BLESSED BE THE CRAFT-FOOD MAKERS
If there are changes afoot in the supermarket, there's a revolution happening on the fringes of the food system. There we find the cheese makers, bread bakers, pickle briners, bacon smokers, chocolatiers, and grits grinders, along with all the market farmers and their heirloom vegetables and heritage grains. Farmers' markets are up 350% in the last 18 years. Sales of specialty foods grew at twice the pace of supermarket sales between 2009 and 2011. Every chef worth his or her sea salt is committed to local sourcing. Craft beers crowd shelves at my neighborhood Piggly Wiggly, more than 200 of them. And all this growth in usually pricey food has been happening through the Great Recession. If diversity is critical to a healthy food ecology, then here, at the craft-food fringe, where the local jobs multiply and the local stories are told, a lot of good news can be found.
I wanted to hear some of those stories, far from the red-hot markets of New York or San Francisco. Brooklyn was my home for almost 20 years; up there, I'd witnessed the rise of legions of hipster-artisans firsthand. But now, having started this exploration in the South, I decided to stay in the South.
I began with AtlantaFresh Artisan Creamery and its owner, Ron Marks. Of the many species of artisans I would meet, Marks, 57, turned out to be one of the more interesting, a Recent Immigrant from Big Food. He's not a Southerner, but rather a no-BS Pittsburgh boy, son of a butcher, a culinary-school grad who once worked for Jacques Pépin at New York's World Trade Center. He spent most of his career with giant restaurant chains before opening his focus-group and product-research business, where he helped companies wring pennies out of dollar menus. "I can't tell you how many rounds of focus-group and product-development work I did where continually increasing portion sizes and salt and sugar [were] the desirable goals. Maybe what's driven me to this is to pay some penance."
Marks considered charcuterie—the most righteous of artisanal avocations—but there was local competition. He turned to yogurt, and his timing was good: Fage and Chobani were about to explode the Greek category. But those companies would dive into a price war for national market share. Could he mine the Greek vein but keep prices healthy—a stellar $2.49 a cup? To do that, he needed a local story, and that meant 100% grass-fed milk.
"Local" is the new "new and improved," and it's plastered all over the 6-ounce AtlantaFresh cups: "Local milk, local cows, local farm, local farmers, locally made!" Also: "We use milk from humanely treated, fully pastured grass-fed Georgia cows." No mention that the stuff is made in a refitted focus-group and test-kitchen facility in an anonymous office park in one of Atlanta's vast suburbs.
Grass-fed milk gets from cow to yogurt in 30 hours. Refrigerated trucks from local dairy farms back right into the office-park loading bay, and the milk is pumped into a little room that's scrubbed USDA clean. The yogurt is strained to a luscious creaminess using a refurbished machine sourced from Tel Aviv. Fruit fillings are made on-premises, of local fruit when available. Other flavorings, such as vanilla-caramel or the throat-catching, intense Mexico City--style chocolate with its warm whisper of ancho chile, are Marks' own formulations. Marks has a tiny staff, knows the farmers, offers samples at small markets, and is the model of the busy modern artisan.
End of story? Hardly. "The issue I wrestle with now is, how many miles can I go from this facility and still have credibility with the 'local' moniker?" Having received a local-producer business loan from Whole Foods to scale up, his product is now in Whole Foods supermarkets in five states. He says he could soon drain most of the grass-fed milk cows in the Atlanta area dry. Then what? It was from Marks that I first heard a notion that other ambitious craft-food producers are advancing: a sort of artisanal franchising. He looks for big cities with no deep dairy tradition and a decent supply of grass-fed milk, and plans to either produce yogurt there under his own name or build a local brand along the same lines.
Another species of artisan is the Dotcom Expat. In 2006, having already left a 1990s Internet-tech career for culinary training, Tasia Malakasis bought a small, pioneering goat-cheese business called Belle Chèvre, not far from where she grew up in northern Alabama. Malakasis first spotted Belle Chèvre in the Manhattan foodie temple Dean and Deluca but wondered if she could get less well-heeled customers in the South, where there is scant goat-cheese history, to eat her stuff. Today, along with several tasty chèvres, she sells brightly packaged "breakfast spreads" (fig, honey, cinnamon) that have broad appeal. Belle Chèvre pops up at farmers' markets and specialty shops but is also sold in 100 Publix stores. "I want to make this cheese whatever the opposite of exclusive is," Malakasis says. "I'm selling to retailers other artisans might look down on."
Her problem, not unlike Ron Marks' problem, is too few milk goats in these parts. Belle Chèvre brings in milk from Tennessee, but Malakasis is now knocking on local farmhouse doors with a goat-positive business plan of her own devising: "I tell them what they'd have to invest, how many goats they need, how much to sell the milk for, what the costs and profits can be. A farmer can earn $70,000 net income with us."
In the farm economy of a poor state, that's serious money. The majority of American farms remain small and often marginal; for them, selling commodity foods at commodity prices is a road to nowhere. Food artisans, and what they represent—customers who will pay more for good-tasting food with a local backstory—are a ticket out of a marginalized life.