This Sunday marks the Good Food Mercantile in Chicago, dubbed the “first un-trade show” for responsibly-sourced and -created food in the Midwest. The one-day gathering is a partnership between the Seedlings Project and the Good Food Retailers Collaborative and brings together like-minded food crafters and retailers to discover new products, talk trade, and forge valuable industry partnerships.
Ahead of the event, we talked to two participating artisans: Matt Stoner of Quince and Apple, makers of small-batch preserves in Madison, Wisconsin; and Andy Hatch, cheesemaker at Uplands Cheese in the southwestern region of the state. Here, they share three ways working with small producers can benefit and enrich a restaurant business.
Today’s restaurant guests are savvy, craving (and often expecting) products made from scratch. And consistency is a primary challenge for any kitchen. While some restaurants may have entire teams dedicated to making artisanal products in house – preserves, cheeses, vinegars, pickles – that’s not realistic for every business.
“Not every restaurant has somebody who can dedicate their whole job to making perfect, consistent preserves,” says Matt. “I can do that.”
Selling to restaurants is a significant part of both Matt’s and Andy’s business strategies. Matt estimates restaurants are about 30 to 35% of his overall sales, while Andy guesses it’s 15 to 20%. Thus, working with restaurants is a big priority. Matt takes extra steps to provide convenience for the chefs he works with, such as packaging products in food-service sizes meant for serving at scale.
There’s also the question of quality. In 2001 Uplands Cheese was named the best cheese in the country, thanks to the old-world techniques Andy swears by. Because the product became well known in his community and beyond, restaurants saw that value in featuring his product on their menus. The cheese symbolizes something to guests; they come to recognize and trust it. That cycle, Andy says, is self-reinforcing.
But the tunnel vision of focusing on a single product can work both ways, says Andy. Since he makes just two cheeses, he likes spending time with chefs who can open him up to new ideas and ways of thinking. “We all deal with similar issues that are slightly different. Chefs handle so many different products – they are broad, curious people.”
At their core, products like those at the Good Food Mercantile are about relationships. Matt adds, “That’s what makes me so passionate about food: It’s impossible for any one person to do any one step by themselves. You need a network of people. There’s a move towards recognizing that food is a web and the decisions we make about food impact so many people, not just the people eating it.”
Both Matt and Andy make special efforts to visit the restaurants and farms they partner with, encouraging curiosity and conversation. A tip for chefs and restaurateurs when it comes to working with artisans: Nothing beats an in-person visit for building or nurturing a relationship. If that’s not possible, an occasional phone call goes a long way, too.
Or, says Andy, invite them to the restaurant. “If the chef can’t go anywhere, invite them to come and see you — most of us are thrilled and flattered and love to go eat interesting food. It’s a great sign of respect.”
Many artisans have broader culinary backgrounds as well and can bring valuable ideas and expertise to a restaurant kitchen. Matt attended culinary school and worked in high-end restaurants in Madison before starting Quince and Apple.
“Because of my background in kitchens, it’s important to me to continue to offer new things to chefs,” he says. “I work with chefs to come up with new recipes and new ways to use my products — that’s one of my favorite parts of my job.”
That creativity works both ways. Matt says he also ends up learning new things about his own products through collaborating with chefs. Take, for example, his drink syrups. He’s always thought of them as ingredients for the bar, but he was surprised when chefs started using them in the kitchen, adding his citrus syrup to a ceviche or lime-cucumber syrup to a vinaigrette for a watermelon salad.
Since Uplands Cheese is mostly served as a table cheese and not incorporated into dishes, it’s less common for Andy to see new applications. But he says he was blown away by a dish created at Betony in New York, where the cheese was used in a fondue melted inside a loaf of bread with the same hay-infused milk produced on Andy’s farm.
“Chefs are willing to take a risk on newer products or something that’s more innovative, before some retail stores are,” says Matt. That interest helps lay the foundation for new product development and, ultimately, new relationships and dishes.
Photo Credit: Photos courtesy of Quince and Apple and Uplands Cheese.