Editor’s Note: This past fall, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of our Farm to Fork program, Bon Appétit gave away $50,000 in grants to our local farmers, fishermen, and artisans around the country to help them grow their business. The 10 “Fork to Farm” grant recipients were selected from 25 finalists by our guests and teams at all our locations, with more than 26,000 people casting votes! Read all about the program and the winners here, or check out the previous updates.
The food industry is big business — and small. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, Americans spent more than 1.4 trillion dollars on food in 2013. But supply chains are long, and less than 17 percent of that makes it back to the farmers and fishermen who grow, raise, and catch the calories we consume. At Bon Appétit Management Company, we’ve always recognized that the best way to help these small businesses in the communities that we serves is to be a loyal and flexible customer, but the second best way is to help fund projects and growth that would otherwise be stressful or even impossible.
Many small farmers, ranchers, and food crafters are hanging on by their bootstraps. They are creative and efficient, and they are doing what it takes to survive not for lack of another choice, but because they are driven by passion — a passion for good food, for local economies, for a different kind of life. No company is a better example of that than Locals Seafood, based out of Raleigh, NC. I first met the owners of Locals Seafood a couple of years ago, and I was excited to visit again after they received one of our Fork to Farm grants.
Ryan Speckman and Lin Peterson started Locals Seafood in 2010 with the goal of bringing fresh, high-quality seafood from North Carolina fishermen into the Triangle area in the central part of the state. They pride themselves on getting seafood into the hands of chefs and consumers within two days, on the traceability of their system, and on “the fact that we put our hands and eyes on every fish we buy,” as Ryan put it. When I and our new East Coast Fellow, Sea Sloat, toured their small processing and storage facility recently, we saw what Ryan and Lin look for as they make decisions at the dock: clear eyes, firm body, red gills, and very little odor.
The small company is expanding quickly and in addition to Bon Appétit chefs, also sells at the farmers’ market, all of the Whole Foods in the Triangle area, and a handful of small restaurants. They now have 11 employees and hope to use the grant money to invest in better refrigerated storage.
The initial plan was to put the money as a down payment on another refrigerated vehicle or a walk-in cooler that would have cost $35,000 to $50,000 to purchase. Instead, Ryan did some research on cheaper DIY solutions for a walk-in. he then used the funds to purchase the materials and built the cooler himself with help from his father. Materials cost a total of $8,000, so “the grant made a significant difference in our ability to afford the project,” Ryan said.
In addition to maximizing the $5,000 grant, the cooler Ryan designed and built is customized for their space. For example, it’s at the same level at the trucks they use, so instead of unloading and reloading trucks onto many separate coolers on ground level (with great expense to their backs) they can now roll the seafood straight from the trucks into the walk-in cooler in one smooth motion. In addition to the time and effort that saves them, it essentially doubles their capacity, which will help them manage their growth for at least the next few years.
Helping support companies such as Locals Seafood as they expand was exactly the goal of our Fork to Farm grant program; it’s great to see in action.