Farmers Harvest to Chefs’ Orders
Instead of subscribing to the notion that the closest proximity dictates the highest supply quality, Spoonbar, a restaurant in Healdsburg, California, found a way to tap into a wider range of microclimates that span a 140-mile area from Southern Mendocino County, through all of Sonoma and into Marin County.
Chef Louis Maldonado of Spoonbar first heard about the FEED Sonoma program, which stands for Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights, from a local farm that was using the organization as another outlet to sell its produce.
“I met [owner] Tim Page when he dropped off a small order for a dinner, and we started talking and discussing what FEED was about and what it stood for,” Chef Maldonado says, adding that the mission struck a chord with him. “I wanted to work with them. It’s a decision to support something on a county level that goes full circle by not only supporting local food but also supporting the local economy.”
With an understanding, Page says, that small farmers are at the heart of the food system in the Bay area, FEED coordinates the sale of the farmers’ produce so they can focus on what they’re doing—which is growing some of the best produce out there.
“We call the produce we supply ‘harvest to order.’ It’s a proactive food system where we communicate what the farmers are harvesting, how much, and connect them with chefs. We’re an extension of farmers,” Page says. “We’re also very transparent with pricing—we let the chefs know how much the farmers need to sustain their business and then how much we have to mark up the product to continue delivering to them. We’re trying to run a business that is efficient and extremely dynamic.”
With the help of FEED Sonoma, Chef Maldonado can keep tabs on 60 regional farms and is able to connect directly with the farmers who have the best quality produce he’s seeking. For example, recently he was looking for citrus varieties that were hard to find nearby due to the growing conditions, and FEED located a farmer in the East Sonoma Valley who could provide the perfect product.
The service allows everyone to do what they are good at: Farmers can be farmers, chefs can be chefs, and FEED works as the line of communication between them. Plus, by sourcing produce from a larger harvest year-round, restaurants are able to serve ingredients that are consistently at the peak of their flavor.
“None us have the time to create the network that FEED has done. FEED supports both sides with pricing and inventory,” Chef Maldonado says. It works very efficiently because farmers pick specifically what the restaurants need, versus harvesting everything to show at a market and potentially not selling all of the produce.
In Chef Maldonado’s opinion, Sonoma County is one of the best and one of the most diverse farming regions in California. “Working with a business like FEED allows us to serve the ingredients that are best in the county at any given time,” he says. “It’s a culture of using what you have at that moment.”
However, unlike many restaurants sourcing local produce, he doesn’t like to put the farmers’ names on the menu, preferring instead for the food and product to do the talking.
“We are very Zen-like about it and let the product and technique tell the story,” he says. “So, if diners ask, we certainly let them know where the produce is coming from, but otherwise we think it’s enough to make the best dishes we can.”
Page took the helm of what is now FEED in 2011, following a series of owners and name changes that began with Ocean Resources International, a grassroots business founded by Ina Chen in 1979. The company, based in Sebastopol, California, has since grown a great deal. Page began with one truck, a single employee, 15 farms, and 25 chef/restaurant clients. At the end of 2015, FEED had three trucks, more than a dozen employees, 70 farms at the height of the season, and 85 clients.
“The genesis behind FEED Sonoma as it is today is a personal journey rooted in societal issues. … It’s about wanting to steward something for the next generation,” Page says.
“Food is one of the foundations of making a change for the better—it’s the most powerful area where we can begin,” he continues. “Chefs, being so involved with food, understand the importance of a program like FEED that advocates for farmers and can supply them with superior produce.”