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We're a network of Vermont Chefs, Farmers, Food Artisans, and Diners.

Annual Meeting (2019)

2019 Annual Meeting final

The 23rd Vermont Fresh Network Annual Meeting

Monday, January 28th, 10:00 - 4:00, at the UVM Alumni House, Burlington 

Networking - Panels - Discussions

The VFN Annual Meeting is a chance to connect with farmers, food producers, distributors, chefs and other culinary professionals. It combined panel discussions and plenty of informal networking opportunities, plus a chance to shape VFN's work for the upcoming year. You do not have to be a VFN Partner Member to attend our annual meetings (although only Partner Members can vote).

Here's the meeting agenda.

 

Thank you to the moderators, panelists and everyone who joined us for the 2019 Vermont Fresh Network Annual Meeting! We especially want to thank the UVM Alumni House for hosting us and Joe's KitchenThe Farmhouse Group, and King Arthur Flour Bakery and Cafe for providing lunch and sweet treats for the day.  (Including those famous KAF almond cloud cookies.)

We also want to thank our Affiliate Partner sponsors, Farrell DistributingFoley ServicesHotel Vermont, and Black River Produce.

Organizational Business

2018 was quite a busy year for VFN.  You can find the highlights from our work in our hot off the virtual presses 2018 Annual Report.

  • 2018 overview 

    • We met our goals around a successful DigInVT relaunch, and that has grown into strong participation in food & farm tourism in general.

    • Our membership grew in 2018 and we will build on that in 2019.

    • The Board decided to invest about $25,000 into our website rebuilding projects in 2018 by cashing one of our CD’s. We think this is important to our future ability to offer the level of marketing support our members expect and we were able to pull that money from our reserves while retaining over 3 months operating expenses in savings.

Heading into 2019

  • 1. Agritourism and 2. Food System Transparency. We’ll be working to deliver in these two areas, and also to be sure that our work in each supports all of our members.

  • There will be some staff rearrangements in 2019:

    • Helen Labun has worked for two years setting a strategic vision & path forward for VFN, getting the finances into a good position, and putting systems in place for the organization. Part of that work has been asking what our members most want from our organization, and marketing is top of that list.

    • With that marketing focus, Tara Pereira (current Communications Director) will move up to Executive Director, while Zea Luce (current Membership Manager) will take on some of Helen’s previous duties, as well, and we will be hiring a new person to do data management, event assistance, and general support.

    • The Board has put Helen on the ballot for a Board position, so she can provide continuity. Helen will be starting a new job as VT Policy Director for Bi-State Primary Care Association. 

 

Introductions Exercise 

 

What do you think is the first thing someone should know about selling to a chef, restaurant, or similar market? Or about starting to buy local ingredients as a culinary professional?

Notes from this brainstorming exercise are here, VFN will use these to help us think about educational and informational programming through the year.

Panel 1: Future of Food in Vermont ~ Culinary Panel.

We’re looking at the future in the VFN context (intersection of farmers & chefs) - trends in consumer interests, changing logistics in sourcing local, goal setting for local purchasing.  

Moderator:

Panelists:

  • Matt Birong, Chef / Owner at 3 Squares Café in Vergennes and Vermont state representative

  • Stephanie Bonin, Executive Director Downtown Brattleboro Alliance & co-owner duo Restaurant

  • Michael Clauss, Executive Chef at City Market in Burlington

  • Sigal Rocklin, Head Chef at the Reluctant Panther in Manchester, and 2018 Vermont Chef of the Year

*Note: Michael Clauss' thoughts were added to these notes afterward.

What customers are looking for in a “farm to table” restaurant:

  • The identity of a restaurant tied to local food and keeping money in the community.

    • When Stephanie opened duo in Brattleboro, she asked the question which was more important, keeping money in Vermont or other goals like low carbon footprint that would imply sourcing from places that are closer to the restaurant but not necessarily in Vermont. Customers wanted Vermont.

  • Sigal sees a lot of interest from out-of-state diners, who are often surprised at the quality of Vermont fine dining food. Stephanie sees out-of-state diners more interested in experimenting, creative foods while locals want staples - in fact they want staples so much that she had to completely redesign the menu she had brought from her Denver restaurant to provide that.

  • All panelists find that diners want to trust that the chef knows their farmers, diners don’t necessarily then want a lot of detail about the ingredients.

Trends in foods:

  • Vermont doesn’t always follow national food trends, although we certainly have internal food trends. Nationally, Stephanie sees superfoods as an ongoing trend, specifically chia seeds, mushrooms, CBD.

  • Sigal and Matt see wildcrafted foods as a trend. Sigal likes that “it’s what makes Vermont, Vermont - it’s our backyard, our nature”. There’s concern from the audience about over harvesting of wild plants. Matt notes that he hears this as a concern from his suppliers, but mainly in the context of recreational vs. professional wildcrafting - that the professionals he talks to are very cognizant of keeping healthy populations.

    • Stephanie - “we are responsible for buying responsibly.”

  • Michael - I would add that we are seeing continued interest in the RAW food, Macro, and vegetarian diner/customer.  I think many consumers are starting to do more online research and are much more aware and interested in eating more Organic and locally sourced foods.

About pricing and managing costs:

  • Matt finds that highlighting elements of a dish can lead to a willingness to pay more - for example, if you’re going to be serving wildcrafted mushrooms then make those mushrooms the star of the plate.

  • Matt - for pricing we’re tracking our percentages and costs, we’re running the numbers all the time and within that, designing the menu.

  • Stephanie and Sigal - that includes getting creative with using lower cost ingredients. For example cheese ends for grilled cheese, damaged tomatoes to jam, fennel fronds to pesto, finding out what farmers have excess of in season.

  • Matt - some of these cost savings measures are part of the larger category of doing more fabrication in-house with local ingredients, including buying whole animals and breaking them down.

  • Michael -  The more awareness and “consumer education” that is shared definitely helps in being able to explain higher pricing for locally sourced goods.

How are you connecting with farmers / food producers?

  • "They’re showing up at the back door, making connections to chefs and “skipping the middleman”. In person connections."

  • The panelists find farms / farmers by going to the farmers market, paying attention to who they see in their communities, and farms that arrive at the back door. Stephanie notes that “persistence” can be important, that it might take several in person attempts before somethings makes it on the menu.

  • Noted from the audience - not every producer has the same leeway in that regard. Winemakers, for example, need permits to give samples. Some farms are pretty remote.

  • Sigal - “I wish Vermont had a Tinder for chefs and farmers to connect”.

    • Later note from audience that there are several apps that are trying to become that - Source What’s Good is the more common one in this region and Niko (in the agriculture panel) mentions that. There’s a sense that “we need to choose one and go with it.”

  • Helen notes that VFN Partner Members have profiles on a Business-to-Business directory designed to help with researching suppliers / buyers and finding the right person to contact, VFN has a Facebook group and the Fresh Insider for communicating about product needs / products that need to be sold, the Fresh Insider also does producer profiles and we hear from our culinary members that they are reading those profiles, and VFN offers networking events like the Annual Meeting and the Annual Forum for connecting.

  • Michael - We conduct annual farm meetings in the winter months to discuss the previous year’s sales and successes. We use the time to discuss and plan for the upcoming year's purchases.  Being a large quantity vendor, it is important for us to discuss availability, pricing, and deliveries during these meetings.  It is also nice to be able to sit with the farmers in person and get to know them and understand their business. It is my favorite time of year!  We also schedule farm tours and crop mobs throughout the year for our employees and members, this is a great way to educate our staff and members, it also gives them a chance to have a hands on part of the process.

About the Vermont brand and consequences if it’s not authentic:

  • Matt - It’s the strongest thing we have, he thinks that the government can take a harder look at how we protect it.

  • Anson - agrees that we need to protect the brand. It’s important not to enter into government programs that can’t deliver on that. The Seal of Quality, for example, didn’t have any mechanism for verification, or way to rescind the seal, and had expanded to cover so many products it didn’t mean much anymore. If Vermont puts a seal on something, that’s got to come with staff who can verify & enforce, and that’s expensive.

  • Michael -  I agree with Matt’s statement, I know it can be difficult for farmers to compete with national products labeled organic that may not be adhering to the same standards as some of the smaller farms in VT . I know there is a lot of talk about coming up with new tiers of Organic labeling. I am curious to see where it goes.

The Vermont beverage industry:

  • Stephanie - it’s an easy entry to talking about the Vermont brand because we’re already known for our beverages.

  • Matt - sees local ingredients in beverages as a big opportunity.

  • Stephanie - working with good reps from the beverage world is key. She’s setting up a training in Brattleboro right now so that when a beverage rep makes the trip to visit her, it pulls in servers from multiple establishments.

  • Michael - Obviously the VT beer industry is booming and setting the standard around the world for making great craft beer. We have some great things happening with local wine makers as well. People are coming from all over to buy VT beer and bring it back to their home state, I think this brings more attention to our local food systems to a different demographic.

    ·        The CBD beverage business is becoming more and more popular too. 

How to handle bad reviews and the age of social media:

  • For social media more generally - in their establishments these chefs do not limit Instagram and other social media that has in other places become obstructive to service. Instagram is a key marketing tool and they can’t overlook it.

  • Stephanie & Sigal - coming from a hospitality background, their first goal is to intervene before a problem arises and to try to fix problems at the time they happen. Someone posting on Yelp later that the music was too loud does nothing, while saying that the music is too loud at the time it’s happening means they can turn it down. But the culture is to complain afterwards, online.

  • Sigal - the other problem is that people are learning that complaining and threatening a bad review results in free food. She won’t accept that.

  • Matt - doesn’t engage online unless it’s really justified. He’ll research reviewers to see if it’s someone who just spends a lot of time online bashing folks. Those people shouldn’t be rewarded with attention.

  • Michael - It’s a product of our fast moving digital society.  I think most people today understand and are always willing to try something new.  Having a well-educated staff and communicating with unsatisfied customers in a professional manner should always be the standard. 

General Do’s, Don’ts, Lessons Learned:

  • Staffing is key - finding people with a solid skill set and also enthusiasm, servers in particular are the ones who are presenting the local food and making the sale. Matt - they need passion, and if you find an enthusiastic employee you’re “creating a pipeline for the next generation of impassioned chefs and owners.” But finding and keeping staff is hard, Stephanie - “staffing is what takes it out of you.”

  • Sigal is concerned about farmer employment as well, she wishes there were a state supported gap year after high school that helped students get work experience and also some tuition assistance.

  • Stephanie - what didn’t work was bringing her Denver restaurant menu to Vermont, it was seen as “too much” (while, ironically, in Denver it’s no longer hip because other, newer restaurants are pushing the envelope even further). That’s frustrating because she wants to expand Vermont cuisine.

  • Matt - what hasn’t worked is chasing discounts and special deals, we can’t make it up in enough volume.

  • Michael - Not every idea is going to work, learn from your mistakes and apply that to the next idea.

Audience question about $15 minimum wage:

  • It’s incredibly complicated - because in restaurants it’s not just the minimum wage, but the tipped minimum wage and the difference between back of house and front of house staff. That dynamic is complicated by the fact that Vermont doesn’t allow tip pooling.

  • Stephanie - in Denver there’s a 2% livable wage surcharge on the menu that goes to back of house staff.

  • Matt - beyond the restaurant perspective there’s also the question of whether the state has adequately solved the benefits cliff issue (ie you lose more in other assistance programs than you gain by higher earnings) and the timeline for that.

Last thoughts on things they would like to do with local food & farm connections, but haven’t yet?

  • Stephanie - wants to have producers in the restaurant more often, working the floor, having more casual conversations.

  • Matt - thinks this goes best with menus highlighting specific ingredients, a reason for the producer to be there talking about different foods.

  • Michael -  I would just like to continue to try and work with and support as many local producers as we can.  I am also always searching for interesting new products/veggies that have never been produced/grown in VT before (on a retail level).  I am a big believer in collaboration, so I am always approaching our vendors with new ideas and ways we can develop products together.

 

Panel 2: Future of Food in Vermont ~ Agriculture Panel.  

A second look at trends, changes in the logistics of connecting, evolving place of restaurants / culinary professionals in business plans, and goals for the near future.  

Moderator:

Panelists:

Opening with a lay of the land in terms of what’s driving sales - retail, chefs, others?

  • Mimi - Retail definitely drives the spirits market - there is no wholesale price for liquor in Vermont, so beverage managers are buying it at full price.

  • Niko - Wholesale is very strong, especially into restaurants with several locations like Skinny Pancake and Worthy Burger. A problem for grassfed meat in retail is that labeling laws create a lot of loopholes and confusion around what’s domestic meat, and what “grassfed” really means. So customers see his meat alongside other “domestic grassfed meat” and there’s a price difference, but nothing making clear that these are two very different products. He thinks there will be a technology fix soon, with devices to give more information - and particularly nutritional information - about products on the shelf.

  • Anne - She’s building her sales to chefs using a distributor. Her farm is in the middle of nowhere, so getting attention for her cheese was difficult at first. She entered competitions to build that recognition. The biggest part of her business is selling to specialty cheese shops, and that business seems to drive the awareness of her product.

  • Jacob - Maple is one of the original local categories, which means that the sales channels are pretty well established at this point.

  • Andrew - Home brewing is a tiny part of his business, he’s working with commercial breweries. While hops get all the attention, a beer’s flavor is mostly defined by the malt and so it’s been a long education process for the general public - and at the end of the day as long as the brewers are excited about the flavors they’re getting from his product that’s all that really matters.

How do each of the panelists work with chefs:

  • Niko - Chefs aren’t easy to work with, and product development is hard. He does some menu suggestions; comparative tastings of meat seems to work well with chefs. A big difficulty is in the logistics of ordering and delivery. He can’t take an order one day and have product the next morning, buyers need to manage their inventory with far longer time horizons than that. Because of how planning needs to work to have a reliable supply to chefs, he calculates it takes about 1.5 years to develop a relationship.

  • Jacob - Maple is very territorial and (as mentioned) people have their supplies set. His goal is for chefs to put his farm name on their menus, and also to help draw out of state customers to visit his farm so he can establish sales further away.

  • Andrew - His main business is to the brewers who would then sell to beverage managers. That being said, his business is also part of a broader local grain revival (or potential local grain revival). Chefs are becoming interested in barley, and he’s open to thinking about new and different things to do to highlight his product - for example in Japan barley tea is popular, what about malted barley tea? (Side note: barley tea is also popular in Korea & Taiwan (where it’s more deeply toasted), and Mexico has a sweet cold lemonade-y drink made with barley water).

Goals for the future?

  • Mimi - Would like more transparency in the local alcohol sphere where there aren’t a lot of labeling rules about what counts as local.

  • Andrew - Also interested in transparency. In the local grains world a fair amount of education is still needed because it’s an emerging sector. One advantage for him is that his product is tied to craft beer, which appears to have no price cap.

  • Jacob - Maple production in Vermont is increasing significantly in volume, plus there are more value added products.

  • Anne - She is hoping to increase agritourism as their value added component, even when they aren’t making money directly from tours it builds a consumer connection.

  • Niko - Wants more local food consumption across the board, but price is an issue. It’s a challenge that the person ordering the food, paying for the food, and selling the food to customers isn’t necessarily the same person in a restaurant setting.

Following up on the price issue. . .

  • Mimi - She has some economies of scale, but price is still an issue.

  • Andrew - He wants to pay farmers a livable amount, and their farmgate price for the grains is about the same as the finished price at other malt houses, making his product 2-3x as expensive. On the other hand, his ingredient is 10% of the final cost of the beer, which works out to 16-cents a pint. His new malt house project should bring down prices but it’s not a deal breaker in any event.

  • Jacob - The price for maple is set by Canada and the bulk buyers. It’s a race to the bottom, which is why they’re looking for what else they can do for income, such as tourism.

  • Anne - When she began making cheese, there were 26 artisanal cheesemakers in Vermont, now there are over 50. The price for soft cheeses is basically established, there’s some more leeway in hard cheeses.

  • Niko - Beef is a huge commodity market, and because of the labeling laws in the U.S. we’re a dumping ground for beef. He has conversations with chefs around quality, land management, ethical prices for farmers, and the practicality of plate costs. Some groups are looking at how to put a dollar value on ecosystem services and land management.

Comments on workforce & staffing?

  • Mimi - Starts people at $15 /hour and they can work up. Housing is her limiting factor.

  • Anne - It’s really hard work, she’s from a family of 14 siblings and they don’t have a next generation interested in taking over the farm. For people outside the family, it’s the sort of work where you don’t make minimum wage - if you’re not in it because it’s the life you want then there’s no real way to keep someone there.

  • Jacob - His operation stays within the family. They don’t hire outside labor and instead scale the production to match the family’s capacity.

  • Andrew - Malting is year round work and so he doesn’t have some of the seasonality issues as others, plus he’s paying well, about $15 an hour and the beer business is pretty popular. He’s about to start staffing up, so he’ll see how it goes. Malting, like brewing, is 90% janitorial and he’s being up front about that in the hopes that he won’t see high turnover from people who discover it’s not what they’d imagined.

  • Niko - He’s exempt from minimum wage laws, but in fact starts employees at $12/ hour, with housing, and after a trial period they get to $14. But it’s long hours, with seasonal variations, and he doesn’t have capacity for a lot of training. He has trouble finding people with basic skill sets. One thing he’s thinking about is his extra land, if he could enter into an arrangement where an entrepreneur works with him both as an employee at his business and while building their own.

Discussion in the audience about existing or former programs related to workforce:

The previous panel, and the agritourism discussion as well, emphasized getting people out to visit the farm or at least meet in person with producers. How do you get folks to do that?

  • Niko - doesn’t like going through a distributor, as the previous panel discussed he goes looking to make a personal connection. It’s primarily him going to them and not the other way around. He would like to find a way to help chefs understand how the business works in the context of how it affects inventory management, which requires a lot of pre-planning from the buyer - he finds he has to plan ahead on their behalf.

  • Anne - Visitors are a new addition to her cheesemaking operation. She’s located on 105 and easy to reach (although fairly remote). She starts with schools, then kids tell their parents, and the parents visit, and when the parents have visitors there’s not much else to do around town so they’ll make another visit and so on. Boston Post was also the inaugural stop on the International Tasting Trail. Anne has also seen distributors increase sales after visiting.

  • Jacob - getting new sales from visitors applies more out to of state folks, because Vermonters either have a sugarer that they already buy from, or they’re just getting it from one of the large packers (via supermarket, distributor, whatever). He has a sugaring operation near Killington, so he has perhaps a better foot in the door with tourism. He uses Yelp, Facebook, Instagram, TripAdvisor. He visits hotels and wedding venues. He uses Google adwords for things flatlanders might look up. He works with the Maple Sugar Makers’ Association. Tour traffic is way up, 5x.

  • Andrew - he’s connected to the beer business, and beer tourism is already huge - one of the largest sources of tourism income in Vermont. An interesting element in his business is the connection to the viewsheds. He’s bringing in young farmers who have more land than they want in production - for example if they’re moving from a conventional dairy operation to something more specialized. Those extra fields can be in grain production, and he wants those fields to be recognizable, like with signs saying “Future Beer” and his logo.

 

Thank you to our sponsors. . . 

 

2019 Annual Meeting Sponsors

 

Thank you to Flavor Plate for donating their time and effort to the design and co-development of our website.