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It’s hard to tell who’s a farmer and who’s a chef in the plaid-heavy crowd of 90 people gathered at Birch & Barley. Both groups have come to meet, schmooze, and ultimately see if they find the spark for a new relationship.
To help sort through the mob, Pam Hess, executive director of Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, and other organizers circle the packed downstairs dining room, introducing cooks and cultivators to one another. The goal is that they’ll find a culinary love connection. This President’s Day event was, after all, billed as a “speed dating” opportunity for local growers to meet D.C. chefs who want to source nearby produce and meats.
It was the first event of its scale hosted by Arcadia, also known for its mobile markets in D.C.’s food deserts and farm-to-school programs. It’s one of the only events of its kind in the region, as far as Hess is aware. Arcadia was launched by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group—which operates restaurants like Iron Gate, Bluejacket, and Vermillion, as well as Birch & Barley—in 2010 to improve access to healthful, local foods. The restaurant group also sources produce from Arcadia’s Alexandria farm. But since joining Arcadia as executive director a year ago, Hess is now trying to grow this matchmaker side of the nonprofit’s mission.
While local farms and “farm-to-table” restaurants have both flourished in the D.C. area, getting the two worlds to connect isn’t always easy. The logistics of getting food grown near the city into its restaurants—which often requires reinventing local distribution networks alongside existing channels—is the next frontier for the locavore movement. But, Hess says, the relationships come first. Farmers have to make their first impressions, and sales, before they can worry about how to deliver on them (a process Arcadia wants to help improve down the road). Unlike ordering bananas from Sysco, sourcing tomatoes or eggs from small local farms often requires some actual face time, not just checking a box on an inventory form.
Hess plans to host more events like this to connect chefs—many of whom she knows personally from her time editing the now-defunct Flavor and Foodshed magazines—with the farmers her organization promotes for their sustainable practices. Before joining Arcadia, she hosted similar gatherings in her Eastern Market home.
Chefs and farmers are capable of making such connections themselves, of course, but it can be a slow and painstaking process without the right introductions. Farmers resort to cold-calling restaurants they think might be a good fit, and chefs often ask one another or their distributors about good sources for new products. Some chefs, like Jeffrey Buben, owner of Woodward Table, Vidalia, and Bistro Bis in D.C., prefer to meet vendors at farmers markets, which requires early morning shopping—following late-night dinner service—and multiple stops to piece together a local menu.
Among the chefs at the event was Anthony Lombardo, the executive chef at 1789 Restaurant in Georgetown, dressed conspicuously in his white coat.
“I already do business with a lot of these farmers, so sometimes it’s just a reason to see them face-to-face,” he says. For example, Lombardo already works with Steve Turnage from Northern Neck Fruits and Vegetables in Kinsale, Va. But he sees the delivery guy more often than the farmer, whom Lombardo talks to mostly over the phone.
For a chef whose customers appreciate him showing up tableside to tell them more about their meal and where everything came from, actually knowing the farmer that grew the vegetables helps give him that extra bit of credibility.
Chefs like Lombardo, who’s been serving local food for years, know how hard it can be to find the right sources without the help of a liaison like Arcadia. He worked with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services when first locating a good pig farmer, which he found at Virginia’s Autumn Olive Farms. Lomabardo has since “introduced him to every [chef] I know in the city.”
Chefs rely heavily on such personal introductions if they want to source their food outside mainstream distribution channels. Smaller farms often make their own deliveries, so it’s not possible to get their products without actually establishing a relationship.
“Restaurants have a lot of options nowadays. A lot of [buying decisions] are just a handshake and being able to trust somebody,” Lombardo said.
That’s why Lombardo brought Jeremy Shelton, BLT Steak’s new executive chef, to the Arcadia event. “For me, it was really great,” says Shelton, who moved to D.C. in October. “Events like that give me a little bit of exposure and let me see what’s available. It puts everything there in one spot.”
Shelton says he blindly walked into the task of finding local food sources, since there was a gap between the departure of the previous chef and his arrival. He usually finds out from the farmers whether his restaurant has worked with them in the past.
In the absence of introductions, Shelton said he’s asked his seafood distributor for good oyster sources, for example, or worked with distributors that offer local products like Capital Meat Co.
Shelton says he didn’t realize just how many farmers serve D.C.-area restaurants until the Arcadia event. He took home several names of farmers he could begin working with this spring and enjoyed a long conversation with one farmer, Fred Sachs, about the prospects of his locally grown, organic wheat (most otherwise comes from places like Kansas).
Chefs would seem to have the upper hand at a networking event, since farmers are essentially the ones pitching their wares. But organizers used a happy-hour setting with cocktails to grease the wheels of conversation and blur the lines between buyer and seller.
“The atmosphere we wanted to create is that all of these people in the room are on the same team, trying to bring good food to consumers in Washington,” Hess says.
Locally grown food, especially produce, has become less of a novelty and more widely available in the region, thanks to the rise of small-scale local farms, which shifts the dynamics of these business relationships. Chefs have more choices, and farmers wanting to get into restaurants have a bit more competition. For producers, attending an event like this is a chance to show their face to a chef, perhaps for the second time, and follow up with the legwork that could earn them a new sale or relationship.
“The relationship takes a long time,” says Jesse Straight, who raises pastured pigs, chickens, turkeys, and cows at Whiffletree Farm in Warrenton, Va. “Sometimes the chef can just pull the trigger, and some want to see you stick around for a couple of years and then they’ll call you up.”
Straight already sells his meats to more than a half-dozen restaurants closer to his farm, including Airlie in Warrenton and the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg. In his fifth year of farming, Straight says he didn’t start out thinking half of his sales would go to restaurants (the rest goes to individuals through buying clubs or on-farm purchases).
“I just try doors and see what works. I guess restaurants just make sense because they’re willing to be customers,” he said.
Restaurants also buy different cuts of meat than Straight’s buying club or individual customers. While the home-cooking crowd goes gaga for bacon and sausage, one of his restaurants can sell dozens of pork chops in a single evening. Restaurants are also more likely to buy off-cuts that everyday consumers might shun, like beef heart. The two types of customers end up being complementary.
At the happy hour, Straight worked the room sporting a tweed jacket and closely trimmed beard, looking part salesman, part farmer. He met Lombardo for the second time after sitting next to him at a farm-to-table dinner at Airlie in the fall, where the two discussed the merits of knowing one’s farmer over a seven-course meal.
“We want farmers and chefs to be on a first-name basis. That’s going to take a while,” says Hess, who provided attendees of the networking event a roster of chefs and farmers who agreed to be included.
Restaurants weren’t the only potential customers there. Zeke Zechiel, co-owner of Washington’s Green Grocer, a grocery delivery service that focuses on local produce and artisan foods, says events like this are a huge boost for many of the small producers he works with.
Like D.C. chefs, Zechiel is often approached by new producers hoping to break into the local market. One of the biggest challenges for these artisans, he says, is to be good at both making a product—like sauerkraut or granola bars—and at selling it. Most aren’t large enough to have expertise or dedicated resources for marketing. Events that put them in the same room with so many potential customers “are a huge help.”
Arcadia “has definitely gotten this whole ball rolling in terms of putting buyers and small producers in the same room,” says Zechiel.
Hess is planning another matchmaking event for the fall. In the meantime, Arcadia is thinking about ways to ease the logistics of moving food from farms into the city, and considering how it might partner with other businesses or nonprofits to improve local food distribution networks.
But, so far, the nonprofit’s not a bad matchmaker. Chefs and farmers who attended the event carried on their conversations even after drinks became empty and organizers began nudging them toward the doors.
“This is the start of a process,” Hess says after the event. “A couple of beers, a couple of hours, and I think we accomplished a lot.”
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