There was one side of Erik Stanford’s job as a chef at 5 Points Market & Restaurant that both excited and confounded him: Reaching out to area farmers and producers as part of the downtown restaurant’s dedication to locally sourcing produce.
“I took over their local food-sourcing program and it was incredible,” he recalled, ticking down a to-do list that included working with as many as 15 farmers flung from Tucson to Benson and beyond. “After serving 300 people and having to actually sit down (at the end of the day) and line up the farmers produce, and then on the farmers end — it’s a hassle.”
The job could be time-consuming, overwhelming and inspiring.
The 29-year-old Wisconsin native, who has worked at a handful of Tucson restaurants (Cup Cafe, 5 Points Market, Exo Roast Co.) since he moved here six years ago, struck on an idea: What if a chef or restaurant owner could make one phone call and get produce from a dozen farmers delivered to him?
Hence was born Pivot Produce, which Stanford conceived of in 2015 and officially launched in August with Stacy Tollefson, who runs the teaching greenhouse on River Road for the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.
“A lot of these are small farmers, so it’s very difficult for them to go through a distribution company,” said Tollefson, who also runs Maggie’s Farm Aquaponics in Marana. “And it’s hard for the farmers to make the time to deliver to every chef and every restaurant.”
Long before she teamed up with Stanford, Tollefson was trying to coordinate a food hub — essentially the same thing Stanford was doing — with local restaurants and purveyors. It was a good idea and timely, given that UNESCO designated Tucson in late 2015 as a World City of Gastronomy — the only American city to get that honor.
But good ideas need working hands, and Tollefson didn’t find many people willing to jump in and help establish a food hub.
“It was very difficult to move it forward because everybody wanted it, but nobody wanted to put the work into it,” she said.
Stanford is so willing to put the work into it that he quit his full-time day job and makes ends meet with a couple part-time cooking gigs. He spends the rest of the time reaching out to farmers as far away as Benson’s SouthWinds Farm and the San Xavier Co-op Farm on the Tohono O’odham Nation near Sells to a handful of Tucson farms, including Breckenfeld Family Growers on the southwest side and the small Dreamflower Garden in midtown.
“Rather than have farmers come up to me from Willcox and Benson and deliver to me, I need to be able to go to their door,” said Stanford, who makes deliveries in his 1986 Chevy Celebrity station wagon.
In November, he and Tollefson launched a crowd-sourcing fundraising effort (pivotproduce.causevox.com) in hopes of raising as much as $20,000 to purchase a newer vehicle and buy a refrigeration system to store the produce. As of last week, they had raised about $11,000 in cash and in-kind donations, Stanford said. The campaign continues through Jan. 1, and if they meet the full goal, Stanford said they will be able to apply for a USDA Local Food Promotion grant that could sustain and grow the program.
Eventually, Stanford would like to create a program where restaurants work directly with farmers from plant to harvest. Restaurants would commit to buying a certain amount of tomatoes, for example, at planting time, guaranteeing that the farmers have a buyer for their produce.
“Those guarantees to farmers are so essential. Being a farmer is not financially viable for anyone. They are working out of passion. I’m trying to give those people a little more a safety net,” Stanford said.
“As a farmer your time is valuable, and chefs are busy, and so it’s hard for us all to go through that process and be on the same page,” said Dana Helfer, who grows organic vegetables on an acre of her 4.5-acre Rattlebox Farm along the Pantano Wash in Tucson. Helfer and partner, Paul Buseck, have farmed in Tucson eight years, the last three at Rattlebox.
“We’ve had relationship with a couple restaurants for a couple years now. With them we have a system and we work with the chefs and it’s easy, but that’s because we’ve invested the time,” said Helfer, who is originally from Denver. “It’s great for us to sell to the restaurants that we do sell to, but at this point, we don’t have the time to establish new restaurant clients. Erik can allow our produce to get to a broader range of restaurants without us having to do that work.”
The deal also benefits restaurants.
“It makes it much easier for us to get more at our fingertips quicker because we want to get down to getting it on your plate,” said Sally Kane, co-owner of Agustin Kitchen at the Mercado San Agustin and The Coronet downtown.
“It really is helping (chef Erika Bostick) out,” added Kane, who in early December opened the grab-and-go Aka Deli & Bakeshop in the Mercado. “It definitely streamlines her efforts, and we get excited about what’s more readily available for us.”
Stanford said his goal is to encourage more restaurants to use locally grown produce.
“I want the local food that I was able to use to be in more restaurants, and I want people to be able to eat it in more Tucson restaurants,” he said.