For the past few years Tampa Bay diners might have found Ocala microgreens or Bradenton tomatoes on local menus, but the majority of ingredients still pulled up on the back of a Sysco truck, many foods traveling thousands of miles to get here.
That's changing, as the farm-to-table fervor that has taken hold in other parts of the country is reaching a critical mass for Tampa Bay restaurants, with major players like John Matthews' Suncoast Food Alliance taking the lead.
On a recent day, thousands of Florida sweet onions are spread across a flatbed trailer in the gloom of a pitch-roofed barn. Matthews and Don Affolter grab a 25-pound mesh sack, squeeze each onion looking for the firm ones, and stuff the sack to capacity in minutes. Before heading back to the van, Matthews writes a $15 check and slips it into the honor-system slotted box at Cincotta Ranch.
The men hurry past six squinting cats and pull back down the gravel road in a puff of dust. Cincotta Ranch is the third stop of seven for the day, and then they have to deliver the assembled goods to Tampa Bay restaurants.
Through the collaboration of Matthews, local farmers and forward-thinking chefs, the day has arrived where "eating local" is not only feasible, but bounteous. The area's most ambitious restaurants are leading the way — James Beard nominees the Refinery and SideBern's both have commitments to buying local — but neighborhood restaurants and even hotels are following suit.
SideBern's chef Chad Johnson acknowledges that buying local costs more, but "as I tell my cooks, there are subtle differences between really good and great — chefs can only be as good as their ingredients. Local is significantly fresher than something shipped in."
Higher costs may be passed along to diners, but as Ferrell Alvarez, chef at Cafe Dufrain cites, "If you spend $100 in an independent local business, $45 stays in the local economy; spend that at a big-box store and $14 stays in the local economy."
Tripling supply chain
With a background in industrial agriculture, Matthews started Suncoast in 2008 with $3,000 and an SUV, acting as a middleman between local farms and restaurants.
"Facilitator is the term I like to use. I go to the farms themselves and talk to them about their products, ask them what they can give me. It's a 75/25 split financially. I help the farms set their price. The demand has been there from restaurants but there was no supply," he said.
When he started, he worked with five farms and seven restaurants; now it's 18 farms and 32 restaurants from Sarasota to Tampa.
Shelby King, co-owner with her husband, Ben, of King Family Farm in Bradenton, said she thinks the real impetus for change has come from consumers.
"There's been a shift in the past three years. It used to be a squash was a squash. But now if it's local you can attach a name to it. I don't think it's a food safety thing, it's that people want to support local," she said.
Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez of Tampa's Cafe Dufrain are also customers of Suncoast, but chef Alvarez has blazed his own path to local farms in the past couple years.
"Every night after I went home I'd be beating up the Internet, Googling for farms in Tampa. And then I'd call people up," he said.
He found Marion Lambert on Bayshore in Tampa, who sells fresh eggs out of an honor-system refrigerator on his property. And he hooked up with Dave and Cathy Hume, who started Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm on Linebaugh Avenue in 2008.
"I'll call him and we'll talk about what I can grow, what I can probably do in quantities that allow for his needs, and he'll work that into his menu," explains Cathy Hume. "Of the chefs, he's the one who stands out as most interested in doing whatever it takes."
Last spring Urban Oasis planted black-eyed peas but retail customers balked. Alvarez found a way to use them without shelling them and he bought the farm's whole crop. Collard greens, white eggplants — Alvarez builds his menus around seasonal, local items. But nothing about it is easy. In the fall, Urban Oasis had a complete crop failure because of heavy rain in August. And Alvarez has an uphill battle with consumer expectations. An extension of "the customer is always right," diners want what they want when they want it.
"It boils down to educating people about where products come from," said Alvarez. "You're never going to have local halibut or sea scallops. And for now, there is no Florida farmer who can wholesale beef to a restaurant and keep up with the volume."
From ponds to roofs
Matthews and Affolter clock 182 miles for the day, visiting King Family Farm and Hunsader Farms in Bradenton; Affolter's own hydroponic romaine farm, Cincotta Ranch (where the rancher builds circus trapezes in his spare time) and Watercress Farms, all in Myakka City; and Mote Aquaculture Park and Hi Hat Ranch in Sarasota before delivering to six Tampa Bay restaurants. At Mote, a quick knock on the back loading door and fresh sturgeon is fitted into a cooler (the facility sells 1,800 pounds of farmed sturgeon each week along with sturgeon roe). At Watercress Farms, which supplies 60 percent of the United Kingdom's watercress, 500 tons of watercress is grown in 140 beds. Suncoast Food Alliance represents a miniscule fraction of the farm's sales, but general manager Guy Averill thinks it's important.
"Florida is America's winter garden but a lot of it is set up as commodity crops grown primarily for portability. What we're doing with John Matthews is a drop in the bucket, but it's important for people to know where their food comes from," he said.
Heading north to Tampa, Suncoast delivers to a number of high-profile restaurants known for their commitment to buying and serving local ingredients: SideBern's, the Refinery, the new Boca Kitchen Bar Market. But perhaps more surprisingly, Matthews makes deliveries at some of the area's biggest hotels. Grand Hyatt executive chef Byron Gabel has been bitten by the "local" bug, as has Tampa Marriott Waterside executive sous chef Rich Willerer.
Willerer and his team, notably Aaron Berger, described as a "culinary MacGyver," have taken it one step further: They have carved out space for a rooftop garden and an indoor hydroponic garden, the grow lights and other equipment purchased at police auctions of seized marijuana-growing gear.
"It's so much fun coming to work and being able to choose from eight different kinds of tomatoes," Willerer said. The hotel composts and recycles, sources through Suncoast and other local farms and grows its own lettuce, herbs and tomatoes. Director of marketing Mike Falconer said group sales have increased because meeting planners are "charmed" by the on-site garden and farm-to-table approach.
At the end of the day, Eddie Shumard, the Refinery's "green czar," said the message to restaurants is that sourcing locally can be a good, and profitable, business model. The trick has been connecting the dots between farm and restaurant. Through networking and organizations like Suncoast Food Alliance, Shumard said, chefs are saying, "Now that we've upped our gastronomical knowledge in the Tampa area, there's this national food movement happening and we can do it here."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.