Monday, October 22, 2012

Good Ideas: Maryland Farm to Table

About a month ago, while I was writing my review of Bandito's in Federal Hill, I had a nice chat with Chef Cyrus Keefer (he's at Birroteca now, but was instrumental in developing Bandito's short but very good menu).

Keefer mentioned that Banditos was sourcing their ingredients from Maryland Farm to Table, a relatively new food hub that connects local farmers with restaurateurs via website. The site is the brainchild of Jeff Smith, the guy who used to be the chef-owner of The Chameleon Cafe on Harford Road.

Under Smith's management, Chameleon Cafe developed a reputation for fantastic food and a strong commitment to local and seasonal products. So when he was ready to move on to something else - something that would allow him to spend a little more time at home with his daughters (they're eight and four) - it made sense for him to use his expertise to boost the local food scene in Baltimore.

The concept of the food hub isn't brand new, but Maryland Farm to Table is one of the first (if not the very first) to gain traction in Baltimore. Over the phone, Smith told me he came up with the idea - a website connecting chefs and farmers - on his own, but once he started doing online research, "it already existed all over the country. So it was in my head, but once I realized it was already happening, I knew it must work."

He started his version on a shoestring, putting a couple of walk-in refrigerators in his house in Lauraville, and working with an old friend who's a web designer to create the website. He's trying to be careful about managing growth, too - after ten years in the restaurant industry, Smith understands that growing too rapidly isn't always good for business. "I've been kind of holding back, so I can work through things. I'm learning through doing it," he told me. "I didn't want to screw things up and get behind."

Right now, he says about 45 chefs use the site and eight of them use it on a regular basis. He's in the black and he's growing at a reasonable pace.

On a regular day, Maryland Farm to Table has sixty or seventy items available to order and nearly everything is produced within fifty miles of Baltimore. Chefs place orders by Monday at midnight for Wednesday delivery and Smith acts as the go-between - the farmers deliver the goods to him on Tuesday and he distributes them to the restaurants on Wednesday.

Putting himself in the middle was a smart decision. As a former chef, Smith understands the challenges of working directly with farmers. The one-day buffer gives him (and the chefs) room to shuffle menus or find new suppliers if the farmer doesn't come through with a complete order. And after years of dealing directly with farmers, Smith has no problem offering feedback (down to "this arugula is too big").

It's "not as exciting as being a chef," he admits. But the regular hours are golden - Smith gets to spend more time with his kids this way.

Plus, chefs like Keefer agree that it's important work and a great thing for Baltimore's food community.

Hopefully soon the website will be good for other communities, too.

"I'm letting it evolve into it's own thing," Smith explained. "I'm hoping it's a model that can be copied all over the country. That farmers with little money can get the whole thing started. They can be the hub manager and delivery people."

And all over the country, people will be eating better, easier.

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