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Here’s the problem that haunts the food movement, and why you should care

Photo: Ezra Bailey/Getty

One slogan rolled out last week by the national organization called Chefs Collaborative was “change menus, change lives,” signaling the high missionary purpose of this group of chefs, food growers, food makers and activists. Several hundred members met in Boulder, Colorado last week, yakking about the future of food in America. (They also ate grass-fed bison marrow and trash fish, drank apple-flavored Colorado whiskey, nibbled pot “edibles” and threw tomahawks, which adds up to networking in this corner of the food world.)

Whether or not you care about the sustainability idea per se—the proposition that there are ways to grow and distribute food which are less damaging to the environment and are better for workers—these folks are on the side of the small, the local, the “real,” the handmade. They’re the advance guard of the food movement, and you’ve probably bought their salad greens or their bacon or eaten at their restaurants.

What proved fascinating, as I attended presentations and talked to attendees, is the thorny challenge of growing businesses among people for whom growth is both a survival issue and, sometimes, a four-letter word.

One woman here, who consults to bakeries and chocolate companies, told me that creating long-term viable businesses is “the elephant in the room” for the movement, because growth involves tough new skills and, often, compromises in quality or virtue.

Let’s say you’re a small pickle company, buying local, organic veggies and producing an excellent product, and you gain the attention of Whole Foods, who will sell your stuff if you can produce 10 times as many pickles at their schedule. Maybe you’re a chef committed to local/small/slow, but you need to raise wages to sustain your best employees—or simply increase your profit margin because you have a mortgage and college-bound kids. Do you need to sell more, sell cheaper, sell a different product, or double your business size? These are challenges that any small businessperson in America faces, but tinged by the aforementioned missionary purpose, the ferment and funk of local food.

Why should we even care? After all, this niche of the economy should be no less Darwinian than any other. Businesses die, others replace them, and growing ones eat up market share. It’s encouraging that the mushrooming of the food movement has happened during the worst recession since the Depression: A lot of Americans, young ones included, seem to have fallen in love with the better-food proposition, and will pay top dollar.

But… having recently finished a 1,200-mile road trip from the South through the Midwest to Colorado, I’d say we should care in part because the distribution of little food businesses is still clustered around the bigger, foodie cities. There are plenty of small-town exceptions, of course, but it’s early days for the movement as a national phenomenon. It needs to figure out a business ecology that’s both scalable and reproducible, in national markets and local ones, and figure out what healthy growth means (one panelist was from Chipotle, the fast-food company that has exploded in size while emphasizing sustainability; another was from Niman Ranch, the 700-farm-strong natural-meat distributor now owned by a private equity fund).

 “Creating a great business is as creative an act as creating a great plate of food,” preached Ari Weinzweig, a student of the anarchy movement in college and co-founder of the Zingerman’s food empire in Ann Arbor, MI, which now consists of nine separate, linked operations—one of which is teaching how to run businesses.

What’s unclear, in these early days, is how many food businesses—no matter how good their menus and products may be—are actually great in the way Weinzweig means.

Scott Mowbray is the former editor of Cooking Light, now a writer based outside Boulder, Colorado.