Dakota Fresh Food Hub connects farmers to restaurants

By Lura Roti for SDSU Extension/iGrow

It’s 8 o’clock on a recent morning and already Bread & Circus Sandwich Kitchen is full of activity prepping for the day’s lunch and supper crowds.

Staff members chop vegetables, fry salted almonds, break down pork shoulders, roast beets and mix ingredients for the restaurant’s vegetarian burger.

Bread & Circus chef and co-owner Jordan Taylor greets Lee Storo and inspects a delivery of local produce.

Amidst preparations, chef Jordan Taylor takes a few moments to greet Lee Storo and inspect a delivery of local produce.

“What do you think of these carrots?” Storo asks, holding up a bunch of robust carrots boasting heirloom shades of white, red, yellow and violet.

Below the carrots, more crates are laden with swiss chard, onions, butternut squash, potatoes and heirloom tomatoes; all produce raised locally by members of the Dakota Fresh Food Hub.

Dakota Fresh was organized two years ago to unite South Dakota farmers, like Storo and his wife, Mary, who operate Mary’s Kitchen and Gardens on 10 acres north of Beresford, and connect them with wholesale consumers — food markets and restaurants  like Bread & Circus.

“Buying from Dakota Fresh is smarter because I am supporting the local guy, and more often than not, these smaller farmers are doing things the right way,” explains Taylor, who has spent his entire career as a chef cooking with fresh, local ingredients.

On any given day, 90 percent of the ingredients used in his lunch or dinner menu are locally sourced. As he discusses his menu, Taylor casually names the farmer who raised almost every ingredient — mushrooms for the veggie burger were grown in Renner by Jerry Ward of Hackberry Hollow Farm; the beets and butternut squash used in a salad are from Mary’s Kitchen and Gardens; pork belly was purchased from Ashby Natural Pork in Adrian, Minn.; the bread was baked by Dakota Earth in Alcester; and the chicken used in his Moroccan chicken salad was raised by Free Happy Farm in Brookings.

“Buying local is important to me because I don’t want to feed people what I don’t want to eat,” Taylor said.

Farm-to-table model

Initially aided by a two-year Local Foods Promotion Program implementation grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded to SDSU Extension in 2015, Dakota Fresh Food Hub is led by a board of directors made up of its farmer-members.

“This grant has allowed us to get the infrastructure in place to get this business model rolling,” said Kari O’Neill, a community vitality field specialist with SDSU Extension who helped administer the grant. “Watching individuals make a profit as small farmers is really inspiring.”

Before the food hub, many of Dakota Fresh’s 17 members marketed their own produce and made their own deliveries.

“It can be complicated for us to get our products into the hands of multiple customers on our own,” said Kristianna Gehant Siddens, an Astoria farmer who raises culinary and seed garlic as well as grass-fed lamb. “I did sell to some Sioux Falls customers previously, but today my sales have increased substantially because the food hub streamlined our marketing, allowing us to focus more on production.”

The system she references allows her to bring her garlic to a local aggregation point — saving her precious time to focus on the demands of her farm. It also created one point of contact for farmers and those wanting local produce, increasing efficiencies for farmers as well as those buying wholesale produce.

“It really makes things easier,” said Rachel Saum, produce manager at The Co-op Natural Foods, an organic, natural and whole-foods grocery store that serves about 2,000 customers each week.

The food hub sends her an e-mail each week listing what produce is available locally from 17 farmers.

“I send an e-mail back and get one delivery. It makes for a more efficient system. It’s really worked well for us.”

Before Dakota Fresh, Saum would need to contact 12 to 15 growers to access the produce she now can get through one e-mail.

Chef Nicholas Skajewski of Carnaval Brazilian Grill preps local produce he recently purchased from Dakota Fresh Food Hub.

Carnaval Brazilian Grill’s chef, Nicholas Skajewski, echoes Saum’s comments.

“I was sourcing local before the food hub, but it wasn’t easy. I would have to drive to the farmers market downtown and hope I got there before everyone else or buy from the natural foods co-op,” he said, listing freshness as a large factor for buying locally grown produce.

“There is such a difference. First, visually: the color of fresh vegetables that were given time to ripen before they were harvested — they are vibrant. And no chemicals or hormones were added to give them that natural color,” he said. “When they were just picked the day before or even that morning, you get a much more true, earthy flavor.”

Recognizing that many who dine at the locally owned Brazilian restaurant appreciate locally sourced produce, Skajewski includes the name of farmers who raise the produce and the South Dakota town where it was grown throughout the restaurant’s diverse salad bar.

“As a local business, supporting local businesses is key for us,” Skajewski said.

Faces of fresh

Like Taylor, as Skajewski slices into a mushroom, he acknowledges its grower, Dan Rislov, owner of Dakota Mushrooms & Microgreens from Sioux Falls.

“It’s nice when you can build a relationship with the person growing the ingredients. I asked Dan awhile back if he would also grow portabellas for me, and he did,” Skajewski said.

He plucks a few leaves of oregano and shares another story. Beresford herb producer Tammy Andrews employs members from the high school FFA chapter to help harvest her herbs.

“They get a kick out of seeing the herbs they pick end up in one of our dishes that ends up on Facebook.”

Getting to know the consumers of their produce is a bonus benefit to her gardening business, Mary Storo said.

She has run the farmers market and CSA, or community-supported agriculture, side of her business long enough to see her customers’ kids grow up.

“Building relationships with customers is another way this food hub is completely different from a truck that backs up to the door and food that is delivered by its driver, not the farmer who grew it. It’s important to us as an organization that we continue to grow those relationships.”

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