> Louisville, KY: Betting jobs on rural-urban food connections


Good Food Economy Digest

Louisville, KY: Betting jobs on rural-urban food connections

People building strong places with local and regional food


Good Food: Healthy, green, fair, and affordable


By Patty Cantrell, Regional Food Solutions LLC

Mike Higgins had just become president of a national food manufacturing company based in Louisville, KY, when he met Sarah Fritschner from the city’s economic development department.

In This Edition

We go to Louisville, KY, where the city’s economic development department employs a full-time relationship broker to build regional business-to-business connections from farm to table.

Take Action

Learn more about “soft infrastructure” of relationship building that makes the “hard infrastructure” of trucks and packing lines work best.

Resources include:
» NGFN webinar: Talk is Cheap ... and Efficient! Facilitating value chain development without costly new infrastructure

» USDA's new Food LINC program and background information.

“Sarah asked if I would be willing to try local food in our products if she found the farmers and took care of getting it to me the way I would need it,” he said.

The conversation launched new recipes at Higgins’ Custom Food Solutions and high-volume sales for its initial Kentucky farm suppliers. It also brought into place a large-scale processing piece of the regional food supply puzzle. 

Fritschner is tasked with pulling this puzzle together as part of metropolitan Louisville’s job creation strategy. Another big piece the city and nonprofit developer Seed Capital Kentucky have secured is a $56 million food business park that will break ground this fall in West Louisville. 

The picture of how local food can spur both urban and rural revitalization is getting clearer in the Bluegrass State. Louisville has led the way with a strategic focus on finding and connecting entrepreneurs along the regional supply chain from farm to table. 

System Shaping Up

“What Sarah does is very intangible but absolutely essential,” said Theresa Zawacki, senior policy advisor to Louisville Forward, which is two-term Mayor Greg Fischer’s economic development initiative. 

Fritschner herself joked: “It’s a lot of ‘Let’s get you and you together to talk’ and ‘What if we tried this?’ … Everything I do takes two years,” she said. “We’re building systems where there was nothing.”

Jim Barham is an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He calls this business-to-business relationship building the “soft infrastructure” that makes other “hard infrastructure” like trucks and packing lines work. USDA just launched a new program to support and partner with regional food relationship brokers like Fritschner, known as “value chain coordinators,” in 10 metropolitan regions. Louisville is one of the partners and the only municipality in the group.

The first product with local ingredients that Louisville-based processor Custom Food Solutions developed was a cheesy chicken stew with Kentucky farm-direct sweet potatoes and butternut squash. President Mike Higgins said: "I am working to become the Kentucky Proud expert in food processing and manufacturing with Kentucky products.” Credit: City of Louisville

The first product with local ingredients that Louisville-based processor Custom Food Solutions developed was a cheesy chicken stew with Kentucky farm-direct sweet potatoes and butternut squash. President Mike Higgins said: "I am working to become the Kentucky Proud expert in food processing and manufacturing with Kentucky products.” Credit: City of Louisville

Value chains are mutual-aid affairs; they are supply chains built by businesses that need each other to satisfy demand. In the case of local and regional food, they’re trying to deliver on higher purpose values that consumers and communities are bringing to market. 

One example is schools trying to reconnect kids with the people and places behind food. Louisville’s Farm to Table program works with universities, schools and other institutions to source locally. Data from those buyers shows it’s resulting so far in at least $1.5 million annually to Kentucky farmers, Louisville Forward’s Theresa Zawacki said.

The overall big carrot for food value chain development in Kentucky is Louisville’s estimated $258 million per year in consumer demand for local food along with $353 million in commercial demand.  

Jose Cubero, head of Louisville-area operations for Indianapolis-based Piazza Produce, is part of the value chain Fritschner is pulling together. He explained there is an internal motivation as well. 

“I live in Kentucky. I’m proud of my state and my city. I want to do something to make a difference here,” he said.

Piazza reached the $1 million mark last year in local food; half produce and half meats and value-added products like cheeses.

It’s helpful to have Piazza and other larger buyers on board, Fritschner said. It helps in conversations with rural entrepreneurs and leaders about the potential for growing their food and farm business connections with the city. 

“Piazza’s trucks run up and down Interstate 65 every day,” she said.

Also encouraging is the news that Piazza Produce and several other companies with commitments to local food will soon co-locate and collaborate at the up-and-coming West Louisville FoodPort

FoodPort Power

The West Louisville Food Port is a 24-acre redevelopment project to support and build local and regional food businesses and provide neighborhood employment and opportunity. A 100-plus member community council and developers have worked together on job training and recruitment strategies as well as integrating community life and public spaces with commercial food business activity. Credit: OMA

The West Louisville Food Port is a 24-acre redevelopment project to support and build local and regional food businesses and provide neighborhood employment and opportunity. A 100-plus member community council and developers have worked together on job training and recruitment strategies as well as integrating community life and public spaces with commercial food business activity. Credit: OMA

The FoodPort grew from non-profit Seed Capital Kentucky’s quest to help the city and state move more local and regional food to market, said project director and co-founder Caroline Heine. 

She and fellow philanthropist Stephen Reily started Seed Capital Kentucky in 2011. The catalyst was Mayor Fischer’s campaign promise to build the local food economy, followed by his big step to place it squarely under economic development as a job creation strategy. 

“The political environmental that our mayor established has been key across the board,” Heine said.

The FoodPort is anchored by a $23 million expansion of the Chicago-based company FarmedHere. Its new 60,000 square foot growing space in Louisville will be the first outpost for FarmedHere in a plan to replicate its indoor vertical farming operation. 

Other initial FoodPort tenants include ingredient dehydrator Just One Organics and The Weekly Juicery, a busy fresh-pressed juice delivery business with five retail locations in the region. All are part of a growing local- and organic-leaning wing of Louisville’s important food and beverage business cluster

Louisville Forward’s Theresa Zawacki explained the economic development thinking behind business clusters. 

FoodPort innovators could very well work in the future, for example, with others in the food and beverage cluster, such as equipment makers, Zawacki said. Louisville leaders there include Winston Industries of KFC fryer fame and First Build, a crowd-source designer connected to G.E. Appliances. 

“The mayor sees opportunity here well beyond food,” she said. 

Another FoodPort economic development angle is neighborhood improvement. 

“The site is large enough that we have the opportunity to develop community-oriented spaces as well as buildings to house the businesses,” Seed Capital’s Heine said. 

It is close to the interstate and in a light-industrial part of town, which serves the needs of commercial-scale facilities. “But more interesting, it sits smack dab at the nexus of three West Louisville neighborhoods,” she said. 

A 100plus-member community council was part of planning from the start of the FoodPort, also known as a food innovation district

Training and recruitment of neighborhood residents to work in FoodPort construction and at tenant businesses is underway. So are commitments from tenants and construction contractors to hire them. A two-acre teaching farm is part of the FoodPort design as well as open spaces for everyday neighborhood life and special events.

Rural-Urban Reach

John Edwards is co-owner of the new niche meat processing facility, Trackside Butcher Shoppe, in Henry County, KY, northeast of Louisville. The city’s work to connect rural and urban food and farm entrepreneurs has been part of Trackside’s startup success. Credit: Trackside Butcher Shoppe

John Edwards is co-owner of the new niche meat processing facility, Trackside Butcher Shoppe, in Henry County, KY, northeast of Louisville. The city’s work to connect rural and urban food and farm entrepreneurs has been part of Trackside’s startup success. Credit: Trackside Butcher Shoppe

The FoodPort and Sarah Fritschner’s regional value chain work are building rural job momentum as well. 

John Edwards is co-owner of the new Trackside Butcher Shoppe meat processing facility in Henry County, northeast of Louisville. Fritschner hooked him up with mentors and others that have been key in getting Trackside off to a successful start. 

“Sarah’s a door-opener,” Edwards said.

State senator and farmer Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville) is happy about it, too. “Getting a processor for meats here locally is very important for our farm economy. Before, we had to travel quite a distance to get those services,” he said. 

“It’s all about relationships,” added Kentucky’s newly elected Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles. “Often times markets can be created when a restaurant or a distributor develops a relationship with a farming family and grows to have trust and confidence in them to meet quantity and quality needs.”

Custom Food Solutions’ Mike Higgins said that’s how he became a large-scale processing link in the regional value chain. 

“Sarah’s trying to have a large-scale impact on farmers in the state of Kentucky. She helped me understand my role in that.”

> Atlanta: Cracking farm-to-table’s chicken-and-egg situation


Good Food Economy Digest

Atlanta: Cracking farm-to-table’s chicken-and-egg situation

People building strong places with local and regional food


Good Food: Healthy, green, fair, and affordable


By Patty Cantrell, Regional Food Solutions LLC

Susan Pavlin is in the business of building larger-scale market channels for smaller farms’ products. She directs Atlanta-based startup The Common Market Georgia, which aims to replicate the success that its parent The Common Market has had in the Mid-Atlantic region. Its operations there are self-sustaining, with more than $11 million worth of local food sold since 2008 to schools, hospitals, and corporate campuses.

How is it going in Atlanta? The metropolitan area mirrors in many ways what is happening, and not happening, in local food markets nationwide.

Immigrant and other beginning farmers are working cooperatively now through Atlanta's Global Growers Network to produce food for wholesale markets. Credit: Jessica McGowan

Immigrant and other beginning farmers are working cooperatively now through Atlanta's Global Growers Network to produce food for wholesale markets. Credit: Jessica McGowan

“We are in that chicken-and-egg place right now,” Pavlin said of The Common Market Georgia’s 2016 beginnings. “Farmers don’t want to commit to more production unless they know they have a secure market. Buyers don’t want to commit to purchasing until they know the supply is out there.”

It’s the perfect place for The Common Market Georgia to be, she said. “We have the agility and the skill set to bring that supply and demand together.”

If successful, The Common Market Georgia’s larger volume sales — projected to reach $1.6 million in 2018 — could help crack another chicken-and-egg situation. That is local food’s promise to help Atlanta build stronger urban and rural places.

This promise is at the root of strong consumer and social investor interest in the emerging local food sector. It’s also at the root of local food’s strategic importance to Atlanta and other metropolitan areas nationwide.

 

21st century shift

Metropolitan Atlanta is a large area spanning 29 counties, or 8,376 square miles of cities, towns, and countryside. New local food connections among its rural and urban places are part of the metro’s shift toward “healthy, livable” communities and away from previous patterns of development that paved farmland and contributed to "food deserts.” Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Metropolitan Atlanta is a large area spanning 29 counties, or 8,376 square miles of cities, towns, and countryside. New local food connections among its rural and urban places are part of the metro’s shift toward “healthy, livable” communities and away from previous patterns of development that paved farmland and contributed to "food deserts.” Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Atlanta is joining a national shift among metropolitan regions toward healthy livable communities and away from previous growth patterns that produced costly sprawl, blight and food deserts.

Local food shows up across the board in this shift.

Private and public investment ranges from business training for farmers at the rural fringe to urban agriculture plots now greening and feeding neglected neighborhoods. The value of fresh, healthy, and local food also features in the metro’s Choose Atlanta pitch to attract next-generation talent and business investment.

Local food economy development, however, has yet to emerge as a comprehensive regional strategy. The challenge for Atlanta and other regions that are now exploring local food’s community and economic development role lies in huge market gaps that entrepreneurs and investors face.

A globalizing food and agriculture economy has left behind great voids in locally and regionally available processing, distribution, and other essential supply chain functions. This meager market infrastructure makes it difficult for many to see how local food can make a regional dent.

A “false dichotomy” holds this chicken-and-egg situation in place, said Stacy Funderburke, assistant regional counsel with the Conservation Fund. The land protection and economic development organization is involved in Atlanta green space initiatives, including farmland connections.

“The view is it’s either 1,000-acre farms out in South Georgia or small food plots in the city that will never move the dial,” Funderburke said. “Yet the commercial space in-between offers real and compelling opportunities to move significant amounts of food straight into the city and scale up the entire system.”

 

The market in-between

Working at that in-between space is what the emerging local food sector’s new regional food hub intermediaries do. More than 300 food hubs have emerged nationally in recent years. In Atlanta, The Common Market Georgia’s focus on scaling up volumes with sales to larger-scale institutions adds to food hub work already underway at the Turnip Truck and Fresh Harvest.

Food hubs are social enterprises in the business of bridging infrastructure gaps in the growing local food sector. Industry analysts peg the sector at $12 billion in 2014 sales with projected 9 percent annual growth through 2018.

Carver Neighborhood Market is one of many new businesses and community initiatives in metropolitan Atlanta’s growing local food economy. Its another supply chain link in the sector, which promises to help Atlanta build stronger urban and rural communities. Photo credit  fcsministries.org.

Carver Neighborhood Market is one of many new businesses and community initiatives in metropolitan Atlanta’s growing local food economy. Its another supply chain link in the sector, which promises to help Atlanta build stronger urban and rural communities. Photo credit  fcsministries.org.

The work goes well beyond packing and trucking farm products. Food hubs and partners build new market connections across regions called food value chains. Participants in these values-based food supply chains are on a common mission. They’re in the market to generate social, economic and environmental returns for people and places.

Farm-to-school is the perfect example of the opportunity and why it’s valuable to have someone working the in-between value chain ground, said Jim Barham, agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

More than 5,000 school districts in all 50 states are involved in the farm-to-school movement, which has a dual purpose of improving children’s diets and supporting community businesses. Last year they stimulated more than $1 billion in local economic activity with nearly $790 million in local food purchases, according to national survey results.

“To make it work,” USDA’s Barham said, “you need some entity that will dig through all the red tape and connect growers with each other and with the school district.

“This ‘soft infrastructure’ of social capital and connections is critically important to scaling and building the local food economy,” he said. It’s what runs the “hard infrastructure” of packing lines, delivery trucks, and logistics technology.

 

Unlocking potential

Later this month, food hub operators, developers, and investors from across the country will gather in Atlanta for the third biennial National Food Hub Conference.

The event is like a cross between Silicon Valley and Organic Valley. Innovators put their heads together on the work of building the value chains needed to make good on the community returns that markets want from local food.

These innovators are clear they are not just selling and moving food but building a new food system, said John Fisk, executive director of the Wallace Center at Winrock International, which hosts the National Good Food Network and its upcoming conference in Atlanta.

“Getting this system moving is the key to unlocking local food’s broader potential across regions,” he said.

Regional planner Allison Duncan gets that. She works with the 10-county Atlanta Regional Commission, assisting rural and urban communities with everything from farmland protection to healthy food promotion.

Putting it all together in a comprehensive local food economy strategy for the region is a logical next step. “It’s not yet clear, however, what role the commission should play and how we add value,” Duncan said.

 

Grassroots base

Innovators on the ground welcome the Commission’s interest and involvement, said Bobbi de Winter. She directs the Food Well Alliance. Partnered with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Food Well Alliance convenes and supports entrepreneurs and initiatives across metropolitan Atlanta’s local food spectrum.

Atlanta's Global Growers Network. Credit: Jason Jales

Atlanta's Global Growers Network. Credit: Jason Jales

Rural and suburban initiatives are at the table. One is a planned 40-acre “co-farming site” in the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area just 20 minutes from Atlanta’s core. Stacy Funderburke of the Conservation Fund is working with Global Growers Network to develop it for an expanding agricultural marketing cooperative of immigrant, refugee, and beginning farmers.

Also at the table are many urban agriculture and related community health and neighborhood improvement strategies. Atlanta’s first-in-the-nation urban agriculture director Mario Cambardella is now on the job of advancing projects ranging from compost production on brownfield sites to local food distribution at the neighborhood level.

These are the kind of investments in healthy livable communities that a growing local food system can unlock for Atlanta and its economic future, said de Winter of Food Well Alliance.

“Atlanta is extremely vibrant. We’re growing economically. There are lots of jobs here. But there are lots of jobs in Austin and Nashville and other cities, too,” she said.

“We know quality of life is one of the things that influence the millennial generation’s decisions about where to live. Local healthy food, available to them and everyone in the city, plays an important role in that.”

> Local Food Fuels Rural Main Street Mojo


Good Food Economy Digest

Local Food Fuels Rural Main Street Mojo

People building strong places with local and regional food


Good Food: Healthy, green, fair, and affordable


By Patty Cantrell, Regional Food Solutions

Just four years ago, Main Street in Corbin, Kentucky (pop. 7,300), looked and felt like most downtowns in rural America: Vacant buildings. Empty sidewalks. A few surviving businesses.

In This Edition

We go to rural Corbin, KY, where a Main Street revival is rooted in the economic stimulus that local food can provide.

Take Action

Check out the federal Local Food, Local Places partnership to learn how Corbin and other communities use local food to move economic, social and public health objectives in tandem.

Today, though, it’s hard to find a parking space on the mile and a half of Corbin’s Main Street. That’s ok with city leaders and residents who prefer the commerce and community that a busy downtown builds.

“We have a vibrant 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. economy here now,” said Andy Salmons, a 2003 Corbin High School graduate. Salmons came back home a few years ago, opened a specialty coffee shop downtown, and started working as the city’s part-time Main Street manager.

“People are walking around, hopping from place to place,” he said. “It’s a totally different vibe. ... “Every storefront has someone working on it.”

 What happened? How did downtown Corbin land more than 20 new businesses since 2012, pushing its 40 percent vacancy rate to practically zero? How did downtown Corbin bring young and old downtown to shop, dine, and socialize after decades of consumers shifting to national chains and Big Box stores?

The answer is important to rural and urban places across the country. Many are trying to build stronger futures with new local and regional commerce. A recent national inventory, for example, shows that Main Street environments build not only commerce and wealth but also underlying physical and mental health.

Kristin Smith - farmer, and co-owner of Wrigley Taproom. Photo credit: Community Farm Alliance

Kristin Smith - farmer, and co-owner of Wrigley Taproom. Photo credit: Community Farm Alliance

Bringing people back downtown to live, work, and play is key, said Corbin Mayor Willard McBurney. “To do that you need places to eat, places to shop.”

Economic Stimulus

Corbin is among a growing number of towns discovering and capitalizing on the power of local food to provide that new economy stimulus.

A turning point was when Main Street manager Andy Salmons partnered with the successful Whitley County Farmers Market. Two years ago, they brought vendors and live music to downtown’s Vibroc Park on Tuesday evenings through the growing season. The event does two important things. It gets people used to coming downtown. It also serves as a business incubator and networking service for vendors.

Kristin Smith, a farmer and co-owner of downtown’s new Wrigley Taproom and Brewery, got her start selling beef and pork at the downtown market. She also field-tested her “New Appalachian” tacos, got acquainted with her now-business partners, and graduated with them to the brick-and-mortar restaurant. Another vendor that now operates out of a downtown Corbin storefront is Dewdrop Pottery.

Stacy Miller, program advisor with the national Farmers Market Coalition, is familiar with this phenomenon of farmers markets launching new products and enterprises. “I've seen it unfold in all parts of the country,” she said. “Creative, dedicated people recognize a niche in their community and begin to fill it.”

Federal agencies are partnering with regional economic development efforts to put new resources behind the power of local food to advance a range of objectives, from Main Street commerce to greater access to healthy foods. The Local Food, Local Places program recently announced a new round of grantees.

“Having a local food economy attracts people, whether it’s a downtown brewery or cheese maker,” said Olivia Collier, North Carolina program manager with the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Thirteen states, including Kentucky, are involved in the ARC, which is a partner in the Local Food, Local Places program.

 Photo credit:Downtown Corbin

 Photo credit:Downtown Corbin

“People will travel for local food,” Collier said. “Residents also enjoy it and benefit from the new commerce.” Opportunities range from downtown revitalization to regional food distribution into larger-volume markets like schools and hospitals.

Doing Business Together

Motivated residents are part of the economic stimulus of local food. Downtown Corbin is up to nine restaurants, many farm-to-table, because people are hungry for local, scratch-cooked, and unique foods, said the Wrigley Taproom’s Kristin Smith.

“We have a massive void here in places to eat outside of chain restaurants,” she said.

Residents want to support neighbors like her. Smith came back home to southeastern Kentucky from California a few years ago to keep the sixth-generation family farm going.

“When someone you’ve known your whole life opens up a new restaurant, you’re rooting for them; you make a commitment to go there, to support them and their local suppliers,” Smith said. “A large majority of our community is rooting for us, and a large majority doesn’t even drink!”

They know the economic impact of going downtown for a homegrown burger extends out to farmers like Rich Meadors. His Sally Gap Farms is up to 40 acres of produce this year from 12 acres in 2013 due to strong growth to farm-to-table restaurants and other local outlets.

Smith asked Meadors to raise potatoes for her french fries at the Wrigley. He planted an acre to give it a try. This year he’s putting in at least five acres to supply the Wrigley year-round.

“It helps us a whole lot,” he said. “We move produce right in our hometown. It saves the cost of hauling and we’re able to trade out boxes and baskets rather than buy new.”

 Photo credit: Community Farm Alliance

 Photo credit: Community Farm Alliance

Sally Gap Farms’ story is part of nationwide growth in local food sales from at least $12 billion in 2014 to an expected $20 billion by 2019.

Growth from the Center

But those numbers reflect just the tip of the economic energy that local food can build.

Now that properties are occupied and downtown activity is strong, for example, the city of Corbin is expanding it work to attract residents to Main Street and surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re working now with downtown property owners to renovate their second stories for residential use,” Salmons said. “We’re also connecting neighborhoods to downtown with new sidewalks and bike lanes. We want to make it conducive to leaving your car at home; that’s a new concept here.”

The resources Corbin needs to do it are also growing with its success. Salmons started his part-time Main Street manager job four years ago with an annual budget of $15,000. Today it’s up to $280,000 from the city’s general fund.

How did downtown Corbin do it?

“We formulated a strong sense of what we were going for,” Salmons said. “We wanted to restore that sense that it’s a viable thing to live, work, and play downtown.”



> Juicing up economy with food makers and movers


Good Food Economy Digest

Juicing up economy with food makers and movers

People building strong places with local and regional food


Good Food: Healthy, green, fair, and affordable


By Patty Cantrell, Regional Food Solutions

Earl Herrick has been in the wholesale produce business for nearly 30 years. But 2015 was perhaps the busiest and most exciting yet for San Francisco-based Earl’s Organic Produce.

In This Edition

We explore San Francisco’s new strategy for building employment and economic diversity with support for food and beverage producers and distributors.

Take Action

Check out the Roadmap for City Food Sector Innovation and Investment for information and tools you can use.

“In the last six months we’ve had more new customers than we’ve ever had,” Herrick said. “It’s an incredible time of innovation and incubation. We’re seeing an interesting marriage of technology and produce, with our new customers doing everything from home deliveries to juice programs.”

The growing customer list at Earl’s and at other farm-direct organic wholesalers like San Francisco’s Veritable Vegetable — at 41, the longest-running organic distributor in the country — is yet another indicator that independent food and beverage is on the rise. These distributors’ customers represent an economic base layer of food and beverage manufacturers and wholesalers that is re-emerging as markets demand greater variety and veracity in food and drink.

In San Francisco the danger of losing out on this growth, due to factors like intense real estate competition, has public and private leaders lining up to make sure food and beverage entrepreneurs can start, stay, and grow in the city. Its new Makers and Movers Economic Cluster Strategy may prove a model for other places that also see opportunity in this growing sector for building employment diversity and economic diversity.

Targeted Assistance

“A big driving force behind this study was the understanding that if San Francisco wants this cluster, it needs to hold on to this cluster,” said Eli Zigas, food and agriculture policy director at the San Francisco-based community development organization SPUR. Zigas was part of a 2014 task force that worked with the city’s planning, economic, and workforce departments to craft the Makers and Movers strategy.

Securing specialized space for food and beverage businesses is a Makers and Movers priority. “Once you take out sinks and floor drains, for example, the chances someone will put those back in are slim,” Zigas said.

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen, Bay Area Bites  

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen, Bay Area Bites

 

The strategy also calls for technical and business support, workforce development and retention, and transportation solutions.

San Francisco is moving these recommendations forward in part with a new dedicated point person for food and beverage at the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development: Susan Ma.

Ma lists other progress to date. One big win is the major renovation and expansion of the 138-year-old San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market with a new 60-year lease of municipal land. Another is a private developer’s work with SFMade, a nonprofit supporter of smaller manufacturers, to include food and beverage needs in 140,000 square feet of new industrial space they are bringing online.

“We are also in the midst of a late-night transit pilot for people and businesses that work the other 9-to-5,” Ma said.

Transit is huge for companies that operate 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

“Some of our staff come to work between 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m.,” said Veritable Vegetable staffer and Makers and Movers task force member Nicole Mason. “Improving transit during these hours would increase access to jobs at our company and others.”

Flyover states, too

San Francisco’s Makers and Movers strategy is specific to that city but also relevant across the nation. Clusters of food and beverage producers and distributors are growing nationwide as more and more people come to expect a quality of food and life that is no longer unique to cosmopolitan destinations.

Farmers’ market flavors and artisan food innovations have opened a Pandora’s Box of consumer and community demand all the way from rural and urban food deserts to corporate cafeterias. Now even the most middle of American towns can boast, or hopes to soon have, their own chocolatiers, craft breweries, neighborhood grocers, and regional wholesalers delivering fresh, local and ethnic foods to them.

Real estate developers are among those trying to understand and satisfy this demand, said Sarene Marshall, executive director of the Center for Sustainability at the Urban Land Institute, an association of 36,000 real estate and land use professionals.

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen, Bay Area Bites

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen, Bay Area Bites

“The conventional wisdom has always been that the best first-floor retail food tenant for your office or apartment building is a national chain,” she said. “But there is so much interest now in alternatives that developers are branching out.”

They are looking for new food retailers to differentiate storefronts or lift up underserved neighborhoods. They are also looking for the next generation of food processors and distributors that can help them repurpose and rejuvenate industrial space.

New supply chains

An example from the world of innovative food retail is the organic delivery firm Full Circle. Full Circle sources and packs weekly boxes of local and regional foods for subscribers in San Francisco as well as some 200 other cities across five states: Alaska, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

Full Circle buyer Katie von der Lieth said the company works directly with farmers but also appreciates organic wholesalers that source locally and regionally.

“We want to have good variety for our customers and still provide that connection with farmers,” she said.

Maintaining and building the supply chain of businesses that companies like Full Circle need is key to the employment and economic diversity that San Francisco wants from its Makers and Movers strategy.

“Our research showed that the sector provides relatively well-paid jobs and career advancement opportunities for San Franciscans at all education levels,” said Diana Sokolove, a senior planner at the City of San Francisco. Entry-level stock handlers and clerks, for example, can move up to well-paying distribution and purchasing manager positions.

These are important and steady jobs, said Michael Janis, general manager of the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market. “We didn’t lose any jobs during the 2008 economic crisis. People can raise families with these jobs, put their kids through college.”

Competition. Collaboration.

These jobs are also growing after years of decline. In 2012 employment at food and beverage makers and movers increased by 13 percent in San Francisco (to more than 5,000) after dropping by half between 1990 and 2005. Businesses in the sector are also multiplying. In 2013, one third of San Francisco’s 370 food and beverage firms were in their first five years of operation.

Turning these startups into mainstays, or even icons one day, is a big reason San Francisco is doubling down on assistance to them. Growth and innovation in food and beverage builds diversity into San Francisco’s economy and adds value to its brand, benefitting tourism, entertainment, and more.

Fundamental to that growth and innovation is the creativity and synergy that happens in a business cluster, even among competitors. It happens in places like southeast San Francisco where fruit and vegetable producers and distributers are concentrated. Earl’s Organic Produce and 30 other wholesalers are located there as merchant tenants of the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market. Veritable Vegetable is among dozens of other collaborators and competitors also nearby.

Together they build a fertile, even familial business environment. “The collective impact of many businesses working together is what really moves the dial,” said Veritable Vegetable’s Nichole Mason.

Earl Herrick’s experience demonstrates. The very first Earl’s Organic Produce location was an extra desk in some extra space that an existing San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market tenant made available.

Herrick recalls: “I asked the gentleman what he wanted for rent, and he said, ‘We’ll see if you’re here at the end of the month.’ ... I was, and he charged me about $200.

Fresh produce in San Francisco’s Mission District   Credit: Flickr photostream user torbakhoppe

Fresh produce in San Francisco’s Mission District   Credit: Flickr photostream user torbakhoppe