Chapter 15 – power of a chef

As 2010 rolled in, I was invited to a meeting of farmers at a restaurant. I had been selling my duck eggs there and been rather starstruck over working with the chef at this high end establishment. I had been enamored with his endearing way of answering the phone, using caller ID to pick up my call saying, “Hi Khaiti, we’ll take 4 dozen.” I was so nervous to go to this meeting, to be in such esteemed company of many of my farmer heroes, I mean, they were farmers, was I too, really?

The premise for the meeting was equally intimidating. The restaurant was going to be moving to a much larger location, and they were planning and gearing up to be growing their business substantially. The chef owner wanted to touch base with “his” farmers about this big change, to keep us in the loop about the timeline and address any questions we had. He talked about potential for creating more value-added products in their kitchen, which would also have a market, a casual cafe, and delicatessen as part of the operation. It was BIG news as I was planning and hoping to grow my farm into the big time.

After the meeting, we all went to the bar to have a beer on the house, and I caught up with some of the familiar faces I had gotten to know over my years working in the co-ops. They seemed surprised as I was to see me there, and so I explained what I was doing there, and how some of them had actually inspired me to get to where I was.

The chef came over and took a seat next to me. BUTTERFLIES! He had always been very kind to me and appreciative of my product, and I highly respected him. He asked how the farm was doing, and how were the ducks, and what was my production quantity these days? Because, he says, when he was a chef on the East Coast, they sold this duck egg frisee salad and they would go through 50 DOZEN DUCK EGGS A WEEK in that kitchen. My mouth dropped open. What? And then he said the new restaurant was going to be serving brunch, and they’d love to feature my duck eggs on the menu. Picking jaw up off counter. He said with a shimmer in his eye, “ya know, just something to think about.”

That number of eggs and this possibility of being on their brunch menu was my golden ticket. If I had an account buying that many eggs per week, I could quit my job and go full time on the farm, or at least I’d be much closer to being able to do so. I excitedly told him I indeed had new ducks coming along and was planning to keep growing my business. Nothing was set in stone, he told me, but all I heard was the promise of possibility.

After that meeting, the existing restaurant closed for several months, while the new one was built and created. I lost the steady, small amount of business I had been doing with them during this time, but looked forward to bigger and better things as I anticipated their new location opening.

When the new location opened that summer, things changed big time. I no longer talked to the chef when I called for their order. I was given the sous chef as my point of contact, and when I could get him on the phone, he’d place an order for 2 dozens and 3 six packs (packed to sell in their market.) This was barely worth the trouble and time to drive out of my way while I was delivering eggs on my day off from my day job. Then out of the blue, he’d place an order for 10 dozen some weeks. In the past, I had never sold a lot of eggs at a time to this restaurant, but at least it had been steady with the chef ordering at their old and easier to get to location- a regular 4 dozen a week. This new guy placing orders was messing with my production and inventory, which I had to balance with my CSA and co-op accounts. To top it off, they paid their invoices a month after delivery, and that financial lag-time was difficult for me, operating my farm on a shoe string budget. I shouldn’t have to float them in their business, when I was struggling enough as it was.

The new restaurant location didn’t take off as well as they, or I, had hoped, at least not initially. Meanwhile I was stuck trying to figure out how to deal with these small or medium weekly, and sometimes bi-weekly orders. I wanted to be their farmer, I wanted to be ready to supply the eggs they needed. But how did I do that if they continued with these inconsistent orders, and how could I plan my business when I was always needing to plan 6 months ahead with egg production?

The lesson I learned was invaluable. Selling to restaurants was not a match for my new farm business. I had heard that some growers set up contracts with restaurants, as a way of guaranteeing sales, but I was not bold or confident enough to ask about this as a possibility. Their promising brunch menu idea, which began during my peak egg production time of the year, failed and was discontinued. And that alluring duck egg frisee salad, with it’s potential volume of 50 dozen eggs a week, never happened. If I had put all my eggs in one basket, I would have been screwed.

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