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"There are things that are like Match.com for farmers, to connect them with restaurants," says Andrew Lutsey, founder of Local Foods Grocer & Distributor, a start-up distributor for, well, locally grown foods. "But distribution was missing. Farmers were reluctant to hand over what they raised because they were afraid distributors wouldn't represent them properly or care for the product properly. So we set out to build trust with farmers. Everything we distribute is 100 percent source identified. We say to farmers, we are a platform for you to sell product."
A year ago Mike Sula talked with Lutsey, an investment banker who returned to work on his family's farm in Wisconsin, and Dave Rand, who had previously worked for the Green City Market and Q7 Ranch, about the launch of Local Foods. A lot has happened since then, for instance, they were forced to move with just two weeks' notice when the building that housed their headquarters was sold. Now they've begun construction on a permanent home on the Elston industrial corridor (or to put it in more everyday terms, over by the Hideout).
Lutsey was out that day, but I met with Rand, CFO Ryan Kimura, and general counsel Gary Lazarski (who holds a unique spot in local-food annals, as the guy who recommended Hot Doug's on Check, Please) at their offices in a space where industrial cylinders used to be manufactured. You get a sense of the onetime brute industrial strength of the district from the salvaged iron structures, three stories tall, that frame the building's entry—and were once just part of a mechanism for moving the cylinders (whatever they were for; no one seems to know).
Their new space will be in a building straight to the south, and owned by the same developer, the former Plitt Seafood processing plant and warehouse. In theory the building was in more or less the same business they're in, but Rand says, "Plitt had good bones, but we have entirely stripped the building down to the sticks. Not only was it just not the design functionality for us—they processed fish, with filleting lines and so on—but it was pretty decrepit. They went out of business really fast and kind of left things a mess."
What's left of the gutted space (besides a lot of concrete rubble) is a vast bow truss building without internal columns, allowing maximum flexibility. Rand explains the advantages of the location: "Elston is a great north-to-south thoroughfare. We're thirty seconds off the Armitage exit on the freeway. And a central location, smack dab between Lincoln Park and Bucktown for this wholesale-retail location that we're building, with quick service out to our restaurants and a captive audience for our retail."
Because the area is zoned for manufacturing—which is why it's not already a Bed Bath & Beyond, I guess—the retail is fairly restricted in size and general flashiness, though, given the overall size of the building, it will still be a healthy 3,000 to 4,000 square feet. "This is more of a wholesale showroom for us," Rand says. "It's a cash and carry, open to the public operation, so that we can really have it be a playground for chefs and restaurateurs to come in and taste and touch all the hyperseasonal stuff that we've got throughout the year. We want to be a very transparent operation. So we walk you back to the warehouse, and you walk out with a small case which you can use and try in your test kitchen, and then say, 'I'll take six cases of that,' and we deliver it to your restaurant."
But they do want the public to be part of it as well. "We've always known that there's more than just restaurants," says Rand. "We want to engage the general public on a lot of different levels, we want to be a company that educates, we want to be a company that makes local food fun and easy." Kimura adds, "There's a demand for it in the marketplace. If you want local, really high-quality products that are farm direct and you know where that product is coming from, there are limited places in Chicago in which to get that. And so if we're already pulling together a group of farmers and really top quality guys in the midwest to bring that product to restaurants already, it makes sense to do that for the consumer as well."
Much of the building will be devoted to storage space. Some of it will be cooler space for very temporary storage of product recently dropped off by farmers. "One thing that's going to be different about Local Foods versus, say, a Testa [Produce] is that we're going to rely on very high turnover. Everything's harvested to order, at really peak freshness," Rand says.
But some of it will be freezer space for longer storage. "The freezer allows us to do more interesting things, and not really rely on the farmer to freeze it," says Kimura. "It allows us to store something and hang onto it and provide a longer season, a longer shelf life."
"When you're entirely a midwest local business, you need to get creative," Rand says. "For example, last year at the end of the summer, we froze 4,000 pounds of heirloom tomatoes that we're still selling. We did pumpkin puree, we froze sugar snap peas. All that stuff was a trial, and we'll probably tweak some things. But it's an insurance policy, for us, to make sure that we have new and unique things to sell in the winter and spring, so it's not all beets and potatoes and onions. But it's also a way to ensure that we don't have as much spoilage and our farmers aren't composting stuff. I mean, bumper crops of tomatoes happen like that. So you need to have outlets to process them and preserve them."
The other side of it is meat. They'll have a USDA-certified wholesale meat-cutting operation, with the ability to cut to order for restaurants and to make sausages, salamis, and country ham. Which brings me to an unavoidable question: Do they really have enough farmers to produce the stuff to fill this space with activity?
"We're constantly recruiting farmers," Rand says. "And they're coming to us. We're a service provider for both ends of this market. We help them with marketing and distribution—we call it the last mile. They've done all the work of growing it, and often the hardest part is the last part, finding a home and getting it there. Getting the right price for it."
"What helps is that we've been developing the company for the past year out of a temporary space," Lazarski says. "We've been able to build up a good roster of restaurants and farmers and customers. So that by the time we hit the ground running with a dedicated space, we'll be an operation with a reputation."
"We couldn't have just opened this and hoped that they would come," Rand says. "We've really been working our tails off in anticipation of opening this."