In a recent restaurant review of Bumble Bee's Burgers—an entertaining offshoot of local restaurant Bumble Bee's Baja Grill—I lamented that this great local business didn't include local beef among its many options for gourmet hamburgers. I was quickly contacted by a local restaurateur with a sort of rebuttal lament of his own.
"You claim that New Mexico beef is readily available," the restaurateur writes in an email. "We have been trying to source New Mexico beef of restaurant quality. We would be delighted to know the purveyors of New Mexico beef that you refer to. Please let us know and maybe next time you are in we might be serving New Mexico beef."
It was a polite way of saying, "Dude, getting a quality local product at an affordable price may be a lot more difficult than you think it is."
In Santa Fe, as in a growing number of cities across the country, the economic benefits of buying locally at the consumer level are well-documented and routinely championed. The Santa Fe Alliance represents, as a kind of specialized version of the chamber of commerce, locally owned businesses. Our Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce—totally unaffiliated with the US Chamber of Commerce and its big-business, pro-outsourcing policies—is likewise more keen on supporting genuinely local businesses than many chambers of commerce around the country. The City of Santa Fe has put money into buy-local campaigns of its own, and our local politicians and state representatives do their parts to push the buy-local meme. All these efforts help drive dollars to locally owned businesses, but there's very little in the way of support for helping those small businesses represent more local goods.
"The biggest problem is that we are generally used to the lower costs of products of all kinds that have been mass produced where it is most efficient to do so, then shipped in the largest quantities in ways that are also efficient, given the current subsidized transportation system," Steve Warshawer says. As the operator of the Beneficial Farm Community Supported Agriculture program and the owner of Mesa Top Farm, Warshawer has extensive experience in translating local meat and produce products into viable goods for sale at area retailers.
"Cost rules most choices and scale drives cost," Warshawer says, distilling the free market into the proverbial nutshell. The rub is that we love to patronize local businesses and we know that doing so keeps more money in the community, but the wholesale cost of goods makes it challenging for our local businesses to stock locally produced goods.
"I run a pizza shop, not the kind of fine dining restaurant where people expect higher prices," Piper Kapin, owner of Backroad Pizza, says. "Local ingredients can sometimes double or even triple food costs." Kapin says she understands and appreciates sustainable production and the challenges small, local farms operate under, but "buying local and still offering a $3 slice of pizza can be difficult."
Giving the consumer enough information to prioritize their purchases can make a difference, Warshawer says. Local goods are going to cost more, but it's worth it for some consumers.
"Distance often changes quality," he says. "Time and distance have made it necessary to pick fruit before full ripeness. Extra handling and time in transit ruins ripe fruit. In many cases, we do not even get to experience our foods in their full flavor unless we get them through very short, local supply chains. So this is the trade-off: Cheaper, more uniform products come from centralized points of production, which are usually farther away; and tastier, fresher, less uniform and less consistent products come from closer to home."
Fresher products that are often of a higher quality aren't the only benefits. In addition to keeping more money in the community, stronger personal relationships are built when local vendors use local sources. For Kapin, the human relationships developed during transactions with local food producers are important and far more rewarding than deliveries of "a tower of food boxes dropped off by a giant semitruck."
"I appreciate knowing where the food I am selling comes from, as well as where my money is going," Kapin says. "Most of all, I really enjoy the conversations and connections I have with my customers who are excited to see local ingredients on the menu. Bringing in local ingredients gives me the opportunity to be creative and bring new offerings to my customers, which I am very excited about."
That kind of creativity may be critical to successfully marketing local goods, Warshawer says. He cites selling local beef as a prime example, explaining that a single animal may only have a couple of the uniform cuts of which a restaurant intends to sell 40 in a given week. That's a lot of animals.
"But if we can meet our requirement for 40 meals out of several different cuts, then we can buy from a local production point where just a few beef are being processed each week," Warshawer says.
Vicki Pozzebon agrees. As executive director of the Santa Fe Alliance, Pozzebon heads an organization that runs a program designed to make it easier for local restaurants to source ingredients in New Mexico.
"Can farmers grow enough? Can we extend the growing seasons? Can we deliver it timely and cost-effectively?" Pozzebon asks. These are the questions on the supply side. Creative use and marketing of the product falls to entrepreneurs such as Kapin in order to maximize demand. But, Pozzebon says, food is only part of the equation.
"I think one of the biggest barriers to sourcing local goods is that we are not a manufacturing state or town," Pozzebon says. "Santa Fe's roots are deeply embedded in the arts and culture of our area, not in manufacturing. If we could get some creative and bold entrepreneurs to identify where the manufacturing gaps and opportunities are, we could fill some niches, create some jobs and serve businesses."
If the opinions of local investors and venture capitalists hold sway (see "Get Start-Uppity," page 24), there's room for exactly the kind of vision that Pozzebon is hoping for. In the meantime, producers and sellers willing to break old rules and make new ones are leading the local economy.
"There have been a lot of road blocks for me," Kapin says. "But I am committed to building more relationships with local producers and continuing to provide affordable food at the same time."