A Food What?

Pivot Produce, a food hub serving local farms and restaurants, might just be the linchpin that lets Tucson’s produce market bloom

Pivot Produce was conceived, oddly enough, in a parking lot. Erik Stanford, the fledgling food hub's founder, was walking back to his car after talking to farmers at the Santa Cruz Farmer's Market. At the time, he was the chef at 5 Points Market and Restaurant, where in addition to his kitchen duties, he worked alongside the restaurant's owners to develop a local food program. A portion of his time every week was spent meeting with local farmers, finding new farms to partner with and adjusting 5 Points' menu based on what crops were available.

It struck him that local produce should be highlighted citywide, not just at 5 Points, but the amount of time and effort it would take chefs and farmers to achieve this made it unrealistic for most restaurants. Stanford saw this challenge as an opportunity to turn something he loved—exploring local farms' offerings and working with chefs—into a full time job.

Confident in his understanding of restaurants, Stanford turned to Maggie's Farm in Marana, which was one of his suppliers at 5 Points, to learn more about farms. He showed up thinking he would work in the field, but as soon as he got there and mentioned the food hub, he was introduced to Stacy Tollefson. In that moment, Pivot shifted from a cool idea into a plausible reality.

Tollefson, a Senior Research Specialist at UA's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, had tried to set up something similar a few years ago, but it didn't take off.

"I gave her my pitch, and she was like, 'OK. Let's go,'" Stanford says.

She showed him a world he had no idea existed.

"She was like, 'it's called a food hub,' and I was like, 'a what? A food what?'" says Stanford.

The support of Tollefson and Adan Delgado, the owner/operator of Delgado Food Service, reflects the demand for a food hub like Pivot Produce in Tucson, and the demand is palpable among local farms and restaurants.

Establishing relationships similar to the ones Stanford did at 5 Points requires a huge amount of time and logistical coordination from farmers and chefs who are already very busy on the field and in the kitchen. By acting as a go-between, Pivot will work with farms and restaurants to ensure that the needs of both are met. No farmer will have to waste time driving around town to drop off ten pounds of greens at five different restaurants, and no chef will have to drive to Patagonia to pick up pinto beans—something Stanford did for 5 Points every few weeks. In addition to saving valuable time, Pivot would allow farmers and restaurants to reduce waste by aggregating resources.

If a farmer had a bounty of broccoli for whatever reason, it would not have to be thrown away for lack of demand. Stanford would buy it, filling the existing orders for broccoli and encouraging chefs to play around with the bumper crop.

Similarly, Pivot will reduce waste on the restaurant side by catering more specifically to different restaurants' needs. By pooling together resources from different farms, Pivot will be able to reliably fill orders in a way that small local farms sometimes cannot. Things like herbs and greens often have to be bought in large quantities from bigger distributors, and they go bad if the restaurant can't find a way to use them quickly enough.

This model is exciting, but it's not hard to find holes in it. What if Pivot is unable to sell the excess broccoli? Or what if a restaurant is counting on their weekly arugula delivery, but the crop goes bad? That's where Stanford's knowledge as a chef comes in.

"I'm going to be asking for tons of flexibility from chefs because there's a lot of variability on farms," he says. "Sometimes it rains for three days straight, and people can't walk into their fields, and it's like, shit, there's no arugula."

Chef's value consistency—it allows them to ensure that the same quality dishes come out of their kitchen day after day, and that is one of the reasons that Stanford knows Pivot will never replace a large distributor like Sysco.

"But if we can cross a few things off their lists, and get money into local farms, then we're making strides in the right direction," he says.

Working with local produce means working with what's available—a challenge that drives Stanford personally as a chef. He hopes other local chefs will find it equally stimulating.

In looking at Stanford's past, it's no surprise that he thrives in dynamic environments. At age fourteen, he started working as a dishwasher in a Wisconsin country club. By fifteen he was working on the line, and he has worked in kitchens ever since. Two events specifically, though, imbued him with his current values as a chef: becoming a vegetarian and volunteering in New Orleans.

Stanford became a vegetarian as a teen, and when he did his family didn't know what to do.

"They left me for dead," he says, jokingly. "When I became vegan my grandma put margarine on the turkey, thinking, 'it's not butter, he can eat it.'" He and his vegetarian friends bought cookbooks—The Moosewood Cookbook and Vegan with a Vengeance—and learned how to make delicious food that was up to their ethical standards.

Stanford says he fell in love with cooking in New Orleans, where he lived for two years as a volunteer after Hurricane Katrina. He went there to help build houses, but when he got to the volunteer camp where he'd be living—Habitat for Humanity's Camp Hope—he found his services were needed elsewhere.

"The camp's cook was in desperate need of anyone who knew what the hell they were doing in a kitchen, so I jumped in right away," Stanford says.

At age 19, Stanford became the camp's head chef, sometimes cooking meals for up to 1,000 people.

"That's where being a chef became real for me," he says.

His staff was comprised of volunteers and changed every two and a half months, so he had to be flexible. They also worked with mostly donated foods, which meant he had to constantly get creative with ingredients.

Stanford first plans to work with restaurateurs and chefs that he feels will embrace the kind of flexibility a new food hub will demand.

"I speak chef, and I've been in the industry for a long time," he says.

That fluency gives Pivot a chance to succeed where similar Tucson food hub attempts have failed. He has already talked with Marialine Bennen, the new chef at Penca, whose experience with food hubs in Austin, Texas makes her a great resource.

While Pivot presents a pool of produce that only Tucson's most cutting-edge in the kitchen might feel comfortable dipping into, local farms are already set to dive in. Stanford told me about a recent visit to a farm where they were tilling rows of lettuce, kale and kohlrabi back into the soil because they didn't have time to pull it up or a market for it even if they had. According to Stanford, these farmers are the ones pushing the bubble.

"Once Pivot opens the pathway that we are trying to create," Stanford says, "produce is going to flow."