“We now have 30 restaurants as members so far; 15 or so of them are very consistent, ordering every week. Their hearts are in the game—they need no convincing!” Nina Yozell-Epstein
For our fledgling Farm To Restaurant Delivers program (F2R), brainchild of the Santa Fe Alliance, it’s the classic underdog story. Due to a sluggish and unpredictable economy, visitors and residents alike are thinking twice about the efficacy of each expenditure they make. As a result, Santa Fe chefs, all of whom are walking a fine line between creative innovation and keeping prices down, are less likely than usual to court unnecessary risks. Meanwhile, even in the best of times, northern New Mexico is a challenging place for food growers. According to Jacona Farm owner, Phillip Loomis, “with the extreme cold this past winter, a dry and unusually windy spring, the fires and smoke earlier this summer and, through it all, the long drought,” 2011 has been the most difficult he’s ever experienced in 20 years of farming.
And yet, despite such daunting odds, Santa Fe’s Farm to Restaurant program, not quite two years old, stands in the forefront of this pioneering movement: It’s one of the most successful in the entire country! How is that possible? Like all good underdog stories, this one involves a vast, interdependent web of people—from chefs to farmers to grassroots organizers to people like you and me—for whom Cole Porter could have written, “The difficult I’ll do right now/The impossible will take a little while.”
In matters of food appreciation, Santa Fe has had a head start over many other parts of the country. As a unique destination spot, the City Different has always had more than our share of world-class restaurants. And our farmers’ market (which actually began way back in the late ‘60s, with a group of farmers selling their produce on Saturdays from the back of their trucks) has become a vital, bustling crowd pleaser in its permanent year-round home at the Railyard.
Additionally, during the early days of locavore awareness, as Alice Waters and others of her ilk introduced the many beneficial reasons to “eat local,” a few—and then more and more—Santa Fe chefs took up the cause. Meanwhile, the group Friends of the Farmers’ Market, formed in 1996, expanded its goals to become the local non-profit Farm To Table, born out of several needs, among them the enhancement of marketing opportunities for local farmers through community outreach and networking.
So Santa Feans’ support, encouragement and celebration of fresh, locally grown food has steadily built up a healthy head of stream over these past few decades. Farm to Table Executive Director Pam Roy, who during the mid-‘90s was executive director of the Farmers’ Market board, has long seen a need for connecting farmers to restaurants so they could sell their produce wholesale. Back then, she and the Market staff investigated the possibility of creating such a program, “but we were daunted by how much hard work such an enterprise would take to initially get up and running!” Branching from this focus on creating a local food shed came the rise of interest in sustainability on all levels and, in 2001, a new non-profit organization, the Santa Fe Alliance, was founded. Their mission is to build a local living economy, ensuring that economic power resides right here at home with the strengthening of locally owned businesses and resources to create a strong, vibrant community.
With these goals in mind, it was only natural that the Alliance take on creation of Santa Fe’s own chapter of the Farm To Restaurant movement and, in 2005, the local program was born. Executive Director Kathleen Chambers, who on her own initiative had earlier instituted the Santa Fe chapter of the national group Green Drinks, says, “The first thing we did was send out an initial questionnaire to all area chefs, asking for feedback about their buying practices at the Farmers’ Market. They said, ‘It’s too crowded, too expensive.’ We said, ‘How can we help?’ We saw early on that we needed volume to make our F2R program work.”
The Santa Fe Alliance jumped in to help. “Last year,” says Vicki Pozzebon, the Alliance’s executive director, “with help from expert consultants at Farm To Table who already worked with farmers selling directly to restaurants, and input from farmers at the Market, we came up with a workable plan.” Then they applied for and got a USDA grant providing the organization’s seed money. “We started with just 15 participating restaurants,” Kathleen adds. “We needed to keep it small at the beginning stages, because we couldn’t over promise.”
And, with Farm to Restaurant as the middleman, coordinating what seemed at first like overwhelming details, interested chefs got linked up with farmers who wanted to sell their products wholesale.
Here’s how the delivery system works. Interested restaurant owners sign up to be contacted. Every Wednesday, Deliveries Coordinator Nina Yozell-Epstein emails them an order sheet, with a list of what’s available; the chefs fill it out and send it back by Saturday morning. She divvies out portions of the total order to different member farms, sends the bill to the Farm to Restaurant bookkeeper and that organization pays the farmers upfront. (“It takes the pressure off and saves the farmers the headache of billing,” says Nina). The average number of hours between produce being picked and being delivered is 36. The farthest the food travels is a morning’s ride. In early August, Farm to Restaurant delivered 2,500 pounds of produce; by the end of the month, as more vegetables and fruit become available, they expected that number to double. “We now have 30 restaurants as members so far; 15 or so of them are very consistent, ordering every week,” adds Nina. “Their hearts are in the game—they need no convincing!”
Those 15, which include La Boca, Backroad Pizza, La Choza, Jambo, The Shed, Il Piatto and Walter Burke Catering, are Farm to Restaurant’s backbone. These chefs are passionate about the program. They all mention wanting the freshest products possible, wanting to support local farmers and helping people understand why it’s important to know where your food comes from. Kim Müller, chef for Real Food Nation, who orders weekly deliveries and grows much of their own produce behind the restaurant, adds, “F2R encourages more young farmers to start their own farms,” vital because the average age of farmers in the U.S. is approaching 60. “And it helps to preserve heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables in danger of disappearing.”
Joe’s Diner is another regular—and diehard—customer. In fact, every Saturday afternoon, after Market, owners Sheila and Roland Richter invite the public to “meet your farmers at Joe’s.” At these events, folks can sit down, ask questions, become acquainted with who grows their food and “put a face to a vegetable.”
Guido Lambelet, chef for the catering company Bon Appetit, which plans and prepares the food for IAIA and the Santa Fe Opera functions, also orders weekly deliveries. “What’s not to love about it?” he asks. He mentions the incredible quality of the meats and produce, the straightforward ordering process. “And everybody at the Santa Fe Alliance is so very dedicated that it makes for a great relationship based on trust and appreciation of each other’s goals.”
Chef Megan Tucker of Amavi, another believer, calls Farm to Restaurant a tremendous timesaver for the crazy-busy summer months. “With F2R Delivers, I send one email a week, and I am able to supply 75 percent of Amavi’s and close to half of Junction’s produce needs for the week.” Patrick Gharrity, La Casa Sena chef, shops at the Market himself, gets deliveries from two independent farmers and also orders weekly from Farm to Restaurant Delivers. To really utilize this program, he says, it takes “a creative, flexible mind, an excited staff and menu liberty.” And, addressing the importance of more chefs getting on board so that more farmers can also join, he says, “Add this to your repertoire! You’re a celebrity! People look up to you.”
The Santa Fe Alliance just won the Santa Fe Community Foundation’s Piñon Award for Visionary Non-Profit. This will be a tremendous help for all of Farm to Restaurant’s programs, including the popular weekly Cook With The Chef. And, of course, the organization gives a huge boost to area farmers.
Phillip Loomis, who has been participating since the program’s beginning, says, “I can definitely grow more because of F2R, especially because we’re selling wholesale. I hope first that it can be successful and support itself outside of the grants, and then that it can help farmers extend production with walk-in refrigerators and greenhouses.”
Says longtime organic champion Katharine Kagel, chef of Pasqual’s and another enthusiastic supporter, “Farmers for me are real living heroes who coax nourishment out of the soil. They don’t just grow food, they inform our choices.”
Story by Gail Snyder