Which farmer will walk away with the first-ever “Purveyor of the Year” Elby?
This year, the Elby Awards will, for the first time, recognize the purveyors–the people behind the produce (and pork) that Richmond’s best chefs put on the plate. According to the Elbys page on the Richmond Magazine website, the award recognizes “A farm or other agricultural organization providing quality, reliable fresh ingredients for Richmond-area restaurants and/or markets.”
“The idea of adding purveyor came from two people–Elbys co-host Jason Tesauro as well as from Richmond magazine’s new food editor, Stephanie Breijo,” says Richmond Magazine Associate Editor and Elbys founder Susan Winiecki. “We thought it important to recognize those who produce great ingredients, which then lead to great dishes served by chefs.”
And the nominees are…
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If you’re in the restaurant industry around Richmond, a delivery from Manakintowne Specialty Growers is more like a visit from friends…friends who bring you a giant bag of mixed greens, still warm from the earth. Back when I was working at Millie’s, long-time Manakintowne employee Pete Markham would bring our salad mix and microgreens; and his arrival was always an opportunity to pause and think about the food–its source and story, the reality of its journey. Then we’d throw it in the lowboy and get back to whatever prep work we’d been doing before that.
Since 1985, Rob and Jo Pendergraph and staff have been providing salad greens, herbs, and specialty produce for some of the best restaurants from Williamsburg to Charlottesville. What began as a backyard hobby, in short time became a full-time occupation and business that now employs over a dozen people year-round.
In an industry that can be physically grueling and financially tenuous, the Pendergraphs have come up with a business that works: “We have always run Manakintowne not just as a farm but as a quality-first farm/produce company,” Jo explains. “The tenets of successful entrepreneurship apply, just as with any small business: Have a plan, know your customer, hire good people, deliver a quality product, be consistent and reliable, pay attention to detail, pay your bills on time, treat problems as opportunities, keep it interesting, and work hard every day.” And, she points out, it helps that both she and Rob have a true love for what they do.
Manakintowne grows year-round in two greenhouses, a high tunnel, and underground cover. Diversity and uniqueness are important to their operation: “The other piece is that we grow a large array of specialty produce seasonally in the field,” says Jo, “Everything from fresh coriander to sugarloaf chicory, lavender buds, figs, zucchini blossoms, tiny gherkins, shiso, radish pods, shishito peppers–we always have much of culinary interest to offer.”
In thirty years of business, one thing has remained constant for Manakintowne: “Our customer has always been the creative chef who demands the best. That part has not changed,” Jo explains. “What has changed dramatically is the more adventurous foodie/restaurant customer, thanks to the explosion of cooking shows and food blogs; the rise of celebrity chefs and their influence; and the growth in sheer numbers of great restaurants, local farms and neighborhood markets. It has all been for the good for small farms like ours.”
Having logged so many hours and created so many relationships with restaurateurs, grocers, and cooks in the area, Manakintowne may be the favorite to take home the Elby this year. And yet, Jo says, “We were completely surprised and very honored to be nominated for an Elby,” adding, “It shows how RVA’s food scene is growing up, for there to be this recognition of the role purveyors play behind the scenes in creating a great food city.”
Remember when Victory Farms broke the news to us that they would be leaving Virginia? I had just gotten hooked on their Certified Naturally Grown produce at the William Byrd Community House Market. And I really liked their cute T-shirts. Where would I get my kohlrabi now? Would I ever get a cute T-shirt of my own? I was bummed, but that’s only because I had no idea how well it would play out in the end.
Fast forward three years. WELCOME TO THE PRESENT DAY! The kind and capable Harris family, Alistar and Rebecca, took over operations on the farm. Alistar had been farm manager already, so the transition was barely noticeable, but for the new website and name–Origins Farm. And because Richmond has an undeniable boomerang quality on anyone who lives here, Charlie and Gina Collins returned to Richmond and quickly reconnected Victory Farms to the community with a well-loved Westover Hills farmstand and increased presence in about 20 area restaurants.
“Selling to chefs was our primary business in Phoenix, and we developed an efficient and positive working method that we still use today,” says Gina, who, in addition to being the Vice President of Victory Farms, also works at the VMFA. “Personally, I’ve also spent my museum career working with artists, and chefs are essentially artists– we love the creative spirit, brainstorming new ideas, and tasting the results ourselves too.”
Charlie Collins studied Botany and Urban Horticulture at Arizona State University. In the 90s, his one-acre Phoenix farm supplied produce for a number of restaurants in the area. Back then, he was learning how to manage and grow a business. In 2006, he and Gina brought that experience with them to Richmond, and in 2013 the Collins’ purchased a farm in Varina, just minutes from downtown, where they plan to continue growing different aspects of their business by adding classes and events, such as the sold-out Dinner in the Field.
“For us, the nomination is a tremendous honor. After more than 20 years of doing this for a living (and more than that doing it for our own kitchen), it means so much to see Charlie’s growing talents recognized in this way,” says Gina. “We are so excited to share an evening of celebration with the restaurant community and can’t wait to toast all the other nominees as well!”
Clay and Linda Tranium and family operate Autumn Olive Farms in Waynesboro. They were nominated, not for specialty produce like their fellow nominees, but for pork–Patterson’s Registered Berkshires and Ossabaw Island Hogs, to be exact. When I spoke to Clay Tranium on the phone, he had just come in from a long day working on the farm.
“It’s a terrific honor, especially coming from a super cool, hip food scene like Richmond,” says Clay on the farm’s nomination. “We endeavor to be the best in our field. That’s our goal. So that’s terrific to be included in that conversation.”
While other farmers enjoyed some down time during the holidays, Clay says, “This is a very busy time for restaurants and chefs, so it’s a very busy time for us.” With special orders and events over the holidays, Autumn Olive Farm kept a brisk pace of business, while simultaneously growing capacity, bringing in new piglets and sows.
It’s all they can do to keep up with demand. Chefs are hooked on their unique pork, which is a crossbreed of an extremely rare Ossabaw hog with the notoriously tasty, though not always easy-to-raise Berkshire hog. The combination of the Ossabaw temperament and the Berkshire maturation time are a winning equation for Clay, who says, “Both breeds are considered the best on the plate. Both are undisputed as the very best porks in the world. The combination on the plate is spectacular.”
For Clay, the formula is simple: “Take top quality genetics, and put them in this environment; and let them forage and live. It’s hard not to get a spectacular product…It’s what you have on the ground that’s the main component.” Chefs like Owen Lane, Joe Sparatta, and Jason Alley have been vocal champions for Autumn Olive Pork, using it all over their menus for the past few years; Clay calls these chefs “ambassadors” for the product.
Pork has been so heavily commodified in the US since the 1980s that diversification has only recently come back into the picture, and there is usually a steep price differential between commodity pork and heritage breed animals. Clay says he works with chefs, offering classes and pointers for how they can make the product profitable in a restaurant setting. And it’s an easier sell after the first bite: “It’s stunningly delicious, and that’s what sells. The average consumer, if they taste it, they’re ruined from other pork. People get that quickly with no education. They just taste it.”
Relative newcomers Autumn Campbell and Brian Garretson started Tomten Farm in 2012. They came to farming by way of food, with careers cooking, working for a specialty coffee company, and eventually farming in places like Portland, Oregon and Madison County, Virginia; and for both of them it’s the taste that’s important above all else. Growing seldom-seen varieties of produce, harvested with an emphasis on flavor and culinary usage, has made Tomten a quick favorite for several fine dining establishments and bakeries, including Dutch & Company and Sub Rosa.
“We’re food people. That’s our background. We’re really into the quality and taste of food. We grow food the way we grow it because it tastes best.” It’s taste above health or even convenience that matters to Tomtens’ founders, because creating connections with chefs and cooks who get their food is what’s most important to them: “We’re inspired to build relationships. We’re not interested in selling to 50-60 wholesale accounts in Richmond,” says Autumn, who says they would like to dedicate certain areas on their 2.5-acre farm to grow exclusively for restaurants who are looking for something special.
In this early stage, making those partnerships with restaurants is as much about the marketing as it is about the money. While restaurant accounts only make up about a quarter of their sales, Autumn says that having their name on local menus gave them an advantage at the farmers market. “Market is more about the home chef…That’s more about consistency and having more outreach, because we’re selling to people for their homes and their families. Sometimes being able to push that in a restaurant gives you more flexibility at first.”
Like Charlie and Gina Collins of Victory Farms, Autumn and Brian have found that diversifying their income is essential and that it can result in amazing button-busting dinners in serene pastoral settings, which people seem to really love. Their fall farm suppers were sold out affairs–impressive, considering Tomten is an hour-and-a-half drive from the city.
On being nominated, Autumn says, “We were really surprised. There are a lot of very interesting, sustainable, natural growing farmers in this area, some of whom have been here much longer than us. We feel really thrilled to be noticed,” and then adding, with characteristic modesty, “There’s no chance we’ll win.” She says she’s glad the purveyor category was added this year because it proves that people are starting to recognize the value of producer and adds that she’s impressed by the nominees: “I feel happy to be represented among those people. It’s a great step in recognizing a part of the food chain. Having a really great food scene means having other people who make that possible. All of that tied together is really important.”
Photo by: Victory Farms