From GrowFood Carolina to Swamp Rabbit Cafe, food hubs connect local farms with local restaurants
By Emily Pietras
The term farm-to-table may evoke a pastoral image of a chef visiting a local farmer to arrange an order of produce and proteins for his restaurant, but it’s often the case that neither farmers nor chefs have the time or resources for such interactions.
To fill that gap, food hubs have emerged as a key intermediary, providing integral services that have made the farm-to-table movement flourish across the country, including right here in South Carolina.
Sarah Clow, general manager of GrowFood Carolina in Charleston, says food hubs focus on maximizing efficiency.
“We provide services and infrastructure to small and midsize farms to more efficiently move product to wholesale markets,” she says. “We look a lot like a wholesale service distribution, but really we’re a distributor for farmers.”
GrowFood, which is part of the Coastal Conservation League, began operations in 2011 and currently works with 85 farms and 300 restaurants across Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville, S.C. and Savannah, Ga.
Patrick Meyers, co-founder of Lowcountry Creamery in Bowman, credits much of his success to his partnership with GrowFood. Meyers’ dairy products are distributed to several Charleston-area restaurants including Butcher and Bee, FIG, Slightly North of Broad, and Husk. Lowcountry Creamery also operates a coffee program that supplies milk to local cafes.
“We have access to a good market. The restaurant industry is really good down there,” Meyers says. “We would probably be doing something totally different if it wasn’t for [GrowFood]. I’m not sure how we’d be doing what we’re doing.”
“I wish there was a GrowFood in every big city in South Carolina,” he adds, “because there are other markets that we haven’t figured out a way to access yet.”
Expanding the market reach for farmers across the state is one of the objectives for the S.C. Food Hub Network, a collaboration among GrowFood, Catawba Farm and Food Coalition (York), City Roots (Columbia), Pee Dee Food Hub (Marion), and Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery (Greenville). The coalition aims “to ensure food hubs of South Carolina have the capacity, energy, network, and support to advance the visibility and viability of local farms by connecting local foods to local markets.”
Clow says the pilot year of the S.C. Food Hub Network, from 2017–2018, “surpassed expectations.”
“Most of the trading is going on through GrowFood and Swamp [Rabbit Cafe and Grocery] at this point” because both are more established, Clow says, “but the potential of growing is exciting to think about.”
The partnership between GrowFood and Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery allows chefs to access more local products by extending growing seasons, says Mary Walsh, co-founder of Swamp Rabbit. For example, strawberry season lasts longer in the Lowcountry than in the Upstate. By capitalizing on those differences in seasonality, “our strawberry farmers would have a market earlier and later,” Walsh says.
Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery buys directly from between 25 to 45 farmers per week, and partners like the S.C. Food Hub Network add “another 20 to 75 farms per week that we can reach out and buy from,” Walsh says. The Anchorage, Jianna, Restaurant 17, Tandem Creperie, and Kuka Juice are among the Upstate restaurants that source their ingredients from Swamp Rabbit Cafe.
Walsh has seen firsthand the advantages that food hubs provide for both chefs and farmers.
“Restaurants deal with daily disasters, and not having to deal with 25 different farms and a third of them has a problem every week—because things come up on farms—it saves time and the logistics are a lot easier,” Walsh says. “Convenience is what we see as the biggest benefit. It’s difficult to order a lot from many different small farmers. It just takes a lot of time. … [Farmers] prefer to sell everything to someone else, and we do all the work with the restaurants and find homes for their cauliflower. Not having to do that anymore can be a big relief.”
Eric McClam, co-owner and farm manager of Columbia’s City Roots, a GrowFood partner, stresses the significant impact of food hubs.
“I think the local food scene wouldn’t exist in its capacity without food hubs,” he says.
City Roots’ produce specialties are microgreens and mushrooms, which can be found on menus at Husk in Charleston, as well as a number of Columbia-area restaurants like Motor Supply Co. Bistro, Bourbon, Mr. Friendly’s, and Solstice Kitchen.
“We had attempted to deliver to Charleston ourselves, but it didn’t make any sense. They had the capabilities and the infrastructure,” McClam says of GrowFood. “We teamed up with them like many other farmers to get our product out there, and it’s worked out well. … It creates market share and increases our ability to get to restaurants. We don’t have the bandwidth to visit 90 restaurants or grocery stores.”
While food hubs have emerged as an important resource for farmers, there are still others who take a more traditional route to break into the restaurant market.
“A lot of chefs and farms have a lot of individual relationships, and chefs will go to a farmer,” Clow says. “And that’s awesome, and we encourage that.”
Chad Bishop, co-owner and operator of Greenbrier Farms in Easley, didn’t always plan to become involved with supplying restaurants, but it took only a few years after Greenbrier began operations in 2009 that he became connected with local chefs who would stop to see him at the farmers market or his farm.
“There were three or four guys I started sending texts to once a week and started to sell things,” Bishop says. “It just kind of came along on the restaurant side.”
Today, Greenbrier’s produce and meats are featured in dishes at Upstate restaurants including Bacon Bros. Public House, Kuka Juice, and Sidewall Pizza, as well as across the Table 301 restaurant group. Additionally, Bishop and business partner Roddy Pick teamed up with chef Shawn Kelly, formally of Charleston’s High Cotton, to open Fork & Plough on East North Street in Greenville.
“That guarantees a place for us to sell our wares, and there’s a butcher counter in there,” Bishop says.
The farm-to-table movement’s longevity will likely hinge on the ebb and flow of consumer demand, but there’s one quality of local food that will remain consistent.
“I think it comes down to the food tasting good,” Bishop says. “In the end, if the food didn’t taste different, it wouldn’t be a thing. I always hear from chefs, ‘You don’t have to do a lot when you have great ingredients.’”