Five years ago Mikey Azzara, then director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association and now owner of Zone 7, began holding meetings to bring organic farmers and chefs from fine dining restaurants together.. “There was a lot of networking,” says Azzara. “We did something like speed dating. Each farmer would have two minutes with each chef.”
The two groups are interdependent, especially as diners increasingly scrutinize menus in search of fresh, locally grown ingredients. The chefs know that they need the farmers, and vice versa. But Azzara found that the connection was not always being made.
“There was something missing,” he says. He had done well at establishing a community of people “who love to cook and love to grow,” but when he checked in on them after the meetings he found that they were not following through. He also found that there was a simple explanation.
“Farmers who sell to restaurants tell me that it’s two separate businesses,” says Azzara. “They may have to call a chef four or five times just to get him on the phone.” Chefs are a busy, multitasking group. Farmers are at least equally busy. “They’re out in the fields all day,” he says. “They might not have the infrastructure to work with restaurants.
“Distribution was clearly the missing link,” Azzara realized. The farmers had the local produce, cheese, eggs, honey, grain, and berries that area chefs and supermarkets wanted, but they didn’t have a good way to connect with them.
While he was pondering this problem, Azzara got a couple of pushes toward providing the solution. “Chef Will Mooney at Brothers Moon gave me a Matchbox car with ‘Farm Fresh Produce’ written on it,” he says. Mooney told him that he was the ideal person to bring farmers and chefs together. Shortly thereafter, Mark and Judy Dornstreich of Branch Creek Farm in Pennsylvania told him the same thing. What’s more, the Dornstreichs made it possible for him to start Zone 7, the distribution company that is forging the connection.
“They offered to lend me a refrigerated truck for one year,” he says. “It was huge. Without it I wouldn’t have been able to start the business.” The Dornstreichs provided one more key business asset — their son Jesse, who became Azzara’s truck driver and first employee.
Jesse Dornstreich began making deliveries last spring, while Azzara worked part time at the venture and continued at NOFA. He left in early summer to devote more time to Zone 7, named for the designation for New Jersey’s growing season. In its first season Zone 7 distributed produce from 10 farms and grossed $75,000. “I paid Jesse, and I paid myself a little,” says Azzara, “but I saved most of the money so that I could buy a truck, which I’m going to do next week.” He is working with 15 farms this year and expects to gross $200,000.
“We didn’t want to be just distribution,” he says. “We wanted to reinvent what distribution is.” Part of that is education. Some farmers, like the Dornstreichs, have been catering to the restaurant market for 25 years and know just what products go over well and fetch a decent profit, but many farmers are less knowledgeable about marketing. Azzara is able to suggest delicacies that restaurants crave, and for which they are willing to pay well. This is more important than ever, he says, because area farmers are now using greenhouses to grow 52-weeks a year. If they are to cover the costs of winter farming, including fuel to heat the greenhouses, they need to have offerings that will fetch a premium.
Examples of in-demand delicacies, says Azzara, include edible flowers, pea tendrils, and baby vegetables of many kinds, including zucchini. “My grandmother used to cook zucchini flowers,” he says. “She would dip them in egg and flower and saute them in olive oil. They were delicious.”
Beyond suggesting crops, Azzara, who knows what chefs are willing to pay, is able to help farmers to set prices. “I can tell them what other farmers are charging,” he says. “I can tell them what price I need to get to cover my expenses.”
In no case is Zone 7 the only customer his farms have, Azzara stresses. Most sell at farm markets and some have set up CSAs, which stands for community supported agriculture. A CSA has members who pay for a share or a portion of a share and in turn go out to the farm and pick up fresh produce once a week or so. Farmers used to working with CSA members and with shoppers at greenmarkets may be used to charging retail prices, which are generally higher than the prices at which restaurants and stores are willing to buy.
In addition to distribution and education, Zone 7 prides itself on offering promotion. Azzara says that its website, www.freshfromzone7.com, which is not yet ready for prime time, will have extensive information about every farm and every restaurant in its network. He is also planning to host five farm dinners this summer. Chefs will come out to the farms and cook meals using ingredients from the farm.
Farms in his network include Terhune Orchard, Cherry Grove Farm, Branch Creek Farm, Gravity Hill, and Blooming Glen Farm. Restaurants include the Brothers Moon, Nomad Pizza, elements, Mediterra, Eno Terra, Teresa’s Cafe, Hamilton’s Grill, Lucy’s Ravioli, the Bent Spoon, and the Frog and Peach. He also sells to the Lawrenceville School, Nassau Street Seafood, and the Whole Earth Center. His client roster was 17 last season, and has jumped to 30 this year.
Already well into a routine, Azzara talks with his farmers on Sunday evenings. They tell him exactly what they have to sell, in what quantities, and at what prices. He E-mails this list to restaurants on Monday morning. He tries to get chefs to place their orders by phone, even though many prefer to communicate solely through E-mail. “It’s old school, I know,” he says. But he thinks that the personal element is important. Beyond that, his inventory is limited, and he can’t automatically fill every request. He only has so many golden beets or baby carrots on hand.
Phone contact is good, but Azzara likes face-to-face visits even better. “Sometimes I drop by the kitchens,” he says. “The chefs will call out to their sous chefs ‘do we need apples?’ It’s a good way to find out what they want.”
Just as his farms sell through multiple outlets, Azzara works at multiple jobs. “Zone 7 will never be the only thing I do,” he says. He is president of Lawrenceville Main Street, runs the Lawrenceville farmers market, teaches farming in the Lawrence schools, and he is working on establishing a three-year farming institute to teach New Jersey residents how to establish and run profitable farms.
Despite his undeniable passion for farming and for organic food, Azzara is a product of the suburbs, Lawrenceville to be exact. His father, Bill, is a business consultant, and his mother, Kathy, is a nurse. They sent him to Middlebury College, where he majored in psychology and minored in environmental studies. Somehow, by the time that he graduated in 2003, he was an experienced farmer with work experience in both Italy and Vermont.
“My parents were confused,” he says of this career move. They were even more confused when he decided to plant his farming career right in the town where he grew up. But they were supportive, even as Azzara spent his first full year after college working at Cherry Grove Farm. They are now enthusiastically supportive. “My father sets up the farmers market with me every Sunday, at 7:15 a.m.,” he says.
Well on their way to becoming a foodie family, the Azzaras have another son, David, who is a chef at Eno Terra. Their third son, Bill, is developing affordable housing in Hawaii. But Azzara says that his brother’s main interests are food and wine. “We’re working on getting him back here,” he says, and hoping that he will become involved in a farm/food venture.
Farmer, entrepreneur, and advocate, Azzara is a busy man. But unlike the many college graduates who made money-making a priority, and who are now finding that this was an empty, and possibly futile pursuit, he is also a happy man. While he was still in college he spent time farming in Italy. When he was about to leave the farmer for whom he was working said: “If you know what you want to do, and you go after it, you will be a happy man.”
“A light shined down,” says Azzara. He decided to follow that advice, and has his forged his own, unique career. So far, so good. He will probably hire his second employee this summer to help with the books. Within the next few years he expects to have set up a distribution network throughout New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania, and Long Island. He doesn’t expect the recession to affect his business, which he is building in the most conservative way possible.
“People need a reason to eat out,” he says. “Restaurants need to differentiate themselves.” This, he is sure, will increase demand for fresh local produce — like those sauteed zucchini flowers he remembers from his childhood.
Zone 7, 9 James Street, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-896-0190. Mikey Azzara, owner. www.freshfromzone7.com.