Jul 23, 2012
Farming family creates a niche at home and around the world

Huron, Ohio-based The Chef’s Garden used a value-added producer grant it received several years ago to study the feasibility of adding a processing component to its family-owned operations. The company provides more than 600 varieties of heirloom and specialty vegetables, micro greens, herbs and edible flowers to chefs around the world, shipping about 95 percent of its product overnight.

Because The Chef’s Garden grows so much, and to order per chef-customers’ wishes, overproduction and what to do with the excess can be an issue. The idea was to take the overflow and, using recipes from their customer-chefs, create processed products.

“We utilized the information, we did test panels, we had folks come in to the farm and taste processed product,” said Bobby Jones, who with his brother Lee runs the operation with a team of about 120. “The end result was that it was a great idea, but we chose not to act on the idea because we felt that it would distract from our focus of growing fresh product and taking care of the chefs on a daily basis.

“The feasibility study was a success. You don’t always do what you study. Sometimes the best answer you can get is ‘No.'”

Carving out a market

What Chef’s Garden continues to say yes to, however, is a model that was established before it became trendy: catering to restaurant clientele with fresh produce – often grown to order.

“In the early 1980s, we came out of a wholesale operation, started in farmers’ markets and while at the farmers’ markets we met some chefs,” Jones said. “In the late ’80s, we had to make a decision whether we were going to continue the farmers’ markets or concentrate on the restaurants.

“We had the typical family vote where my brother had one vote, I had one vote and my dad had three, and we chose to go to the restaurants, because what we saw was an underserved consumer.”

One chef led to another and then another, with Chef’s Garden claiming customers today in 49 states and 15 countries. The company is still doing some truck delivery in the Cleveland area, and lets locals order produce via the Internet and pick it up at the farm. Its bread and butter, though, is restaurants, which range from 30-seat eateries to Disney properties “and everything in between,” Jones said.

“We ship product every Friday to Hong Kong,” Jones said. “We ship lettuce, we ship baby carrots, microgreens. We ship specialty tomatoes. It’s mostly to restaurants in Hong Kong with American chefs who have worked with us here in the States, and they took us with them.”

Learning what it takes to have fresh produce survive distance and time and arrive in top condition took the Jones family about five years.

“It goes all the way back to how you grow the product, and how and when you harvest, package and ship,” Jones said.

Value-added services

Chef’s Garden didn’t stop there. With his father’s leadership, the family built a commercial kitchen with adjacent sleeping quarters where they host chefs, often with staff or family in tow.

“It’s giving them an opportunity to get out of the restaurant and relax a little bit and come and walk through the fields with us,” Jones said.

Chefs use the kitchen to experiment with dishes using fresh-picked produce. Sometimes they turn the visit into a team-building retreat.

“We’ve done all kinds of unique things, including blindfold tractor obstacle courses with teams,” Jones said. “You’re trying to create a different learning experience.”

The company also runs a nonprofit program called Veggie U, which takes the story of vegetables to school.

“It began by an idea that came out of a conversation with the chefs and my mother and father,” Jones said. “They got about 30 local teachers together and said, ‘Here’s our idea, how do we do it?’ We’re farmers and they were educators.

“We wanted to teach fourth grade children where their food comes from and about healthy eating choices.”

Through Veggie U, fourth-grade classes participate in a five-week curriculum. As part of that, they receive a kit with a growing light and produce their own lettuce that is served as part of a feast at the end of the unit.

For 10 years, Chef’s Garden has also been sponsoring an annual fundraiser that has its customer-chefs come in and cook for a four-hour food and wine tasting benefit.

Lee has served as a guest judge on The Food Network’s “Iron Chef” program four times – “the only farmer ever asked to be a judge on ‘Iron Chef,'” Bobby noted.

It’s a very busy family – and operation. But it’s worked for the Joneses.

“I would say probably 10 years ago, you could see the groundswell starting when people started paying more attention to where their food came from,” Jones said. “That was good for all of us in the industry.

“We don’t promote ‘local’ because we sell to 49 states and 15 countries. But we do promote ‘farm to table.’

“Most of our product is 24 hours from the field to the plate. The product is growing until it’s ordered, and then it’s harvested. And that direct relationship is really what’s been helpful to develop over the years.”

By Kathy Gibbons, Editorial Director

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