The rapport between restaurants and farmers is stronger than ever in today’s farm-to-table dining culture. Partnering is a win-win: restaurants want the best, highest-quality product, and farmers want to grow incredible ingredients, responsibly, for their local communities. But what really makes these relationships thrive?
Husband-and-wife team Kalayada Ammatya and James Beutel (the eponymous “K” and “J”) started K&J Orchards in the 1980s and quickly became one of the largest producers of Asian pears in California. Eventually they moved out of wholesale into farmers’ markets. Today, their daughter Aomboon “Boonie” Ammatya heads up the family business, now a year-round farm growing cherries, apricots, apples, and citrus, in addition to pears, and works closely with CUESA’s Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market.
Since a significant portion of K&J’s business comes from restaurants, we asked Boonie all about how she works with chefs and how to get the most out of a partnership. Here are a few of her top insights.
Farmers’ markets are opportunities to build relationships.
“Farmers’ markets have become our bread and butter,” says Boonie. She comes to the Ferry Plaza market twice a week, and particularly on Saturday, when most of the chefs shop, she uses that time to interact with the 50 to 60 chefs who buy fruit from K&J. Aside from visiting restaurants directly, the Ferry Plaza is K&J’s biggest outlet for selling to chefs.
Every week K&J Orchards sends out an email notification detailing what’s in season and allowing restaurants to pre-order from that list. Even if they don’t pre-order, they can use the list as an FYI of what they’ll find at the market. Either way, reading ahead helps set expectation for both parties.
Farmers will deliver directly to your restaurant.
In addition to selling at the market, Boonie and her husband deliver directly to restaurants — approximately 120 of them. That’s two people, one truck, and a limited supply of top-of-the-line fruit. “It’s a beast in itself.” Again, sometimes restaurants will send through a pre-order list, but others will shop from the truck full of seasonal produce that Boonie drives up in.
If you leave the restaurant, you can keep the farmer.
It’s no secret that turnover is high in the restaurant industry, and that’s why it’s all the more important for farmers to get to know chefs at the market. “It benefits us because a chef will remember us,” says Boonie, and inquire about buying her fruit.
K&J’s longest-standing relationship is with the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. They approached the group at the beginning of cherry season, met with the chef, presented their fruit, and ultimately built a thriving relationship with The French Laundry.
“They’re our longest customer we’ve had, and those chefs moved around a lot,” says Boonie. “We met Corey Lee when he was working there, and now he has Benu. It’s a very great working relationship of all the restaurants — the chefs have moved around and taken us with them.”
You can’t always get what you want…
One of K&J’s best customers is Perbacco, an Italian restaurant in San Francisco’s Financial District. “We’ve gotten to know the chefs personally and professionally, and they’re amazing people,” says Boonie. Sometimes, the chefs will ask her to grow certain ingredients they can’t find, things that are non-native to California like pineapple or bananas. Her response? “I can grow it, but it’s not going to be the same. It’s just not warm enough.”
Other chefs simply aren’t in tune with the seasons and don’t understand why they can’t buy a good peach in February. “I’ve had chefs ask me,” Boonie says. Understanding what can grow around you and when will go a long way in working with local farms.
…And good things come to those who wait.
Sometimes, K&J Orchards can grow ingredients that are special requests. The team grew French butter pears (not quite the same as in France, but similar in taste) and had their first quince production this year. Those can be found in California, but not in great abundance, she says. “We have to be careful: if we bring something into California, we have to make sure it’s okay — that there are no diseases so it doesn’t kill some other kind of plant. We do a lot of research.”
Plus, it can take years for the first production to fruit when growing a new ingredient. “We’re one of the few California farms that grows chestnuts, which take 10 years. That’s an extreme example, but peaches can take five to 10 years. We do all of the grafting and budding ourselves, which can take time.”
The best education happens face to face.
Occasionally Boonie will give presentations to a restaurants front- and back-of-house teams to educate them in how an apple is grown, for example. She helps them understand how a drought really affects a farmer, and what happens when trees are stressed and why quantities of an ingredient may be low. “There’s not an abundance of produce to cater to all of the needs of all the restaurants we work with,” she says. “Our job is to educate chefs, who educate staff, who educate consumers.”
Additionally, the restaurants Boonie works with have an open invitation to K&J Orchards so they can come meet the farmers and see how the fruit is grown. “They see what it entails to get the fruit to the dining room table, and they can appreciate it more.”
Farmers can taste respect and appreciation in your food.
A huge perk of Boonie’s job is that she partners with some of the best restaurants in town. “If they see us when we come in, then when we leave the restaurant we can barely move,” she laughs. “They treat us so well and I’m so appreciative — they know how to make our food taste even better.”
Not only do chefs have more appreciation for the farmers they work with when they get to know them, they also have more respect for the food. “They understand how much work goes into making this one apple or peach, and they’ll cut that peach in a different manner than somebody else.” With a personal relationship comes the extra care.
Promotion should be hand-in-hand for farms and restaurants.
“I get giddy when I see our name on the menu somewhere,” says Boonie. “That’s appreciation that we eat up.”
When restaurants promote K&J on their menus, Boonie promotes them, too. She is quick to re-gram chefs that post photos of desserts made with her fruit on Instagram, so that people in her audience will go to the restaurant and order the same dish. She also tags chefs and restaurants in her own posts whenever she can. “I’m taking advantage of the free marketing I get out of the social media realm — the reach is limitless.”