John Lash's phone rings almost as often as you hear the words "local" and "food" in the same sentence.
Lash runs Farm to Table, a produce delivery company that specializes in, you guessed it, locally grown food. He is a quintessential middleman, connecting the people who grow food with the people who want to buy it, and it is a sign of his success that his phone rings morning, noon and night.
Farmers calling to tell him that those special Italian peppers Parkside chef Shawn Cirkiel asked them to grow a few months back are ready. Kerbey Lane calling to bump up the number of pounds of tomatoes it ordered this week. Garza Independence High School teacher Martha Cason returning his text about what time to pick up the Mexican mint marigold that La Condesa ordered.
This is the simplified idea behind Farm to Table that inspired Lash to create the business about five years ago, when the buzz around local food was just starting to crescendo into the roar that it is now.
He was working as the marketing and design director with the Austin-based Calendar Club when he heard a segment on NPR about a similar company and saw a need for this kind of service in Central Texas. Even though he had no experience in either a farm or a kitchen, he knew how to run a warehouse, load a truck and anticipate sales.
He spent six months meeting farmers, talking to restaurant operators and setting up the infrastructure for how it would work. In July 2008, during one of these exploratory conversations, a Fresh Plus manager asked Lash if he was going to sell peaches. Lash said yes. "Can I get some?" the manager replied. Lash: "When?" Manager: "Tomorrow." Lash says he got his first order without knowing exactly how he'd fill it, but the next day, he made his first delivery.
You never forget your first order, but now that Lash has processed more than 33,000 of them, they are starting to run together.
When he started, it was him and his son, Sam, driving from farm to farm to restaurant to market to farm in an old truck from Smokey Denmark's Smoked Meats Co. in East Austin. To drum up business, he would drop off bags of tomatoes and peaches with a business card at restaurants, smaller markets and grocery stores. He was getting calls before he even got back in the car.
Now they have a fleet of five refrigerated trucks, a 7,000 square foot warehouse on Todd Lane in Southeast Austin and a staff of 10, but Lash is still driving tens of thousands of miles a year to meet with farmers, pick up produce and make deliveries. This summer, he'll double the amount of cooler space in the warehouse, a far cry from the coolers in the old convenience stores that he used to rent when he first started.
He was selling produce in $5 and $10 increments at a time, and now he's making deliveries of eggs, meat and produce by the truckload to area restaurants, food companies and school districts, including the Austin Independent School District and the Judson Independent School District in San Antonio.
Sharon Glosson, director of child nutrition for Judson, says that about three years ago, district officials started talking with the Sustainable Food Center in Austin, which has helped connect Farm to Table with the Austin school district through the nonprofit's Sprouting Healthy Kids program.
"We wanted to expand on this idea of farm to school, but we didn't know how to do it because we didn't know how to get ahold of individual farmers," Glosson says. "Instead of dealing with individual farmers and getting separate deliveries and writing separate checks, we wanted to partner with someone who could do all that legwork for us."
Once a week for two years, Lash's team has delivered a truckload of locally grown produce, which is then distributed to all 28 campuses in the Judson district.
"Overall, it costs more, but we feel like it's important," Glosson says. The menus don't change to accommodate seasonality and they still buy from traditional produce wholesalers if they need an ingredient not available from a local farmer, but if a product is available locally, they'll buy the local product.
It's been a learning curve for the district, and its 22,000 students, too. Glosson tells the story of when they first started serving oranges from Mission that have a brownish skin. "Some of the kids at first were very turned off because it wasn't a perfect-looking orange," she says. "But the taste was so sweet and juicy that by the time we cut them up and displayed them, the kids were fighting over them." The students even came up with a new name for the fruit: "brownges." "They learned that appearance isn't everything."
At Garza Independence High School in East Austin, where students grow plenty of their own vegetables and herbs in Cason's long-running Garza Gardens program, Lash is on the buying end of the transaction.
For the past three years, Lash has been buying herbs grown in the student gardens, including Mexican mint marigold, sorrel and marjoram, for area chefs. "It used to be a bunch here and a bunch there, but now it's a pound here and a pound there," says Lash, who stops by the school frequently enough that he gets a clip-on badge with his name on it instead of a printed sticker.
Cason says that the money Lash spends on the herbs is helping build an aquaponics system, so her students can grow crops such as lettuce year-round. Lash also urged her to start putting the herbs in bags with labels, which makes the product look more professional and helps the students understand the branding and marketing element of being in the agriculture business.
After all, Lash is a businessman, not a farmer or a chef, and as a former magazine publisher, he takes a cue from his journalism days when he makes his rounds on the farms. "If you want to write about something, you have to learn about it," he says. The same is true for selling produce. It's not enough to simply know what's in season; you have to know which farmers are growing what, how the slight differences in geography, elevation and climate affect each farms' produce, which customers are willing to buy what, and who can fill a last-minute order for 100 pounds of peaches. "You have to listen and pay attention and ask questions," he says.
Lash's relationships with farmers is what makes him so valuable to chefs like Drew Curren of 24 Diner and Easy Tiger.
While planning the summer menu for 24 Diner a few weeks ago, Curren couldn't make a single change until he talked to Lash to find out how much and how long crops such as peas, blackberries and peaches would be available. "He has such good relationships with the farmers themselves that he can go find out and then come back and say, ‘This is what you can expect, this is what they have planted right now and how long it'll last,' " Curren says.
Because of someone like Lash, Curren can buy cases of produce at a time from many different farmers instead of "barking up the wrong tree" to try to coordinate those sales himself. Lash can also use his connections with chefs to help farmers unload a bumper crop that might otherwise spoil. "He'll call me and say, ‘This farmer can get you six more buckets of blackberries. Can you handle that?'" Curren says.
Emmett Fox, who co-owns Fino and Asti with his wife, Lisa, remembers organizing a meeting with a group of chefs and farmers back in the early 1990s to try to figure out how to improve the process of buying and selling locally grown produce. "Farmers have a hard enough job as it is," Fox says, and most of them just don't have the time to deal with chefs and make deliveries. "It's the same thing for us." Fox and his chefs had been buying local produce at farmers markets long before Farm to Table started, which they still do, but Lash "plays a supervital role" in connecting farmers to businesses who want to use their produce.
When Lash was first starting Farm to Table, Fox gave him a critical piece of advice: "I remember telling him, ‘You've got to gain their trust. You have to talk to them. They have to get to know you. Once they trust you, you're going to be fine'."
Even within the circle of trust that he continues to build with the community, Lash knows that he has to compete on both the buying and selling end. Farmers can choose to sell directly to places like Whole Foods Market or H-E-B or skip the middleman altogether and sell straight to customers through community-supported agriculture programs, farm stands or farmers markets. Chefs can buy from the farmers directly either at markets or from wholesalers like Hardies or Sysco, which are starting to increase efforts to offer locally sourced produce.
"I'll tell a farmer, ‘I like your squash. How much?' and they'll say, ‘Well, H-E-B will pay X' so that's what it costs," he says. "I'm not the farmers market. It isn't that I don't want to pay (farmers market prices); I can't sell it at that price."
Sometimes, it comes down to a nickel or a dime, and when it comes to selling produce to, say, a school, "if I'm off by a penny, it'll fall through."
Frank Rhew, who grows peaches southeast of San Antonio, has been selling peaches to Farm to Table for several years now. He says he enjoys getting a fair price for his fruit as well as feedback about the quality of the fruit from the people who buy it.
"With so many people in the produce businesses, there's a lot of haggling. John's high-caliber, and he has good people working for him. ... He calls, tells me what he needs and then they pick it up," he says. "It simplifies the chain."
Contact Addie Broyles at 912-2504. Twitter: @broylesa