This content is sponsored by
This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's
in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in
its production or display.
MOST POPULAR ON BOSTONGLOBE.COM
Based on what you've read recently, you might be interested in these stories
By ERIC REED | VIDEO BY SAM CRIMMINS
When bars and restaurants across the country began folding because of the coronavirus crisis, Emma Snyder was one of many employees laid off from Boston-based Toast, a restaurant-oriented payment company.
This setback led to opportunity when a friend connected Snyder with Ethan Pierce, another tech industry veteran who’d been let go during the recession. Together the two co-founded Grocery Outpost, a company that allows customers to order boxes of produce, dairy, other food from commercial farms and pick up those boxes up from their favorite neighborhood restaurant. Farms get a new customer base; consumers get a new way to relate to their community; and the restaurants, which keep a percentage of each sale, get a new revenue stream.
Four months later, what Snyder and Pierce envisioned as, in their words, “a summer, almost community service project” has grown into a business with 50 partners and its first full-time employee. And it has joined a growing group of Boston-based businesses reimagining how food can be grown, prepared, and delivered.
The farm next door
“Let’s take lettuce,” says Jon Friedman, chief operating officer and co-founder of Freight Farms. “You think about islands being this tropical place where everything grows. In reality it’s volcanic in those areas. Things like fruits can grow really well there, [but] leafy things like lettuce require cooler settings.”
While paradise might have sandy beaches and warm nights, it doesn’t have much spinach or a green salad. This is the problem Freight Farms would like to solve.
The South Boston-based company builds hydroponic farms, artificial environments that can grow vegetables ranging from lettuce and carrots to herbs or even flowers. True to its name, Freight Farms builds its farms out of repurposed shipping containers, turning the same metal boxes that move car parts and t-shirts into two-acre fields powered by fertilizer, LEDs, and artificial intelligence.
A Freight Farm can work anywhere. It allows a local approach to food production, in contrast to most modern food sources, which depend on elaborate shipping networks to move food from sprawling, centralized farmlands to the communities that need it. That system works, but the food becomes less fresh and more expensive the longer it travels. In a town like Boston, this means that many neighborhoods get priced out of fresh fruits and vegetables almost entirely and have to make do with the kind of frozen, bulk-packaged products that farmers can move efficiently.
“Only some types of food can last thousands of miles on the back of a truck… [But] when you’re talking about access, local food shouldn’t be something that’s looked at as a luxury,” says Caroline Katsiroubas, director of marketing and community relations at Freight Farms. “Yet it’s often priced out of the reach of certain communities.”
A hydroponic farm like a Freight Farm creates this access. It gives a community the power to grow its own food, regardless of weather or wealth.
Building communities through food
Jose Duarte has built a career as the Indiana Jones of the kitchen.
Chef and owner of Boston-area restaurant Taranta, the Peruvian-born chef believes that every plate should offer more than a meal. It should tell a story, a history that at Taranta stretches across the coasts of Italy and the mountains of Peru. Duarte shares those stories with everyone who walks through his door, connecting his customers not only with their food but with the hands and the communities that made it.
As a chef, “I was fascinated to see that food has so much culture in its DNA,” says Duart. “How do you look at food? How do you prepare the food, and with what ingredients?”
For this reason, servers at Taranta don’t just learn to rattle off the daily specials. They study where each meal comes from and the history behind that plate. From the farms that produce each aji pepper to the distillers that barrel the balsamic vinegar, customers can understand the community that produced their food. Duarte believes in this model so much that for years he has taken his servers to Italy and Peru to meet the farmers who grow his food firsthand. For Duarte, this is a labor of love as much as it is a business decision.
“It is very important for a chef to represent the whole chain,” says Duarte. “It is very important to really know how things are produced and where they come from.”
Duarte has carved out a space for his restaurant in a crowded industry by ensuring that each diner, chef, and server feels connected to something bigger than themselves. Whether by experimenting with QR codes printed in edible squid ink, codes that the diner could scan for the history of the fish on their plate, or building a lodge in the mountains of Peru to support local farmers, Duarte has found ways to build deeper relationships between his customers and their food.
Updated August 18, 2020: Due to the pandemic and its repercussions, Taranta’s physical location will permanently close on August 29th. Duarte plans to keep the restaurant’s concept alive through pop ups, catering, classes, and online merchandising. He hopes to reopen in a new location in 2021.
Serving food when without service
“I grew up on an apple orchard in Maine, a small family run business,” says Pierce. “I used to make 10,000 apple cider donuts every weekend in the fall when you had customers coming to the orchard and definitely became ingrained with restaurants and with the food. Our farm closed down a few years ago, so I know what it’s like to lose something that’s so important.”
Grocery Outpost began in April, 2020 as a way to help restaurants survive the early days of quarantine.
The startup’s process is deceptively simple. Through Grocery Outpost’s website customers order a pre-packaged box of food, such as fresh fruits or vegetables. The company orders that food from farms that ordinarily supply professional kitchens, many of which were shut down by the coronavirus crisis. Then customers pick up those groceries from their neighborhood restaurants and cafes, transforming dark dining rooms into a bustling network of boutique grocers.
Through Grocery Outpost, producers can resume some of the business they lost to the coronavirus. Meanwhile restaurants receive a percentage of every sale picked up in their location, giving them a novel revenue stream as well as a way to maintain their relationships with customers.
This model has worked so well that Grocery Outpost has no plan on ending after the coronavirus passes.
“We want this to be a new way for people to interact with their neighborhood restaurants once they reopen,”says Snyder. “You can eat in, order takeout, or walk out with a box of our produce.”
As thought leaders work toward a more sustainable food industry, again and again they start with the relationship between us and what we eat. At Freight Farms, engineers have found a way to move a local farm into city neighborhoods and island communities. Grocery Outpost has brought professional kitchens into the front of house, letting diners directly buy the ingredients that their favorite restaurants rely on. And at Taranta servers tell the story of every dish they serve, finding new ways to help people understand the food they eat and where it comes from.
What these Boston-based innovators understand, ultimately, is that food is about building connections, and they are finding new ways to help those connections thrive no matter the place or circumstances.
Watch the Globe’s Rebuilding the Restaurant virtual event, where these innovators discuss how they see the industry shifting during this pivotal period and beyond.
Sponsored by Cross Insurance
Helping small businesses thrive in a big business world
These Boston-based companies are using creative solutions to help small businesses compete.
Boston’s health care innovators show there is power in community
As entrepreneurs rethink what health care means, increasingly they are focusing on collaboration and community.
Palate pioneers: How innovation drives the curious and creative menu at Cafe ArtScience
How innovation drives the curious and creative menu at Cafe ArtScience