On Local Sourcing

Hi there! On Monday, June 19th our flagship location on the Burlington waterfront turns 10 years old. As we reflect on 10 years of this restaurant, and 14 years in business, we thought we’d share the tale of how we learned to love and source local. We figure we ought to air some dirty laundry in hopes to inspire others that they can do it too.

As of our last audit in October, we source over 70% of our raw and value-added products are locally sourced, but it was not always that way. In fact, when we first opened as a cart on Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace in 2003, exactly 0.0% of our food was sourced locally. Yup, you read that right. We were single source shoppers, and Costco had everything we needed: flour, butter, sugar, salt, vanilla extract, eggs, milk, strawberries, Nutella, ham, shredded cheddar cheese….and the prices were great. We didn’t do much business that first summer. In fact, companywide today, we will do more business in a good hour now than we did that entire year. Even though we sourced from just one location, and even with only a modest amount of business, it was hard. When you’re a one-man show, you do all the showing yourself. You wear all the hats. Sales, service, prep, cooking, accounting, repairs, and maintenance. And if something breaks, there’s no money to throw at the problem…it’s Yankee ingenuity (re: duct tape) followed by time and as a last gasp, money…

 

That first summer was so tough, in fact, that we rented the business to a friend for the summer of 2004. The cost: buy us a new trailer to replace the one I flipped over while driving our handmade cart to its storage for the winter. Well, thank goodness for that friend, Michael Rimoin, because he saw the light. He had fun out there and managed to nearly double our sales in year two. He had so much fun that he convinced me I had to come back…and thus began the process of long term crepe dreams.

 

In 2005, the local food movement was starting to heat up, especially in Vermont. We still sourced just about everything from Costco but had enough awareness to go to The Intervale and enjoy Pick Your Own berries from Adam’s Berry Farm one afternoon. We brought a few pints back to our cart and sold them as a novelty. That said, we had FUN! We had some very basic systems and enough sales to modestly pay ourselves that year. The Skinny Pancake’s reputation was growing!

 

2006 was a big year for local food and for the Skinny Pancake. Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Delima” came out that April and spread like wildfire. That summer, the Skinny Pancake operated out of its first commercial kitchen: Nectar’s was kind enough to share their space with us. With commercial grade mixers, refrigeration, dish machines and more, we were much more efficient. Our fledgeling systems were growing stronger, and actually, legitimate, as was our following of crepe eaters. That year, we became the first ever cart to join the Vermont Fresh Network. We hung their plaque proudly and chased down what local food we could manage. We still shopped at Costco, but we bought King Arthur Flour and local dairy. We made a more regular habit of PYO berries. The experience of being able to source from down the road was incredible.

 

In 2007, we opened our first brick-and-mortar location at 60 Lake Street on the Burlington waterfront. Our building was LEED-certified. It housed Seventh Generation and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. We looked up to our heroes at Ben & Jerry’s and American Flatbread and said, “If they can do it, so can we.” Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy came out that spring, following on the heels of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. We felt inspired and stepped it up. Our local food sourcing increased dramatically to include bacon, apples, whipped cream, honey, tofu, coffee, beer and more. Conspicuously missing, though: most proteins…

 

Business has a hierarchy of needs. Survival comes first. After making a trip around the sun, we gained confidence…we were saving a smidge of money. In 2008, we took a big, expensive step forward by adding local chicken to the menu. The difference in price between commodity chicken and local chicken is staggering. At five times the price, we watched our food margin fray by nearly 2% from our choice in chicken alone. But we managed it…

 

Every year since then we have continued to improve our local sourcing one item at a time. When we did our first local food audit in 2009, we were just barely over 50% local. Since then, our local sourcing has increased to upwards of 70%…that’s a 50% increase! In an effort to afford to source more locally, we focused on reducing the costs of our commodity foods. We worked with our teams on controlling their waste. We used every tool in the box, and some laying around outside the box.

As our local sourcing grew, as did our scale, and we discovered new challenges. It was no longer sufficient to just call up our farmers and buy without planning. We began to develop growing contracts that forecasted our demand for the entire season. Contracts allow our farmers to plant reliably without having to spend money on marketing or absorb waste. As a result, we have been able to get better pricing. But buyer beware: when we overcommitted on our basil for our pesto, for example, it led to $1000 in waste as we could not process it fast enough. We can still remember the daunting image of a literal ton of raw basil filling our commissary kitchen. Lessons were learned one at a time. For the pesto, we learned that we needed to move beyond a table top commercial food processor. We needed a large object called a ‘Verticle Chopper Mixer’ to get through it all. That VCM is now vital to our ability to freeze local pesto in season and thaw as needed year round.

 

Today we estimate that we source about $2,000,000 in local raw and value-added products annually. In order to manage the complex forecasting, contract, and communication process, we hired a full-time Local Food Coordinator, a recent UVM Food Systems Major graduate. We have picked the “low hanging fruit” in the local foodshed…and most of the middle hanging fruit too. There are still some elusive local foods that we just can not afford or can not get at scale. But we’re always working on it.

Hopefully the moral of this story is clear…but just in case, we’ll spell it out for you: ‘going local’ is a journey, not a destination. And it takes one foot in front of the other to get anywhere with it. If you’re an aspiring food entrepreneur intimidated by local sourcing, just take it one step at a time. You’ll get there.