Food channel: how fresh produce gets to a restaurant table
Demographics / Sarah White
Bundles of organic asparagus board a truck outside Madison, Wis., in the wee hours of a Friday morning.
By dawn, they are reaching their destination: the back steps of Chicago-area restaurants, where chefs have planned delectable dishes around the delicate stalks.
What is going on here? Here is an unusual tale of distribution. The distribution channel members all share a common vision: fine meals based on quality ingredients, grown with care, and served as fresh as physically possible.
Perishable products present an obvious distribution challenge. So does bucking an existing system that cheaply and efficiently sends commodity crops from factory farms to produce distributors. When a wide variety of "good-enough" produce is available with just a phone call or a quick trip to the supermarket, what makes a cooperative of organic growers think there's a niche to fill? What causes chefs to seek out and use the growers' system?
Only one reason — because fresh, organic vegetables and fruits taste better. And taste is the bottom line in the upscale restaurant businesses. Chefs in the Chicago area are developing a regional cuisine based on locally available organic products.
"In some ways, chefs are the architects of the ways people think about food," says Rink DaVee, manager and spokesperson for Home Grown Wisconsin. "Most people learn what they cook at home from restaurants. What they find on their plates, they try at home. If they're eating fast food, they're learning to use processed food, seasoned with sugar and salt. Conventional produce is flavorless compared to good fresh organic produce." The growers of Home Grown Wisconsin are on a mission to help Chicago-area chefs introduce their customers to a more flavorful and healthy way of eating.
From farm to table
Running an organic farm is not a 9-to-5 job. Most of Home Grown Wisconsin's two dozen growers do the bulk of the labor themselves, assisted by apprentices who want to learn organic growing techniques. They work long hours during the growing season, nurturing and harvesting crops. Throughout the year, they pursue improvements to their organic growing techniques.
In 1996, a handful of farmers joined together to form Home Grown Wisconsin as a for-profit distribution cooperative, allowing the farmers as a group to accomplish what none could do alone. "We came in as competitors, but we've learned to be a community," said Lou Maki, of Blue Skies Farm, a provider of berry and edible flower crops to the cooperative. "We share secrets with each other. We've become better growers. Being in a co-op means we have backup."
The cooperative has grown each year, adding a marketing manager, trucking service, and cooler space at a collection point where individual growers drop off each week's pickings.
Each farmer practices organic growing, meeting stringent standards set by the Organic Crop Improvement Association. The food produced is nutrient-rich. Chefs are willing to pay a premium price for the quality, understanding that organic produce can't be compared to traditional commercial crops. However, price is a sensitive issue to chefs who are often business owners themselves.
Beating the salad train
The price to beat is established by the abundant commercially grown produce that arrives in the Midwest daily on the "Salad Train," as it is known in the trade. Shoppers in their grocery's produce aisles perceive the fruits and vegetables they choose as "fresh" — but the truth is, that produce was picked and packed almost a week ago. The Salad Train takes five days to make the trip from California to Chicago, disbursing its load of mostly non-organic factory farm produce along its route.
While chefs and diners agree there is added value in organic produce, pocketbooks will only bear so much added cost. The restaurant owners place stringent price demand on Home Grown Wisconsin. The cooperative must work hard to keep distribution costs down, or be squeezed out of the market.
One strategy: minimizing the cost of carrying the produce from farm to city. Home Grown Wisconsin has arranged its own alternative to the Salad Train — the co-op hires a private trucker to sweep through the Wisconsin countryside, picking up loads from farms and collection points, before heading down the highway to Chicago.
Another strategy: make sure nothing goes to waste. A cycle of prediction and production keeps chefs aware of what crops are coming ripe, so that they can plan menus around each day's best offerings.
Matching supply to demand
Both ends of the distribution channel, the farmers and the chefs, are entrenched in the pressures of daily activity. The job of Home Grown Wisconsin's manager, Rink DaVee, is to provide these people a single contact point regarding supply and demand. Twice a week, the growers report to DaVee what crops are ripe for picking. DaVee then faxes Chicago-area chefs a list of what produce is available. The chefs have 48 hours to respond with their orders. The next day the farmers receive their instructions from DaVee and pick to fill the chefs' orders. By late that night, their own version of the Salad Train is on its way.
'Place' factors: no place like home grown
Location, relationships and logistics all factor into a business's "place" strategy. Home Grown Wisconsin offers an interesting twist on each.
Location: The rolling southern Wisconsin countryside is well-suited to small farms. In addition, it is served by a network of paved roads built to carry milk from farms to processors. The combination of good land, good roads and relative proximity to Chicago, with its large population and healthy economy, makes this farm-to-table scenario feasible.
Relationships: Highly committed channel members have allowed Home Grown Wisconsin to serve the interests of growers, purchasers and end-users. Without diners interested in regional cuisine, the restaurants would not survive. Without chefs interested in fresh organic produce, Home Grown Wisconsin would not have an outlet for its crops. And without farmers willing to engage in the labor-intensive practices of organic farming, there would be no product for distribution.
Logistics: The goal of physical distribution is to minimize cost while delivering customer satisfaction. By giving the chefs a convenient means of specifying what produce they receive, and then filling those orders with consistently high quality products, Home Grown Wisconsin achieves customer satisfaction. By controlling their costs of physical distribution, they gain an important competitive edge over other products available.
From farm to table, Home Grown Wisconsin puts quality products and quality relationships at the core of its business. The result is a business that's growing — organically.