Recently, a restaurant in Austin that has old roots in the city, announced that it was moving much of it’s sourcing to a large distributor in San Antonio. Kirby Lane, which has been an icon in Austin since the 1970s, decided to place most of its food sourcing with Ben E. Keith. While Ben E. Keith is a Texas based food distributor, its rules, profit margins and insurance requirements are similar to the other large distributors like US Food and Sysco.
There are reasons for this move. Kerbey Lane has grown from the one restaurant on Kerbey Lane to seven restaurant spread throughout the city. They serve tens of thousands of customers every year, and buying from one food distributor is logistically and economically easier.
However, this move eliminates yet one more group of restaurants that no longer source locally. Additionally, while Ben E. Keith will consider working with local producers, their rules and the volumes they demand make it pretty much impossible.
It is an irony that the more people demand local, sustainable food, the more likely the goose laying the golden egg is slain!
This started happening back in the eighties when organic became a major player in the food industry. Once, people demand more of something, it starts to become attractive to the big players to take over and crowd out the smaller players. In the process, the essence of what made that item – be it organic, or grass-fed, or local/sustainable – disappears under the weight of logistical and profit making motives.
The only way to survive in our capitalistic economy is to grow; to become big enough to “play ball” with the big boys. Larger means bigger volumes to meet demand. Larger means being able to push back on profit margins. Larger means being able to afford demanded liability insurance, delivery trucks, distribution centers.
Larger means losing the very essence of what made you appealing in the first place. The consumer wants your product, but they want it the same way that they want the conventional products --- lower pricing, convenient access, easy pick up.
We kill with love all we value in this country when it comes to food.
We can point a finger at Kerbey Lane or HEB or the big food distributors, but they are only meeting a demand that we as consumers make. If you start to see that by 2018, forty percent of a multi-billion dollar market for meat will be grass fed, you’d be crazy (and killed by your shareholders) not to move away from your conventional products into the new niche. Free enterprise and capitalism works remarkably well in addressing economy of scale to decrease prices, improve logistics and tap down overhead costs. If more people want tomatoes in winter, then entrepreneurs will find a way.
It’s not their fault that we want “immediate”, “always available”, plenty at an “affordable” price.
Our demand for organic has driven countless small producers out of business. In their place are large, corporate farms that are organic, but practice production methods that are only slightly less destructive to the environment than their conventional counterparts.
However, we now have less expensive, easily accessible, on demand (you can even find organic produce in Walmart now!) organic produce. It’s organic. It’s marginally better for the environment and for your health and it has the same bland taste as the other stuff.
Killed with love!
We’re now making the same demands on meat. Soon, large segments of the animals we eat will be raised in better circumstances than what conventional agro-industry does. The cattle will inhabit massive “grass-feedlots” fed on harvested grass. They will have more room to roam and they won’t be eating chicken feathers or poop, they won’t be eating gmo corn or soy, and they won’t be receiving hormones or antibiotics (though they probably will be receiving probiotics). But is that really grass fed? Can an animal, still contained eating harvested grass and organic supplements really capture the taste or essence of an animal on pasture eating living grass? Can it capture the regional taste?
The same can be asked of pastured pigs and free-range chicken.
Is our demand for “immediate” killing the golden goose? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.
Scenario: What if Kerbey Lane had continued to carry lots of seasonal, local product on their menu. You walk through the front door sit down and order local bacon. Unfortunately, it’s Friday. The quota of bacon that the local producer could deliver was delivered on Wednesday and its all gone (very popular item!). Do you give something else a whirl or do you go somewhere else?
How you answer that question determines how committed you are to small, local, sustainable – and to the restaurants that are prepared to take the extra work, cost and risk of working with local farmers and ranchers.