An Exploration into Sonoma's Main Food Hubs, and the Chefs Using Them

As a world-class food and wine destination region, Sonoma draws visitors with high expectations, and the disposable income to pay for those desires. Ironically, some statistics claim that the area imports over 70% of its food. Food hubs help Sonoma’s culinary culture fulfill artisanal expectations while supporting local farmers.

“Sonoma’s chefs choose to use food hubs because they want the best ‘palate’ possible to showcase their work to discerning guests,” Tim Page of food hub F.E.E.D. (Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights) Sonoma explains. “It’s also a conscious choice to help support a Sonoma farmer’s ‘perfect day.’” The perfect day? Providing pristine produce to restaurants in the amount specified, for the price specified, on the day specified.  

So what exactly is a food hub, and why use one? Food hubs belong to a subset of what the USDA calls ‘food value chains,’ or collaborative, transparent partnerships designed to blend financial gain with social good, providing affordable aggregation, distribution and sometimes marketing for small and mid-sized farmers. 

Here, Foodable WebTV Network shares secrets to the success of Sonoma’s food hubs, and some celebrated chefs using them.

F.E.E.D. (Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights) Sonoma 

Ahupua’a - it’s a traditional Hawai’ian term for practicing respect, cooperation, and stewardship of the earth’s resources. A belief in an interconnection between land, sea, clouds, and nature, plus a responsibility to maintain the balance between them. It is also the core creed that drove Tim Page and Michelle Dubin to found FEED Sonoma. That, and what Page sees when he looks in the eyes of his five and seven year-old children. 

Until 2011, Page lived the typical corporate, consumer lifestyle, disconnected and disillusioned, but ‘successful’ in the eyes of others. Tim yearned to create a better food system inspired by ahupua’a, and in turn, steward such a system for the next generation - his children’s generation. 

A for-profit food hub, FEED Sonoma revolves around a farm-centric, not consumer-centric philosophy. While some of FEED Sonoma’s bespoke produce prices may run a bit higher than conventional sourcing, farmers are paid what they need. Fair prices allow farmers to remain viable in an industry with razor-thin margins. The model works. Marketing relies upon word-of-mouth among chefs and farmers, with business more than tripling since FEED’s inception in 2011.

Venues like San Francisco’s highly touted Bar Tartine and 2015 James Beard Award winner The Progress, order specialty items like micro-greens, demi-greens and dwarf bok choy from FEED Sonoma producer Earthworker Farm. Owner/farmer George Macros of Sebastopol harvests his greens in the evening, when the plants’ vitality is at their greatest. Though delicate in appearance, the greens retain freshness for up to a week from delivery.

Dirt-to-dish relationships extend beyond the kitchen, too. FEED Sonoma growers and gourmets break bread over an annual farm-to-table dinner. FEED also partners with clients like eatery Backyard in Forestville, and CAFF (Community Alliance with Family Farmers) to raise awareness and provide community outreach, allowing the grub hub to focus on what it does best - distributing and selling produce.

Recently, San Francisco-based Google invited five FEED Sonoma-affiliated farms and five value-added producers to one of their campus cafeterias, providing employees access to fresh produce and the opportunity to meet food hub vendors.

Page concedes of his success, “We thrive because we exist in an artisan world that values what we do.”

Sonoma Organics

A nationally recognized food hub serving Sonoma since 1995, Sonoma Organics boasts twenty years of long-term, established relationships with artisanal purveyors of produce, cheese and mushrooms. This translated into convenience. Restaurants enjoy the convenience of making one call to Sonoma Organics for their myriad specialty food needs, rather than twenty calls to separate vendors.

These long-term relationships also give owner Richard Robinson an edge when rooting out coveted seasonal items like squash blossoms. Robinson offers up enviable, perfectly formed, bug-free squash blossoms picked fresh the moment they open in the morning, and delivered the same day. Robinson knows of no other food distributor who can make that claim. He admits that his biggest challenge includes dealing with changes on the fly, whether a farmer’s broken truck or Mother Nature. 

“Places like Costco deal with a standardized system. Nothing about Sonoma Organics is standardized,” Robinson observes with a wry laugh.

Chefs Daniel Kedan & Marianna Gardenhire | Backyard- Forestville, CA.

Backyard in Forestville sources ninety to ninety-five percent of all of their ingredients from small local farms that share the owners’ beliefs in sustainable farming practices. For owner/chefs Daniel Kedan and Marianna Gardenhire, Sonoma food hubs nurture a strong sense of community. 

“There are not many places in this world where this is possible year round. It is not only something that we believe in but also, what we enjoy,” marvels Kedan. “You get to know the people that grow, raise, or forage all of the amazing ingredients we get to play with everyday.” Kedan finds this dynamic exciting, inspiring, and rewarding.

“If the farms have too much of something - tomatoes, cucumber, plums - we can make jam or pickles or sauce, which also creates less waste. This helps us both financially,” Kedan points out. “In return, there are days where we were busier than expected, and I call the farmers to help. They will harvest that day and bring me produce. It is a symbiotic relationship. And together the community around us grows.” Backyard works with FEED Sonoma and Sonoma Organics. Doing so not only supports the local farmers in their community, but also helps share the region’s bounty with chefs and individuals that would normally not have access to it. Kedan sums it up this way, “We get to use our passion to translate theirs. ” 

The takeaway here? Food hubs prove both market and mission driven - meeting or exceeding consumer expectations, while providing opportunities for increased social value.