So, let’s get something out in the open before we go any further.
If you follow industry trends and news, you’ve probably seen Laura Reiley’s investigative Farm-to-Fable series for the Tampa Bay Times, in which she exposed numerous restaurants who falsely claimed to source ingredients from certain local farms. She exposed things like, at one International Plaza restaurant, “the ‘Florida blue crab’ comes from the Indian Ocean,” and at another Tampa Bay-area restaurant, “chefs claim to get pork from a farmer who doesn’t sell to them.” She made it clear that this type of false advertising is all too common in our industry.
Farm-fresh ingredients and local sourcing are top-of-mind in the restaurant world and have been “en vogue” for a number of years now. At First Watch, we never make false claims (“alternative facts,” if you will…) about where our food comes from. So while sourcing locally is fantastic, you can’t get local avocados in Baltimore or oranges in Denver. It’s simple – We love to source from local farms when fresh ingredients are available to us. Otherwise, we look for the highest quality ingredients we can find elsewhere.
Winter is strawberry season in Florida, and right now, all our restaurants in the Sunshine State are proudly serving Florida Strawberries. Yesterday, we had the awesome opportunity to visit our friends at the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. Talk about a cool experience! I try and make it to the farm almost every weekend and pick what I cook for the family at home as much as possible, so it was cool to get our folks out there to see where the magic happens.
So yesterday, I met all of the managers from our 11 Tampa Bay-area First Watch restaurants and Laura from the Tampa Bay Times in Plant City for a day on the farm to learn about where this delicious fruit in our restaurants comes from. Now, I don’t want to get all sentimental, but you have to understand why our Tampa team holds a very special place in my heart. Tampa is about an hour north of First Watch’s home base in University Park, and the area is what we consider our “test market.” This means we are constantly trying out new dishes and beverages in those restaurants, often up to a year before they make their national debut at First Watch. We also test other service procedures, technology, uniforms and more in those restaurants. The team always handles the changes and tests with a can-do attitude and lots of honest feedback. They’re total rock stars in my eyes!
Anyway, back to the tough-guy stuff.
We all met at a farm called Strawberry Station in Plant City, which Farmer Mark Harrell said has been growing strawberries since 1993. He lives and breathes strawberries in all their different varieties and gave us a great behind-the-scenes look at how it all works. Throughout the past few years, the cost per acre to plant the fruit – including the plants themselves, plastic mulch, drop tape, labor, etc. – has skyrocketed, but the price of strawberries and what these local farmers put in their pockets when the fruit sells is the same as it was in 1975. Growing in Florida can be particularly challenging because of the harsh and very unpredictable weather, so while Mark’s team typically picks the crop every three days, it often varies depending on the temperamental climate. Florida Strawberry farms use many of the same fertilizers and additives that are used on organic farms, but they’re not considered wholly organic.
Again, if you follow industry news and trends, you probably hear the word “organic” thrown around a lot. There are a lot of common misconceptions about “organic” produce, and honestly, it’s not always better for you or for the environment. Organic produce farming is only about half as productive as traditional farming, so it requires twice as much land to produce the same amount of fruit. “Organic” does not mean local and usually does still mean that you’re buying from giant food conglomerates like Kellogg’s, Kraft and General Mills, which all own popular organic food brands. I’m not saying organic is bad for you. I’m saying a lot of people don’t truly understand what “organic” means and why they choose to buy it. I highly encourage you to educate yourself on the benefits, criticism and potential drawbacks. Knowledge is power!
We also had the opportunity to learn from Dr. Luis Osorio, a researcher with the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center at the University of Florida. Right now, Dr. Osorio’s work is focused on genomic selection and its integration in the strawberry breeding strategy. In a nutshell, he experiments with strawberry genetics and is working to breed different varieties of berries that boast ideal characteristics (flavor, color, aroma, various pest and weather defenses, etc.) and can grow efficiently in Florida’s climate. He taught us that there’s a seemingly endless list of numbers and names associated with each strawberry variety. The naming process starts with a number in the lab, then before that version is released to the grower, a name will be associated with the berry. We learned about the Radiance and 127 varieties the university is currently working with and our friends at the Florida Strawberries are growing on their farms.
The cool part about the partnership between the Florida Strawberries Growers Association and UF is that FSGA actually has the rights to license and collect royalties on behalf of the university, and then in turn, the growers award about $1 million in research and education grants back UF every year.
To me, the best part of this is the mutually beneficial relationship here – the growers are working to provide fresh, high quality local berries, and the researchers at UF work hard every day to help them provide nutritional (and mouth-watering) fruit that’s good for us and for our planet. What a cool gig!
To be clear, none of this means that strawberries are GMO. This is actually just the old-school way of farming, where you take your best crops from each year and use them to propagate and breed the next year’s crops. Nothing modified, just good old-fashioned science!
Now, the part that’s never really top of mind when we think about growing produce is the transportation and packaging logistics. After the farm, we got the chance to peek inside one of the state-of-the-art facilities where strawberries from Astin Farms are brought to be packaged and cooled. We actually got to venture into the cooling rooms (BRRRRRR!) and learn about the importance of every step in the process. Especially in Florida, it’s vital that the strawberries are taken out of the heat within a couple hours of being picked (Remember, it’s about 80°F in the Florida sun!), then are taken to the facility and put in the cooling rooms to drop their temperature. If they wait too long to cool the berries, the quality, taste and shelf life can suffer tremendously.
All the strawberries we use at First Watch are hand-picked, and they can only be stacked to a certain height in the field in order to maintain their quality. The packaging is remarkably engineered to let air flow through and keep the berries cool. The logistics are fascinating.
We closed out the day with a mouth-watering lunch outside in the gorgeous February Florida weather with the team from Florida Strawberries. It was actually catered by Olympia Bakery in Tampa, which our team absolutely loved. Lunch was topped off with a fresh make-your-own-strawberry-shortcake bar (of course!).
All in all, not a terrible day at the office for any of us! These are the kind of things I get to do on a pretty regular basis, so it’s always fun to share the experience with our teams. It’s great that they have a better understanding of where our food comes from!