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Food Hub Connects Midwest Farmers with Local Chefs and Consumers

Jun 26, 2014 07:13PM ● By Megy Karydes

PHOTO from left: Andrew Lutsey, Ryan Kimura and Dave Rand (photo by Jeffrey Marini)

“Fennel,” states Jam restaurant Executive Chef Jeff Mauro without hesitation. He’s talking about which ingredients he wishes more Midwestern farmers would have available on a consistent basis so he could use them in his dishes. “It has universal qualities, and I’d use it more often if I could get it on a consistent basis.”
 

Mauro is in an enviable position, because his popular restaurant (JamRestaurant.com), known for its contemporary take on brunch, is located adjacent to the Logan Square Farmers’ Market, and yet he still finds it hard to get all the ingredients he needs, such as fresh fennel.

Dave Rand, COO of Chicago’s new Local Foods (LocalFoods.com), understands Mauro’s predicament of building a menu around produce available from local farmers at any given time. While farmers’ markets are a great source of local, sustainable and fresh produce and other items,  he says, “It’s not consistent and the prices can be high for individual restaurants who don’t need 10,000 pounds of tomatoes a week.”

Chicago’s First Food Hub Connects the Dots

To help connect the dots between the needs of the marketplace and farmers, Rand and two partners launched Local Foods in 2013 in a rented warehouse for wholesale distribution and to operate as a food hub. It is Chicago’s first wholesale distributor of strictly local foods from Midwestern farmers. In the meantime, a sprawling, 27,000-square-foot multi-use building is being built in the Bucktown neighborhood which will house the rapidly expanding wholesale distribution sector of the business, as well as a USDA-inspected meat processing facility, shared office space, and in the winter, a retail outlet for consumers to shop. Details for the retail space are still being ironed out, because the focus is on growing the wholesale distribution base.

“Food hubs help develop the supply of locally grown sustainable food and sell to all aspects of the supply chain,” notes Jim Slama, president of Family Farmed, (FamilyFarmed.org) a nonprofit committed to expanding the production, marketing and distribution of locally grown and responsibly produced food in order to enhance the social, economic and environmental health of our communities. “They help farmers develop high-quality food and ensure that it quickly goes from farm to plate,” he says.

The timing for food hubs couldn’t be better. As more consumers are demanding to know where their food is coming from and choosing to support local farmers instead of large grocery stores and middlemen, food hubs are poised to grow as more people learn of them. This concept isn’t anecdotal. The National Restaurant Association recently released its 2014 Culinary Forecast and the top two trends listed are locally sourced meat and seafood, followed by locally grown produce.

Rand looks at Local Foods as bridging the gap between food chain contributors like chefs and farmers. Chefs want local, sustainable, high-quality foods on a consistent basis and farmers want to get their produce into their hands. The same needs exist for grocers, schools and home consumers. The problem is because of the way Illinois growing areas are located in relation to the metropolitan area, it is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for individual farmers to make the trek into the city on a regular basis, and they don’t always know (or grow) what people want or need. A food hub provides a solution where farmers and buyers meet—in person or virtually.

Making More than Just Transactional Connections

Local restaurants aren’t the only ones to benefit by being able to access locally grown foods more easily through food hubs. The farmers benefit substantially, too. That’s exactly the effect being seen by Local Foods. Rand and his team recently connected Evanston-based The Talking Farm (TheTalkingFarm.org) with the Farmhouse Evanston (FarmhouseEvanston.com) restaurant to provide locally grown produce.

The Talking Farm aims to cultivate healthy, sustainable communities through the production, education and appreciation of locally grown food, and was already planning to grow kale, radishes and peppers on its small suburban property. Farmhouse Evanston needs kale, radishes and peppers for its restaurant, and has now committed to buying most of the farm’s 2014 harvest.

“We will now grow a custom order based on [Farmhouse’s] specific needs, and will grow as much or as little as they would like,” says Matt Ryan, farm manager for The Talking Farm. “For our first growing season, we are providing them with staple produce: cucumbers, yellow carrots, spinach, arugula, heirloom tomatoes, sweet peppers and more. We will start with a base amount and grow more with each subsequent year that passes.”

For Eric Mansavage, executive chef at Farmhouse Evanston, removing the logistics of sourcing produce from his job is just one benefit of working with Local Foods. He admits that the task now takes up more of his time than anything else and looks forward to having access to more specialized farms that he would not ordinarily be able to find.

“Prior to the existence of Local Foods, sourcing was done the old-fashioned way,” says Mansavage. “Obvious choices for farm connections were found at the farmers’ markets, with the occasional farmer walking into the restaurant, or a new connection being establish by chance or by digging through the networks to find specific products.”

Connecting his restaurant with the farm is more than just transactional for Mansavage. “This connection is extremely important to us mostly because it sends a message to the community that urban farming is the future for urban centers such as Chicago,” he says. “We were willing to put our money where our mouth is to support this important idea.”

According to Mansavage, big agriculture misses the mark typically with food quality, and logistically, the footprint is contributing to far greater problems that we will continue to face as the population continues to grow, especially in urban centers. “The food hub model will simply allow more people to eat better food, with less negative impact, more often,” he adds.

Mansavage describes his partnership with The Talking Farm as a collaboration that makes sense. “They have the time to search for exactly what you need, and they are able to do so on a consistent and regular basis,” he says. Rand cites the relationship as just one successful scenario in which having specific market information can help small farmers to grow their capacity, while providing the marketplace what it wants.

Strategies for the Winter Months

All is not forsaken once winter hits. “First and foremost, it’s not a barren wasteland in the winter anymore in the Midwest,” notes Rand. “We use a lot of farmers and producers that are using four-season growing techniques, greenhouses, hoop houses, row covers [that can protect from quick snaps in early spring and late fall] and other types of seasonal extensions. There’s actually quite a diverse offering in the winter; we hope through key partnerships we could be a leader in offering a wide range throughout all seasons.”

Rand adds that farmers want to be growing four seasons, as well. “They’re looking for revenue streams for the winter and to not have such a lumpy revenue line through the year,” he adds, noting that the farmers they work with are eager to extend their season.

Rand also says Local Foods works with a lot of storage crops such as apples, beets, carrots, potatoes, onions, and turnips, which are plentiful at that time. “We’re still selling storage potatoes from last fall,” adding that they work hard to keep proper climate conditions and by storing the crops properly, they can extend their shelf life. “Also, certain crops love the winter: for example, kale and spinach do better with a frost (spinach gets sweeter). Swiss chard and even broccoli, on occasion, get better with cold weather.”

“Essentially, a farm is a blank canvas,” says Rand, who expresses surprise at learning that farmers are willing to plant what the marketplace wants. “What [farmers] want is information,” notes Rand. “We’re here to bridge that gap between farmers and what people want. If I know this restaurant only needs 500 pounds of tomatoes on a weekly basis and this restaurant needs 1,000 pounds and so on, then I might be able to order 10,000 tomatoes, which lets the farmers know what to plant. The farmers are happy because they are maximizing their land, they can plan accordingly, prices go down because we’re buying in volume and people get what they want. We have created efficiencies by operating our business model this way for everyone involved.”

One might argue that food hubs might mean fewer farmers at farmers’ markets, but Rand doesn’t buy the argument. In fact, he feels Local Foods helps by allowing farmers with more capacity to grow, providing space for smaller farmers to come in. In this way, he looks at farmers’ markets as an incubator.

Mauro says his regular farmers come into the restaurant to drop off produce before the farmers’ market opens, and he’s developed a great relationship with many of them. He’s also happy to share his experiences with customers that ask daily about where specific ingredients come from. Still, Mauro adds that he’s intrigued and hopeful about what Local Foods is doing. “It’s a great idea, and I’d love to see how this can benefit even small, independent restaurants like Jam.”


Click here to enjoy local recipes from Chef Jeremy Kiens of nana Restaurant, in Chicago:

Chilled Red Pepper and Tomato Soup with Cucumber Herb Salad

Warm Strawberry Bread Pudding with Sorrel And Rhubarb Sauce


To learn more about Local Foods, call 312-432-6575 or visit LocalFoods.com.

Megy Karydes is frustrated that her puppy has destroyed her backyard garden, but luckily there are plenty of farmers’ markets near her home, so she can keep her dog and still enjoy organic, heirloom tomatoes throughout the summer months. Find her at KarydesConsulting.com or on Twitter as @megy.