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Thursday, July 7,2011

Farm-to-table goes large-scale

By Sarah Simmons
photo by Jefferson Dodge

 

Pearl Street’s restaurant scene is well-known for its farm-to-table mentality, which centers on produce brought to restaurants from nearby farms to ensure freshness, while supporting the local farming community.

Many independently owned restaurants around the Boulder area — including Black Cat, SALT and The Kitchen — share this philosophy and pride themselves on not being involved with large distributing companies.

But maintaining this mentality requires a lot of work, including building strong relationships with farmers, having access to delivery methods and planning around the seasonality of the produce. The type of networking needed with small farms for long-term business relationships, along with the ability to work a small menu around the seasonality of produce, requires a lot of work, but as these restaurants are proving, it can be done ­— and done well.

So could a larger chain restaurant with a fixed menu shift to a farm-to-table method? Chipotle is trying.

Chipotle began its campaign to provide produce to its 1,100 restaurants from local farms in their areas in 2009 and has set the bar high this year, aiming for 10 million pounds of their produce to be local.

“Originally it started as a very small program and has grown over the years,” says Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s communications director. “Now around the country it would be probably 90 to 95 percent of all of our restaurants involved in the program, including all of them in Colorado.”

Black Cat’s Chef de Cuisine Jimmy Giesler says Chipotle’s program seems like a hefty challenge. From his experience, Giesler says, striving to support local businesses goes both ways between restaurants and farmers: Farmers tend to share the attitude of avoiding large distribution companies and not supplying to large chain restaurants.

“The one thing I know is when it comes to working with farmers, my experience is you work directly with the farmers,” Giesler says. “Farmers tend to shy away from big companies like that. It’s just my experience. I don’t know if they’ll continue to find farmers who would work on such a large scale.”

Chipotle’s Colorado locations are being supplied produce from two of the state’s mid-sized farms: Petrocco Farms, Inc. and Grant Family Farms, where produce is picked and shipped to a distribution warehouse in Denver and then delivered to the restaurant locations around the state, Arnold says.

The Petrocco farm, a family-owned and operated 2,000-acre farm that consists of separate fields spanning more than 40 miles in Brighton, provides romaine lettuce, jalapeño peppers and red onions for Chipotle locations in the Denver metro area.

Kate Petrocco, Petrocco’s food safety and sales manager, says those working at the farm, which has been involved with the program since its launch, were eager to be included in the partnership with Chipotle because they felt Chipotle wanted to create and sustain a partnership that focused on keeping fresh produce within the state.

“A lot of people are into the local piece just because it’s kind of a marketing avenue nowadays,” she says. “For major national companies like Chipotle, one thing that’s tricky is the logistics of the whole thing because really it requires a lot of work for them to adjust where they ship from and pack from. Frankly, for a lot of companies its easier to just buy lettuce out of California 12 months out of the year.”

Petrocco says while the Petrocco farm may be larger than the typical local farms providing produce to restaurants, their farm fits the philosophical ideal of local for the Chipotle restaurants, while being able to provide the large volume of produce needed.

“Chipotle did the work to identify what kind of family farms would have the resources and the amount of acreage and that sort of thing in place, so they knew that we would be able to supply them continuously,” she says.

But the size of the farms supplying produce to Chipotle is relative to both the state’s size and the number of restaurant locations therein, Arnold says. While the Colorado farms may be large, Chipotle has farms located in areas like Long Island, N.Y., that are only around 20 acres.

Arnold says while Chipotle has been working hard to embody the farm-to-table philosophy and the program has been successful since it began, it is not without its difficulties — seasonality being the biggest.

“In an independent, chef-owned restaurant where you have the ability to vary the menu, you have more opportunities to use locally grown produce and other local ingredients,” Arnold says. “But in a restaurant like ours, where customers have this expectation of great consistency year-round, it’s a little bit more difficult.”

The produce season for Colorado averages between the months of June and October, and Arnold says Chipotle works to acquire as much produce as it can during the season and look to farms in Texas and California for produce during the off-season.

Arnold says that while the varying seasons present a challenge for Chipotle’s farm choices throughout the year, the company is working to maintain food specifications and consistency as much as possible.

“We continue to push ourselves to do as much with local farms as we can without compromising quality or changing the ingredients that our customers expect from us,” he says.

Gielser says the idea of bigger chain restaurants having access to the same fresh produce as restaurants with a farm-to-table philosophy sounds beneficial — if local farmers are willing to work on a larger scale.

“I imagine they’ll find some people to work with. Farmers need food on their tables, too,” Giesler says. “I think it just depends on the farm and the philosophy and the stance of whomever they work with.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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