The French have an old word for the importance of a connection to the local environment in choosing and enjoying food and drink—terroir. Quite often used in wine circles, it’s also an instrumental term for that culture’s approach to the valuation of food. In a nutshell, terroir is the concept that the soil, water, sun and air of a given growing region act to shape the essential nature and flavor of a food, that a chardonnay grape in New Zealand cannot be the same chardonnay grape as one grown in Napa Valley. More, though, it’s the idea that a person’s identity is interwoven with these things, that you literally cannot be as fully attuned to or nourished by the flavor and value of a food grown 1000 miles away as you can be with food grown where you and your tomato get the same kind of tan and drink from the same watershed.
At Willy Street Co-op’s Deli and Kitchen, this way of valuing food is a tradition and one we strive to amplify with every succeeding year. There are unique challenges in doing this when production batches are large and prices must stay feasible for an everyday shopping experience. A point of reference from my restaurant life: Buying great local products when you need to run 25 orders of a dinner special and charge $20-$30 plate is one sort of transaction. Buying it when you need to make 300 lbs. of food over the course of two weeks and keep the price below $10 per lb. is another. The Willy Street Co-op Kitchen looks for large amounts and at a great price we can pass on, and this isn’t always easy to find—in any corner of the food world, but especially from our smaller local growers who don’t depress their pricing through farm subsidies, need a living wage, and prefer to grow a variety of crops rather than go for a bumper harvest on only one.
This year, we’ve made our biggest strides yet, both in the inclusion of locally grown produce in our Deli foods and in our ability to communicate the farms involved to you. This has been the result of the hard work and commitment of our Kitchen buyer and rounder, Dustin Skelley. I sat down with Dustin to hear about how these improvements were made possible and what we can look forward to in the coming year:
Dustin, you took over a buying system largely predicated on a single-vendor relationship (with Albert’s Organics, our longest-standing organic produce vendor in both Kitchen and retail sites). What were your first steps in diversifying that vendor pool?
I started by forming relationships I had already had with other farms through previous work experience. I started out working in a kitchen in Minnesota where there was no ordering per se—farmers dropped their products off and we decided the menu based on what was available. Because that farm was in Minnesota, I became very familiar with the rhythms of the season and continued that while working at the Goodman Center. Networking with other farmers from there was the next step in finding out what all our options were. I think we provide a unique outlet for farmers who have products they want to sell in large amounts and all at once—some of our growers really value that and some less so, but it provides an opportunity for them and for us.
What has worked well in taking on new vendors and what do you find difficult in managing it?
We have a lot of drop dates during the week, which allows us to keep everything very fresh and to avoid out-of-stocks. The main difficulty is coordinating that larger pool of vendors and deliveries—it’s a lot to keep track of. If there’s a problem with a harvest and I made a pre-order, it might mean we just don’t get the product since it’s directly from a grower and not a warehouse.
What could local vendors do to make it easier to buy more from them, and include even more of their products in the foods made for Willy Street Co-op Delis?
Better communication is always great, some farms are very good at it and some farmers seem too strapped for time during the growing season to really stay in touch. Growers should get their name out there as much as they can, so they become part of the local network and they are on my radar—farmers should ask to have their name connected with their products. If the business knows that’s something customers need to know, they can help promote the farm and serve the customer at the same time.
How can customers find out more about which locally grown foods are in their Willy Street Co-op Deli purchases?
Both Delis now have signs indicating which vegetables are in your food weekly, but currently we don’t have the space to show individual farms. It can be difficult to be completely specific, too, because of what I mentioned above regarding frequent deliveries—your slaw might have cabbage in it from more than one local farm!
What’s on tap for next year? Which local products do you think we’ll be able to use that we aren’t using now—or use more of?
I’d love to see us getting a local chicken source for next year—Bell and Evans is great, but we go through a lot of chicken and it would be a great local buy. I’d like to arrange with local growers to make large buys of product and freeze it for extended availability—like berries and rhubarb. It’s a big project to imagine, but if we could consider replacing our tuna with a local whitefish source, it would be a great thing to shoot for.
LOCAL VENDORS SUPPLYING Willy Street Co-op Kitchen IN 2013
Morning Star Farms
Sunny Side Produce
New Century Farm
Country Lane Organics
Happy Hidden Acres
Sassy Cow Dairy
Twin Spruce Farms
Miller Family Farm
Andersen’s Maple Syrup