared at this stage.

As the crew begins the washing and prepping of our vegetables, I handle the meat. The shoulder from Snug Valley Farm is firm and well marbled. Snipping the twine, I massage spices into the flats and crevices of the meat, retying the twine and prepare it for the slow braise in our oven. I don’t take this meat for granted. Before I connected with Snug Valley several months before, I had a hell of a time trying to find a consistent supply of local, quality pork that was relatively easy for me to obtain. Now that I have, I have every intention of utilizing as much of the meat as I can.

Cleaning up my prep space, I move on to the greens. Submerging the greens in a tub of cold water, I pick out the occasional grass blade. The leaves are a myriad of texture and color, and I can almost smell the rain and soil. I pop one in my mouth. Sweet. Pop another leaf, this one more serrated on the edges. Bitter.

Perfect.

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Many of the restaurants in Vermont face the same challenges I do when it comes to sourcing local food: it is more work; it is more expensive; it is not always a consistent supply or quality. But I wonder: What is it like for a farm to sell to a restaurant?

A few weeks later, I’m perusing the pick sheets—lists of available items—that a few farms have sent my way—and I’m cradling the phone on my shoulder as I dial a familiar number. Picking up the phone, Tim Fishburne, sales manager at Pete’s Greens, says “Hey. Can I call you back in 15 minutes? Sorry about this. Just give me 15 more minutes and I will be ready for you.”

No problem. I hang up the phone and set my kitchen timer. I get back to writing a response to Provender Farm, which had sent me their availability list about two hours earlier. Fifteen minutes later, pencil in hand, Tim and I chat pleasantries for 10 seconds or so before he lets me know that we need to move on. No offense is meant, but it is a Thursday in July and it’s a very busy day on the farm.

I think a moment about all the juggling I do to source and gather local ingredients for my one restaurant, so I ask Tim if he can spare just a bit of time to tell me what it’s like to provide food to a lot of restaurants. Tim is frank. “Don’t get me wrong. I know how hard it is for restaurants with high food costs and slim margins. Our challenge is being able to sell enough product at a price point that makes it worthwhile for both of us. Combine that with selling to several different restaurants across the state, both big and small, and it is challenging to provide enough diversity of product at a good price when you are only dealing in volumes of 10 lbs. here or 5 lbs. there.”

So what is a cook like me supposed to do? Running around picking up products within a 30-mile radius doesn’t make a lot of economical sense nor is it in keeping with my own values of treading lightly on our resources. Getting food delivered via Black River Produce is a convenient alternative, but part of our business plan is to source as close to the restaurant as we can, and although BRP does an amazing job with Vermont produce, much of it comes from southern Vermont—a bit too far for my comfort zone here in Cabot

I realize I don’t have an easy answer, and with 10 months invested in my venture now, I think the answer is still a ways off. Despite the challenges within our local food systems, I am confident that solutions will continue to emerge from farmers, entrepreneurs, and consumers. Smaller, “newer” farms will mature and hone their experiences, while some will grow larger and refine their systems; savvy go-getters will find opportunities to fill in the gaps in our distribution system; neighborhood restaurants will continue to provide both quality and ethical choices for their customers and, in return, consumers will invest back into these food communities.

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With the pleasant heat of this summer and just enough rain, I’ve had farmers knocking on my door to provide me with food and my whirlwind trips have become fewer and fewer this season. With hope, by the time this article comes out, my storeroom will be as full as my cooler as the season begins to wind down and I begin to source and store vegetables for our winter menu.
We are fortunate, here in Vermont, to have so much available to us, even when it isn’t necessarily easy or convenient to source from a business perspective. While I continue on my own adventure as a new restaurant owner, I imagine this logistical challenge will often take a backseat to other, more pressing matters, but I look forward to continuing my relationships with farmers and with my customers, and doing something that I love.

So on that note, take good care, eat good food, and don’t forget to hug your farmer (and kiss the cook).

About the Author

Elena Gustavson

Elena Gustavson

Elena Gustavson lives with her three wonderful kids and two ancient cats in a tiny house with a big heart.

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