Experience 04: What is a Food Distributor?

 

I’ve visited places that give me an image of how the ingredients I use in my product are grown, and now I’m off to visit the next step in the process, and the integrating piece between farmers and chefs (and jointly, the customers). “Distribution is the missing link, and you’re here to do it,” farmers, growers, and chefs tell Mikey Azzara, the man behind Zone 7. Zone 7, named after its agricultural growing zone, is a New Jersey based, 100% local farm fresh food distributor located in Ringoes and delivers daily to restaurants, chefs, grocers, schools and more. They source “only the best, highest quality [fruits, vegetables, cheese, eggs, herbs, and grains] from [over 120 of the region’s best farms] 52 weeks a year,” with hopes to “[lead] the way in promoting [their] farms and customers while changing the way people see the local food economy.”

Well, Zone 7 is accomplishing what they set out to do, at least in part. After my visit, my own outlook on the concept of supporting locally and sustainably grown foods has been strengthened. Zone 7 works with more than 120 sustainable farms and more than 300 different restaurants, schools, and grocers. It’s clear to see why.

A food distributor works as the intermediary between food manufacturers or farmers and the food service operator. The distributor will purchase and store in their warehouse products that will be sold in bulk (wholesale) and delivered to these food service operators. By doing this, a food distributor gives the food service operators access to items from a wide variety of manufacturers and/or farms, by which they can order on a daily or weekly basis.

I was able to see as Mikey toured the Zone 7 facilities with me all of the different kinds of fruits, vegetables, herbs, grain, dairy, and eggs they keep on hand. Their warehouse is like one big refrigerator at 35°, and keeps produce fresh. They post what’s available for local food service operators to buy online with the farm of its origin and the pack size. The food service operator must order at least a full case and Zone 7 will only deliver an order minimum of $100-150, depending on the product.

A lot of the produce they receive and the products that are made from them have “stories,” just like my own products. Here were a few that I thought were most interesting:

  • From Barefoot Gardens, Zone 7 purchases all kinds of herbs, alliums, microgreens, and my favorite—edible flowers! These flowers act as colorful garnishes and help salads and sandwiches stand out. This farm also grows chamomile (which is pretty neat as most conventional chamomile is farmed in Egypt), and mentha (a relative of mint with a chemical composition similar to oregano or thyme!)
  • Ridge Valley Farm in Southeast Pennsylvania produces their own Maple Syrup from a neat hole tapping process whereby they extract the maple sap that runs down the tree when the temperature warms. They use a maple syrup evaporating contraption that creates a 64% sugar maple syrup.
  • Juicewell creates “fresh pressed remedies,” using the fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices that Zone 7 provides them. They intend to connect people back to their food source in a “harvest-to-bottle” process, whereby the farmers generally pick the produce the day before and Zone 7 delivers it to Juicewell the next day, when it can be cold-pressed. Produce is titrated, ground up, caught in a bag, and hydraulically pressed with 10 tons of pressure. This extracts more nutrients and extends shelf life in comparison to a traditional centrifugal blender because there is no air to allow for oxidation.
  • The Rutgers Research and Breeding Center experimentally grew hazelnuts for many seasons before they were urged by one of Zone 7’s employees to begin having them be distributed them to local businesses that would want to incorporate them into their menus. One such business, who cracks open these nuts, toasts them and sprinkles them for pleasant flavor and crunch on their salads, is over the moon to be a part of their local agricultural and food system. Instead of purchasing hazelnuts from Turkey or wherever, they can make a change by being in contact with the breeders that are within driving distance.
  • Cherry Grove Farm is a grass-based dairy that has been making cheeses and raw milk for eight years, with flavors such as award-winning buttermilk brie, trillby whiskey washed cheese, their Havilah with notes of caramel and pineapple, harvest tomme, herdsman, and flavored jack cheeses that blend herbs such as fresh nettle and spicy oregano directly into the curd.

 

When Mikey asked me about my own product idea, he immediately grabbed a notebook and pen and asked me the ingredients I use and how much I use of each. When I told him I used 12 out of a pallet of two-and-a-half dozen eggs, he looked confusedly at me. In food distributor speak, a pallet refers to an enormous slab of wood that encases enormous quantities of a food product! That clearly hinted to him that I was working on a very small scale. This prompted him to ask me what I intend to do with my kitchen science experiment. Did I want to open my own storefront or sell to grocery stores and markets?

Mikey told me the upsides and downsides of each. Owning one’s own storefront means that the cooking process is much more hands-on and labor intensive, but you get to know each and every one of your customers. In contrast, mass producing and distributing a product to different retailers requires the help of a co-packer, who takes on the processing of your product by following your method and your specific instructions. This takes the labor out of the cooking and creating on your end, but there are a lot of expenses and regulations involved.

As I quickly learned, Zone 7 does more than provide the people on the receiving end with the constituents for their recipes. Zone 7 helps the growers of the food, by giving them access to a customer base. One day, I hope to be one of these customers. My visit evoked an enthusiasm and excitement that I live in an area with so many amazing resources readily available to me. There is an abundance of ingredients that are grown so close to my own home. I wish I had taken advantage of them sooner, but with the knowledge I have now, it is very much possible!

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