At the end of March I had the privilege of sharing my experience of trying to run the cafe without using “food service” conglomerates - sourcing small scale and locally as much as possible. Here are my notes from the gathering - I’d love to share more with you if you’re interested!
Our Future Our Food Forum – March 27, 2019
My name is Daniel Swenson-Klatt. For the past 13 years, I have been the owner/operator of Butter Bakery Café, a south Minneapolis neighborhood restaurant. I am also a former middle school teacher, museum manager, and youth worker. My connections to the food system range from family gardening as a grade-schooler, working as a grill cook in high school, working for the University of Minnesota’s crop research program during college summers, and being an avid home cook and baker. I have been connected to the co-op, farmer’s markets and local farm movement since the 1980’s. I represent a national organization of over 500 high-road, ethical restaurants working to raise the standards for our industry.
Biggest Problem I face?
For small restaurants, the Corporate Big Food-Big Business - Big Food Service Providers (think Sysco/US Foods) have been designed to function in an industrial scale to match industrial big-Ag scale processors. This leads to shutting out local producers and greatly undervaluing their quality and costs. These Big Service Providers cheapen food costs, incentivize mass production and encourage waste by over-sizing quantities provided and minimums required for ordering. They also have the weight and leverage to cheapen the labor force through subsidies, taxpayer support, and favorable health department policies. Because their sales teams work from profit driven sales quotas, they market heavily and undercut family farmers and reduces family farm markets. The real costs of transporting food thousands of miles over our highways, burning fossil fuels and creating massive storage systems are not added in to the deal prices that consumers get to pay at their local fast food outlet. Instead, those costs are passed on to taxpayers in lots of other ways. We all pay for their profits – even if it’s not with the actual cost of the dollar meal.
Creating a Butter Bakery Café
I grew up just across the highway from family farmers and pick-your own local orchards, and my family had a working garden so I always understood the difference between local, seasonal food and grocery-store food or the commodity items that showed up at my high school grill cook restaurant. But even in our local grocery store, there were limits to what was available, because there were limits to how far they wanted to go to source products. I wanted to capture that sense of food integrity and relationship building when I opened Butter. There were a few models out there at the time – Lucia’s, Angry Trout Café, Trotter’s, The Wedge and Seward Co-ops and the Seward Café and I leaned on them for encouragement and connections to begin. But finding local producers who had capacity to source my shop, developing smart inventory and ordering processes to be able to keep my restaurant stocked, and pricing well enough to pay the higher costs of higher quality ingredients were all a several year learning curve.
My story – our local map, our local producer signage, our stories about these producers are my way to say it is possible. It can be done, even at a casual, small scale, affordable café. Offering organic, family farm products is not just for the affluent in fine dining restaurants. A local, sustainable food system can be made affordable to all people, no exceptions.
We’ve had to re-learn the process of living with the seasons – of going with the flow when weather or pests or family challenges throw off a producers delivery. My shop runs out of food during our service – it’s a small batch way of thinking – so I understand when something just isn’t available from their end. We make do. We find a way.
We’ve also had to be creative and smart about fresh food storage and building kitchen and bakery production plans to use products as they arrive – to manage spoilage and adapt recipes to use ingredients we might not have expected to receive. There is a sense of creativity and variety that adds to the feeling that we are doing something meaningful here.
I am blessed by the relationships I’ve been able to develop with families who make their living by caring for their land, raising animals with love, and who are proud of the crops and produce they have grown. I’ve learned to understand their risk in the relationship – our interdependence – and that my growth is also their growth. And they have taught me that the connections are much larger, that our relationship reaches into many other areas of life and public policy. We share the same pressures to bend to the large, global big ag businesses – to give up our commitments to work the land with the future in mind – to know that whatever damage we do it will ultimately damage ourselves.
There has a been a recent trend for Big Ag to buy out these small producers to have a marketing tool - to say – we have an organic line. I was originally connected to the Odwalla organic bottled juices – but after they were bought by CocaCola, (Like Pepsi did with Naked Juices) I learned that I could only carry Odwalla in my shop if I also carried Coke, which I never had or planned to carry, since my beverage case has been committed to local soda producers from Spring Grove, New Ulm and Forest Lake, Minnesota and Viroqua, Wisconsin.
We needed to learn how explain our food costs. Why a cup of coffee doesn’t actually cost less than a dollar or why $10 is a good value for a meal. We have to train our staff to understand real food costs and where that money goes. We want customers to feel proud of their effort to keep money in their community. We have to explain that there isn’t thousands of dollars disappearing into pockets of millionaires who have no intention of investing in this community. We instead point out that we run on no margin, reinvesting in our staff and neighborhood in ways that build a vital local economy. We point out that 80% of our over 100 suppliers operate just the way I do, committed to a sustainable, local food system and run as independent, small businesses. Our customers learn to ask that question of their purchasing power in other places to help them recognize the power their consumer choices have. That takes lots of my time and lots of my energy, but it is worth it to me, because, in the end, this is my neighborhood and my earth too and I get to see the benefits of these investments in a stronger community and safer place for those who follow me.
This January, I re-formed Butter Bakery Café as a General Benefit Corporation – to highlight our efforts to be a social benefit to our community. One of our goals is to be a model for local, sustainable sourcing in our industry. So I’d like to commit to few things to help work toward that goal.
1) Make better use of Hidden Stream Farm’s network of families in the Elgin MN area to source more of their produce, by building these higher costs into my pricing structure so that I can afford them and make them affordable for my customers.
2) Connect with a new food hub/education space – The Good Acre – to source from their local farmers by building a more in depth ordering calendar that can take on these occasional items.
3) Work with my local farmers and with my neighboring businesses to develop food-buying relationships that let us share larger sized cases of product so that we all make good use of fresh items.
4) Connect with local incubator food kitchens to help new entrepreneurs get a market for their creations by introducing their products to my customers at the café.