In 1999, Bon Appétit was the first foodservice company to formalize a commitment to local food systems: mandating that our culinary teams purchase 20% of their ingredients from owner-operated small local farms. For many Bon Appétit chefs, the relationships formed with these local farmers and makers have morphed into friendships that have spanned decades. To celebrate these fruitful partnerships, we’ve created a quarterly series featuring long-time Farm to Fork and Locally Crafted vendors. This quarter, we’re telling the story of Horse Listeners Orchard, a beloved partner and friend to Bon Appétit teams across New England.
In 2007, after a long corporate career, Matt Couzens was ready for a change of pace. Deciding to pursue his life-long dream of becoming a farmer, he bought an orchard in Ashford, Connecticut and named it Horse Listeners, a nod to the well-loved horses that took up residence on the property. The farm’s beginnings were quite humble. “We started as a pipsqueak farm stand,” says Matt, laughing. “We spent a lot of money just clearing trees those first couple of years.” But early investments in the farm, as well as building a network with other like-minded local farmers in the area paid off. Over time, Horse Listeners would grow into a 153-acre diversified fruit and vegetable farm, with a little help from Bon Appétit along the way.
As Matt was eking out his first few harvests at Horse Listeners, Bon Appétit was establishing itself as a new contender in New England’s on-site food service scene, disrupting the competition thanks to a commitment to from-scratch cooking and a pioneering dedication to sustainability. Starting at new accounts in Maine and Boston, Bon Appétit teams began seeking out farmers and makers to enroll in the Farm to Fork program, and soon stumbled upon Horse Listeners.
Matt’s initial contact with Bon Appétit employees sparked a recognition that he had found a partner with a shared mission. Soon he was delivering apples to the Bon Appétit at Wesleyan University team in Middletown, Connecticut and Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. “Matt is one of the farmers we work with who immediately understood our approach,” says Bon Appétit at Roger Williams Resident District Manager James Gubata. “He understood how to work with us and collaborate throughout the year.” With time Matt became a fixture at Bon Appétit gatherings in the area, with Regional Vice President Elaine Smart inviting him to come and speak to teams about how successful Farm to Fork partnerships could be built. These early close connections led to Matt applying for and winning a Bon Appétit Fork to Farm grant, which celebrated the 15th anniversary of Farm to Fork by providing $5,000 dollar grants to 10 partners around the country.
While making rounds of deliveries to Bon Appétit schools throughout the New England, it was only natural that Matt and the Bon Appétit chefs he saw multiple times a week would begin to imagine the agricultural and culinary possibilities of their partnership. Working closely with James and the Rogers Williams team, Matt created an entirely new packaged ground tomato product that allows Bon Appétit teams to use Horse Listeners tomatoes throughout the year. As one could imagine, it took a few tries to get it just right. “He had to do some tinkering, but Matt didn’t sleep until he perfected the tomato product,” says Bon Appétit at Brown University Culinary Director Ty Paup, who also worked with Matt on development of the tomato product. This culinary innovation was due in part to some financial creativity as well. “We basically purchase the futures on Matt’s tomatoes by giving him up-front capital at the beginning of the growing season,” says James. “Then he holds the inventory for us – it’s a relationship built solidly on trust.” This creativity extends to other products as well. When Resident District Manager Michael Strumpf approached Matt about buying more Horse Listeners berries, Matt worked with him to devise an individual quick freezing (IQF) solution, which allows the Wesleyan team to serve local berries through Connecticut’s chilly fall season.
Beyond Matt’s dedication to providing Bon Appétit chefs with exceptional produce, he also cares deeply about educating the campus communities about the importance of small farms, and the critical role they will need to play in a more sustainable food system. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Matt would often give presentations in classrooms and lecture halls at Wesleyan, Roger Williams, Gordon College, Emerson College, and many other schools throughout New England. Outside of the classroom, Matt played a role in helping the Bon Appétit team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology create a rooftop garden at the school’s McCormick Hall, creating a growing, cooking, and teaching space to be enjoyed by students, staff, and faculty members alike.
In addition to Matt’s status as a Farm to Fork fixture in the region, he has formed many personal relationships with Bon Appétiters. During the fall of 2020, Bon Appétit at Emmanuel College General Manager Robin Furtado met up with her sister and two nephews, who she had been unable to see for months due to COVID-19 precautions, at Horse Listeners. They spent the day outside with Matt, who introduced them to the horses, and gave them cider donuts and a private tour of the orchard, teaching them about the 28 different varieties of apple trees that extend in long rows across the property. A kind gesture not unlike the multitude of others that have been reciprocated by Matt and Bon Appétit teams for over a decade.