RENO, Nev. — While the image of a chef browsing the farmers’ market early in the morning to buy seasonal local produce for the day ahead is a nice one, the reality of keeping a restaurant stocked is far less glamorous.
But thanks to advances in regional food hubs over the last five years, it’s easier than ever for restaurants to buy at least a portion of their goods from local producers.
When Great Basin Community Food Co-op launched its Distributors of Regional and Organic Produce and Products (DROPP) program in 2012, it was a formalization of a service they’d been providing for years: connecting chefs with local farmers.
“When we started, we didn’t have a website, we would just help aggregate food for restaurants,” said Nicole Sallaberry, DROPP manager. “We’d have a chef call saying they are looking for a certain amount of produce, and we’d call around to the farmers to see who had what they needed.”
A few website iterations later, DROPP now offers an online marketplace for chefs to place orders twice a week. DROPP sends the local farmers a “pick list,” and they head out to the fields to fulfill the orders.
“We always source local first, but if we can’t meet that demand, we fill in with Earl’s Organic Produce and Veritable Vegetables, organic vegetable distributors out of the Bay Area,” said Sallaberry. “There are still a lot of gaps in our local growing season.”
DROPP now works with 30-40 restaurants every week. Their revenue from the program has increased every year, starting with $99,000 in 2013 and growing to $524,000 in 2017.
Up in Truckee, the nonprofit Tahoe Food Hub is celebrating five years of business with a move to a new warehouse — more than double in size from its current storefront — at Truckee Tahoe Airport.
What started with five farms, five restaurants and one delivery van has grown into a local food distributor serving 70 restaurants in the Tahoe Basin and beyond.
The move will allow the food hub the room it needs to expand operations, said founder Susie Sutphin.
“We have more new customers, and our existing customers are going bigger on their orders,” she told the NNBV. “The food hub exists to uphold what farm-to-table really means.”
Sierra Café at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe in Incline Village has been using Tahoe Food Hub to source a portion of their food for four years.
“I inherited the program a little over a year ago, and honestly I wasn’t super excited about it,” said chef Eric Friedman. “It is a little more costly than our general produce company, but every time I place an order. I feel better being able to make that purchase and being able to do the right thing, so to speak, rather than make the cheaper choice.”
Down the hill in Reno, Great Full Gardens sources over 50 percent of its food from local producers during the peak of growing season. In the winter months, it drops down to 25-30 percent.
But while innovative producers like Dayton Valley Aquaponics, a year-round aquaponic greenhouse, have helped to extend the growing season in the high-desert climate, there are still gaps in the food system when it comes to availability.
“I’d like to say it’s higher, but we produce in such large quantities that there isn’t even the capabilities for folks to do that in some of the things that we want,” said Gino Scala, co-founder of the four Great Full Gardens locations in Reno. “We’d give 100 percent of our tomatoes to Dayton Valley Aquaponics if they could produce it all, but they can’t, so not knowing what they can produce each week or any of the local people, it puts a little bit of a challenge on us from an ordering standpoint.”
Scala says they supplement their orders with organic produce distributors out of California.
Lattin Farms has been farming in Fallon for over 100 years and has seen firsthand the impact the farm-to-table movement has had on small producers in Northern Nevada.
“I think the demand for local is still growing as people care more about where there food is coming from. Over the last 10 years, we’ve gotten involved more directly with restaurants in the Reno area,” said Rick Lattin, owner of Lattin Farms. “Restaurants have become more aware of the availability, and the farmers have received a little bit of training in dealing with restaurants and what you have to do to be of value to them because it’s a process that requires some organization and structure.”
Workshops put on by the Great Basin Community Food Co-op (located at 240 Court St. in Reno) put growers and chefs in the same room to help open up the lines of communication.
“They are mixed success. I think some of those things are working better than others, but it’s a new thing and a step in the right direction,” said Lattin.
Crop planning is one of the opportunities that comes from working directly with the restaurants, noted Lattin. It gives farmers the assurance that what the grow is going to be purchased.
“For example, Campo two years ago said we’d really like some of these specialty peppers and no one is growing them, could you grow them for us? So I got the peppers and I grew them and now I sell peppers to them on almost a weekly basis in a variety that they use in their hors d’oeuvres. I’d never heard of the variety until they came to me,” recalled Lattin. “You get opportunities like that when you’re talking with each other.”
“It’s a good time for restaurants and farmers to work together,” added Lattin. “It gives fresh quality food, but it also has an economic development component that farmers need to get a decent payment for what they’re doing.”