“Probably until the recent past, and I do mean the recent past,” Jason Roland says with a laugh, “about 70 percent of our sales were to restaurants.” He and his wife run Organically Roland, a two-acre farm in South Carolina where they grow produce like sunchokes, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and collard greens. On March 18, the governor ordered restaurants and bars in the state to close to dine-in customers to curb the spread of coronavirus, echoing efforts that swept throughout the country. “I think everybody knew it was coming,” Roland says. A few days before the governor’s announcement, his customers started pulling him aside and canceling or reducing their orders. All but one order was fully canceled after the statewide closures.
“I just finished planting 400 pounds of seed potatoes which I was assured chefs would be buying by the bushel,” Roland says. “That’s just not going to happen now.” Other than one $80 invoice he’s letting go to help out a client, most of his produce was paid for on delivery, so Roland’s new normal is more about finding new buyers for perishable foods than chasing unpaid bills. And of course, Roland is not alone. Across the country, governors and other officials are mandating the closure of dine-in establishments in many states, leaving these suppliers, like so many others, scrambling to sustain their businesses. As Roland says, “I feel confident that this will be one of those things that you always say ‘there was a before time and an after time.’”
Many businesses might not exist if it weren’t for chefs on the lookout for unusual flavors or something special to give their diners. Often these businesses — those providing specialty produce, fresh seaweed, or mushrooms picked directly from the woods — go unseen by the general dining public. “A pretty good chunk of my business are flowers that chefs are tweezering at Michelin-starred restaurants,” says Bryan Jessop of Morchella Wild Foods in California. That income is now gone. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done was build up this business, and overnight, it disappeared.” For entrepreneurs who grow their product, losing restaurant contracts doesn’t just mean there’s no income coming in — it means weeks or months of money spent on seeds and labor that might not be recuperated.
Like every supplier I spoke with, Jessop is hoping to pivot to a home delivery or CSA model through posting on neighborhood groups like Nextdoor; others are relying on their social media followings to offload product. “I don’t think it will make me whole, but it will keep me busy and doing what I love to do,” Jessop says of direct-to-consumer delivery sales. “The silver lining might be that I can get to know some of my neighbors and maybe when things are back to normal, I’ll have something to supplement my restaurant business.”
Suppliers who grow, forage, or catch specialty foods that go beyond the realm of the typical grocery store shopping list have long had a symbiotic relationship with the restaurant industry. “Restaurants have the ability to use a really specialized product” compared to supermarkets or even farmers market patrons, says Tyler Akabane, who runs foraging tours through his company Mushrooms For My Friends and works as a forager for Wild Mushrooms in the Boston area, where 99 percent of clients were restaurants. “When patrons go out [to restaurants], they can try something they’ve never had before,” Akabane says and notes that most laypeople don’t know what to look for when buying some of these specialty foods or how to cook them.
On Saturday, Akabane posted to Instagram asking if people in the area would be interested in having mushrooms delivered to their house for $20 a mixed bag. People were excited, not just for the opportunity to support a struggling business, but to get their hands on rare mushrooms without venturing into the woods. Akabane sources over 50 seasonal varieties throughout the year. He’s posted videos about different mushroom varieties and how to cook them on his Instagram both as a way to help out new buyers and give people stuck at home something to do.
“It was not easy and could have used a lot of streamlining,” Akabane says of the first deliveries. He’s hopeful that he can make it work with better planning on his delivery routes. Last week he sold 140 bags to 100 households. “It seems sustainable if I could keep orders like this up,” he says. But so far there are only 42 orders this week. “We have to assess and see if this is something we want to do or not,” Akabane says. “But we don’t have anything else.”
New York City’s Farm One, a hydroponic farm that focuses on specialty produce, microgreens, and edible flowers mostly grown to order for 40 or so restaurants and bars in the city, is in the same boat. “We went from planning for the spring menus with a number of restaurants to a place right now where the majority of our customers are no longer open,” says sales manager Marissa Siefkes. Less than 10 percent of Farm One’s customers are still operating, and with restaurants switching to a delivery- or takeout-only model, small edible flourishes may not make it onto the new menus.
“We’re pivoting from a grow-to-order model where we have hundreds of crops growing at a time to a narrower set of crops we can grow and offer to the public,” Siefkes says. Farm One is hoping that it can stay in business selling fresh herb kits, DIY cocktail kits, microgreens, mustard greens, and other, similar products. Unfortunately many of its crops take one to five weeks of lead time to grow, and with the sudden restaurant closures, Farm One was left with “more waste than we would want,” as Siefkes puts it. “We didn’t have the staff to redirect product to a charitable cause,” he says. And the team has had to scrap some ideas for generating income — like drying herbs or making other value-added products — because it would be so labor intensive that it might put employees at risk of transmitting COVID-19 in a small enclosed space. Luckily, Farm One hasn’t had to lay off any of its full-time employees as of last week, although it stopped having interns or volunteers come in.
While these small suppliers are struggling, overall they may be in a better position than larger companies: Some argue it’s easier for a supplier that consists of just a handful of people to pivot quickly to a new business model. “I feel like we’re in a much better place because we aren’t over-extended,” says Kenny Belov, owner of the “small to mid-size” sustainable seafood distributor Two X Sea. “Right now we’re so boutique we can’t seem to find any customers interested in what we offer,” he jokes.
Although Two X Sea sells items that the average customer could prepare at home, including tuna, trout, scallops, and salmon, there’s not enough volume of direct-to-consumer sales to make the fishing worth it. “I had to tell my fishermen there was no need to go fishing, which was me telling them there’s no need for you to make any money,” Belov says. “That’s been devastating.” Two X Sea does own a trout farm which Belov describes as a “very expensive aquarium,” until he can find residential buyers for the fish. He’s been running deliveries by himself for the dozens of home delivery stops he’s managed to get. It’s about a third of the orders Two X Sea used to get from restaurants, and these are all smaller, family-size orders as well. “I have no problem doing whatever needs to be done to keep as much staff on as possible while we weather this,” Belov says.
Jessop feels similarly about his chances to make it out of this as a small supplier. “I was depressed Monday through Wednesday but seeing the level of support was really encouraging,” Jessop says. “Maybe there are some good opportunities to pivot.”
These suppliers realize that they’re not the only ones struggling, and while they’re doing what they can to stay afloat, their small size also puts them in a position to help others. Organically Roland’s CSA has more than doubled in size in the last week, but he brought a few boxes of produce to one local restaurant so service workers could take what they need for free. “I don’t know how many of the restaurants will be able to come back,” Roland says. “We’re going to help them as much as we possibly can and as long as we possibly can while looking out for our own needs as a business.”
Roland is confident that unlike some larger farms nearby, his two-acre farm will survive. “I know of some folks around here who are bigger and they are in trouble,” he says. Others used to urge him to grow his farm, and he’s now glad he never took their advice. “They don’t have the resources to get rid of their stuff the way that I do.” Now, more than ever, he’s happy to be small-scale.