Tastemakers Interview: Maddie Earnest

2011-12-30T21:00:00Z 2012-02-08T15:55:10Z Tastemakers Interview: Maddie EarnestInterview by Catherine Neville
Photography by Jonathan Gayman
Feast Magazine | Inspired Local Food Culture/Midwest

FEAST invited some of the St. Louis region's most innovative entrepreneurs to discuss the current state of the culinary industry and its future.

After a roundtable discussion, we sat down individually with each Tastemaker to dive into how they approach building and broadening their businesses and find out what advice they have for others entering the food-business fray.

The following is our conversation with Maddie Earnest, co-owner of Local Harvest Grocery, Café and Catering:

FEAST: How did you get started?

Earnest: I read this article in The New York Times about a store in Oregon called New Seasons [that] does about 20 percent of [its] inventory from local farmers and food producers. I had done a tiny bit of help with Patrick Horine starting the Tower Grove Farmers' Market. And so I shot him this article, and I was like, "We should do something like this in St. Louis. But we could do better than 20 percent." And he wrote back immediately, and he was like, "Yes, I've been thinking about this for a long time. I would love to."

F: Did you have any experience?

E: No, but ... Pat's dad has a number of grocery stores in Missouri. ... His dad really helped us a lot when we put together our business plan.

F: Chefs have a difficult time keeping local products in stock. The goal is to have 50 percent of your inventory be local products, correct?

E: Our inventory does fluctuate a lot. So our customers can't necessarily come in and say, "Oh, I can have apples year ‘round that are local." But they can come in and say, "[You] have apples part of the year that are local, [and] the rest of the time [they're] organic." We can't do everything. That's why we shoot for the 50 percent.

F: Many people say there's not enough to go around.

E: We have farmers call us, and we can't buy everything that they have. ... Even at our café, we don't have a problem with sourcing. While I said there was an abundance, what is tricky is some of the quality we got [this year] was not what we were used to getting from our farmers. It was hard to have to refuse some things. With the drought, you know, it was just such a hard year for farmers.

F: But your customers expect a certain quality level. If you sell customers something that's not up to your standards, you undermine your relationship with them.

E: That's why I'm thankful we have a café because if [a food product] doesn't look pretty enough to sell, it's still good [enough] to eat a lot of times. For instance, a tomato that has a bruise on it is easily used to make a sauce.

F: Is that why you started the café?

E: Partly it was. We found that it just killed us. ... It's really hard for our staff to throw anything out. And I tell you what, we throw very little out. So that was part of the impetus. And ... this building where the café is now, the landlord was reworking it and wanted to put a restaurant in. [The landlord] really wanted to work with us.

F: But you'd never been in the restaurant business.

E: No, and thank God for [chef] Clara Moore.

F: How do you hire the right people?

E: You know, we hire a lot of customers at the grocery store. It's a little bit different at the café. ... It's tricky because it's not like we're paying millions of dollars. But, at the same time, we really want people who are committed to local products but who know about food. I want people to be able to talk about [products] and how to use them.

It's hard sometimes, but you want employees who will also challenge you to be better. I think Pat would say this, too, that it is pretty collaborative with our staff, and they really participate in decision making and shaping the businesses.

F: What role does Local Harvest play in the St. Louis food scene?

E: We want to be the go-to people for local food. ... Another thing we're working toward is making sure our employees are armed with a lot of information about the products. ... Our store's small enough you don't have to find a manager of a department [to help you].

F: Why is it important for consumers to have direct access to local producers?

E: It's tricky to explain this to people in dollars and cents. I mean, essentially you're asking people to change their eating habits. ... It's [also about] not paying for a subsidized product. What we strive for, and, hopefully, we're going to do again this year, is try to keep 80 cents of every dollar in our region. And that really means keeping our region stronger; which I hope makes sense to people. The family farm is important because, without it, we lose control of our food system. If you come to our store, I can tell you, if it's a local product, exactly who grew it. And that farmer can tell you exactly which cow it was and what lot number.

F: So what do you think needs to happen to keep positive movement in the food industry?

E: The thing that's hard for me about the local food movement and, even our store, is I know that it's not accessible to everyone. I've talked to some farmers about what we can do to bring prices down.

F: How do you create food accessibility for people with moderate or low incomes?

E: I think there are a lot of things happening in St. Louis that are making that more possible. I mean, there are more farmers' markets, and that's a good way for people to be able to have a little more accessibility. You can find food there that's affordable, but it takes planning. I would say the same at our store. ... We have a lot of people [who] use food stamps come into our store, and I'm excited because, for many people, food is health.

F: How would you improve the St. Louis region?

E: Some of the things we talked about, like at the farmers' market meetings, is to find ways to bring [fresh local food] into communities - a mobile farmers' market, essentially. The other thing is exposing kids to farming so they know what's happening. Maybe, this is just me. But when I go visit a farm, I come back, and I'm just so excited. ... I always come back in a good mood. It's the same way when a farmer comes into the store, and I talk to him about whatever the harvest is or what he's working on or his plans for expansion.

F: What has changed since you and Patrick first got started?

E: I think that farmers are getting smarter about recognizing what their niche is in cities. I think farmers have had to become more [like] businesspeople. ... So that's certainly something I've heard, and a lot of that is from this book I'm working on. I've probably talked to ... over 150 farmers across our state. [I've had] pretty lengthy conversations with some of them.

F: How do farmers determine their niche?

E: They're having more conversations with chefs. They're having more conversations with stores like ours. They're hearing from customers at farmers' markets. The savvy ones are seeing what everyone else is growing and trying to grow something different.

F: So do you see yourself as a conduit?

E: Definitely. I mean, our mission is to build a local food community, and that happens in a lot of different ways. But, as I'm talking to farmers, I can't stop myself from helping them figure out how they are going to distribute their product. It may not be to us, but they're having distribution issues. They have to figure out too, how do I get this product to the customer and you know a lot of those customers are in cities. In Kansas City and Columbia, a lot of their big supermarkets are doing local buying and that's exciting to see because the more that's available, it's just better for everyone.

F: What has made you successful?

E: I really feel like a big part of it is ... our employees and their passion. ... When people come into this store, they find a warm environment, and that's going to make them want to come back. And it's a great, fantastic bonus that we're offering a really good product [and good service].

F: What brings people back to the idea of the small neighborhood retailer?

E: There are small stores like ours popping up all over the country. I think it's connecting with people. I think it's knowing your neighborhood. I think it's feeling a part of something. I'm excited if the person behind the counter recognizes me and says, "How're doing, Maddie?" I mean, that feels good.

F: Tell us about your book.

E: So the book is called Missouri Harvest. It will be out in March or April of 2012. [I'm] still working on it, much to Reedy Press' dismay. It's a guidebook to small farms across the state of Missouri. So, essentially, it's divided into meat, vegetables, dairy, fruits and ... other things that are grown in the state. Then, within each chapter, it's divided by region. You'll be ... introduced to some farmers in that region, and it will give a description of the farm ... what it's producing and where to buy the product. And then there will also be a guide in the back of the book ... if you want to support restaurants or stores that are selling local products.

F: Why are you writing it?

E: Oh, why, why? The first time they asked me, I said, "No" because I just didn't have time. And then the second time they asked, I said, "Well, we just opened the expanded store." And the reason I agreed to do it is because I was really wanting to know more [about what] was happening in the state in terms of agriculture and, specifically, the kind of farms that we buy from. ... I'm not saying I have answers to food distribution for millions of people. I don't. But I do feel like it's a step in the right direction. You ask the question, "Is there enough out there?" There is. ... Bring the customers, and we'll find the farmers.


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