Sunday, May 30, 2010

Let it grow, Let it grow, Let it grow (Part 1)

Here in the Portland area we received 4.5 inches of rain in the past month (since I’m writing this closer to the end of the month, chances are the amount will be higher).
Rain, while great for our water tables and washing all of last year’s dead leaves down my driveway, is not conducive to planting and harvesting (or highly lucrative farmer’s markets).

Friends, neighbors, people I’ve never met before in the grocery store, are all complaining that their got washed out in the past week and they’re waiting to replant.

While, as much as someone like me who barely gets around to mowing their lawn can empathize, regardless of the rain, this is going to be an even more interesting locally agricultural tied year for Little Pots & Pans Co.

Somewhere 50-70 miles south of us rows and rows (and fields and fields) of tomatoes have/are being planted, and some of those rows (and potentially a field or two) of crop yield will come to us, as I’ve been working with local farmers to contract grow vegetables for our tart fillings.

In past years, I’ve spent much time and energy running around sourcing (what I think will be enough) vegetables to make our tart fillings for the winter. At it’s best, the time spent was a great way to get to know regional farmers and what their ability to grow is. At it’s most frustrating last season became an organizational nightmare of trying to purchase produce, following up with farmers as to where it would be, and settle on a wholesale price (many farmers would rather sell direct to customers at farmer’s markets and take the sales risk over a guaranteed wholesale sale). Much running around for very little yield indeed.

This year, I decided it was time to take a more proactive approach. Using farm contacts from my customers (e.g. local grocery stores and food service providers) who purchase produce directly from regional farms, and a newly founded farmer-producer connection website underwritten by the Ecotrust, FoodHub, I put out requests for the amount of produce (tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant) we think we would need for the coming year.

The one thing that dawned on me (being consumed by the processing side of the food business) was whether or not I had missed planting season. Luckily, it was February when I was considering this and hit upon most farmers in planning season for their planting season.

In Part 2, I’ll talk more about the responses I received from the agricultural community and how far we’ve gotten in getting closer to crops, and how I have my fingers crossed for a blight-free robust growing season. 

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Retail Not Right (Now)

At the farmer’s market, sometimes by phone (my apologies to the woman who called at 7:30am one morning that we could not accommodate her reservation) but more often since our article in the Oregonian, we get asked if we have a retail store.

People are always flummoxed when we tell them “no”. 

I can see the appeal of “doing retail”, opening a little spot where people could drop in for a tart and maybe some other goodies. A place to direct customers who buy from us at local farmer’s markets. But is it right for your business as a whole?

It depends on the goals of your business and food product(s).

We are product company, focusing on growing our line of tarts (hence the name of the blog). Our business and daily tart activities center around servicing current customers, while working on expanding our client base. This alone requires much focus and effort. From my current point of view, as she who runs the books (bookkeeping, not bookmaking) and expends much of the effort, our time is best spent continuing forward growing ourselves as a product. To branch off into a tart shop, or small café, would be a risk and effort undertaking I can’t justify.

This is not to say I’d never open a tart shop or small café under our company umbrella. The idea would need to be very carefully thought through. Details such as location (e.g. our current location is on a busy street, but is not conducive to foot traffic and doesn’t have much of a neighborhood surrounding, which immediately rules it out), marketing/planning for vagaries of retail and staffing come immediately to mind.

It could be right one day, just not right now.

In a bold move, Elizabeth of Sahagun Chocolates, who appeared on the Neely's FoodNetwork episode with us (which will air again June 17th), decided recently to scale down her retail operation in order to focus on the growing wholesale demand for her chocolates. I don’t doubt it was a tough decision as to where she should focus her time for the best (and growing) results.

On our current path, I am pleased with the rewards that come in landing a new client, having a current one excited about a new flavor we’ve developed, or realizing we’ve gotten a tad bit busier in the past weeks and it’s time to up our ingredients order or risk running out of items (oh, it’s happened). I enjoy meeting with buyers, food service directors, executive chefs and coffee house owners walking them through our product niche of tarts we’ve created and how they could be a growth product for them. I also enjoy time spent interacting with farmers discussing what we’re going to be using their produce for and… hmmm… I think I just bled into our next blog post!  

Saturday, May 15, 2010

In Which I Eat Lunch and Gain Zucchini

It was a rare occasion on a warm spring day when I was out and about and happened to be driving past one of the acclaimed local sandwich shops right before lunch rush. For many of you, lunch is what happens between coffee and dinner. There is no loss of irony in the fact that our company centers around lunch products and yet I eat something cobbled together from my home fridge (or freezer) on most days. The concept of going out for lunch is a foreign dream and even stopping to eat can be a goal to aspire to.

So here I was facing said sandwich shop with a parking spot right outside. Being mostly vegetarian I knew there were going to be limited options for me to order from. But that’s ok, I’m not one of those demanding why-can’t-there-be-more-options-for-me-to-choose-from eaters. One (or two) really well done options are better than a menu full of half-hearted attempts, and in this case I knew what I wanted to try, the roasted mushroom sandwich.

The sandwich was everything I wanted it to be. Well seasoned portabello mushrooms, lightly pickled shallots combined with the tang of goat cheese and frisee on an onion roll. I was happy camper at the first bite. It was drippy and finger licking messy in the good way, and well worth $6.95.

A little while later (after more driving around), I was back at the Wednesday Portland Farmer’s Market to help pack up our stall and see what produce our friends from Rick Steffen Farms had brought.

Rick himself was manning his stall and had hot-housed zucchini in the past months finding himself with a bumper crop. He willingly (and probably gratefully, since he wouldn’t have to lug it back to farm) unloaded 50lbs to me on the spot.

Looks like we’re already off to a great growing season this year in the Pacific NW, and it’s a good thing I ate first, because at this rate, starting off with this much zucchini to process for tart-fillings, who knows when I’ll have time for another sandwich!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Reflections on Opening Day @ PFM’s Wednesday Market

Every farmers market opens differently. Most to their own amount of fan fair and/or Facebook ballyhooing, but always with anticipation. Our first day at Portland Farmers Wednesday market was no different.

Adding to our anticipation, and our own ballyhooing of our market appearance, was a well timed Oregonian article, there's nothing like a homemade hand pie, which showcased Little Pots & Pans Co. on the front page of the Food Day section. (For those of you following along with the paper version of the article, no, those are not my hands folding our tarts).

The opening of any market prompts the question “How do we know what to bring?”. The easy answer is, for the first market, it’s a crap-shoot. Flavors which are popular at one market might not sell so well at another. Markets have various volume of shoppers, various amounts of other food vendors (which compete for the same buying dollars) and weather dependant. (Even though Portland claims to be weather-impervious, too hot or too much rain and the crowds stay clear). So, we bring a smattering of all the tarts in our current shapes/sizes.

Once at the market, we watch what sells, and how quickly. This week I surprised at how fast our tartlets went (bottom photo, top shelf). Clearly, they were priced right, and by prime lunch hour, we only had a couple left.

Additionally, the opening market gives us a chance to catch up with fellow vendors and farmers we might not have seen since last season (and also find out what they have in season and or may be growing…). A few of our local friends and loyal customers also stopped by to show their support (and bought tarts), which despite the chilly overcast weather, kept us upbeat.

Overall, our first Portland Wednesday Farmer’s Market was exciting, hand freezing, and tart-full for all.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What Does Your Friday Look Like?

Fridays around here are like a revolving door and probably not too different from your working week. It’s all about getting our client orders organized, out and delivered as well as preparing for the coming week.

There are things that need to be taken care of prior to the weekend and items we push out into the coming week. Instead of meetings or reports, ours center around conversations such as “do we really need to break down (clean & slice) 100lbs of onions today?” (They can wait until Monday), and “what’s on the cleaning schedule for this week” (Scrubbing down the inside of the dishwasher).

Once the tarts are out the door, it’s time to start preparing for the coming week. Produce orders and ingredients (like 1000lbs of Shepherd’s Grain flour) which have started arriving Thursday continue to stream through the day and need to catalogued (we keep track of everything here!) and are either processed into tart fillings or put away for future use. Then we clean, scrub the kitchen end to end so we can hit the ground running come Monday.

As our current schedule is Monday – Friday, we use Fridays as chance to catch-up on the week’s events and upcoming ones (farmer’s markets, any catering), work on recipe development and figure out how we want the coming week to work (What’s that yiddish proverb? Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht - translation: Man plans, God laughs…Luckily we’re agile and can handle a little ribbing now and then.)

So as I’m writing this on a Sunday and you might be reading this early in your work week, just remember, if you ever feel like breaking out of your own routine, there’s a 100lbs of onions which could use your help!