Photo by Josh Keown
Fresh … seasonal … local … it’s almost become a mantra. The Slow Food movement has made farm-fresh produce hip again, and every new farm to jump on board brings prices down further. Now, pizzerias are being challenged to re-think their entire approach to ingredients. But when does it make sense to go local? Which products are worth the extra money? And what’s the best way to get started?
The first argument most Slow Food advocates make is about taste. According to Lois Hoffbauer, the chairperson of the Duluth Farmer’s Market in northern Minnesota, fresher is better. She says that the produce, oregano and cheese available at local markets are tastier and purer than processed food.
“If you are a faceless entity, like a big factory farm, you’re not going to know your customers,” Hoffbauer says. “We’re not going to do something to our fruits and vegetables that we wouldn’t eat ourselves.”
David Yudkin would agree. He’s the co-owner of Hotlips Pizza, a five-location chain in the Portland area with a focus on fresh, local ingredients. Since the chain opened in 1984, they’ve been looking for ways to incorporate area produce onto their menu.
“In the winter, we use more potatoes and onions and kale,” Yudkin says. “In the summer, we’re using more tomatoes and peppers and basil. If you do it right, it’s glorious.” Even Yudkin would agree that local has its limits, however. Sometimes a particular food is better when it’s imported. Olive oil, cheese and wine are all tied to the place they’re produced, and local products usually don’t compare.
“There are certain things you just don’t buy locally,” Yudkin says. “You don’t buy local Parmesan. (Imported Parmesan) is a fine product; it’s high value, and that’s the way it’s always been for centuries.”
Furthermore, some prefer their tomatoes canned. Jeff Varasano, the owner of Varasano’s Pizzeria, is one of them. He says that fresh tomatoes might be great in Caprese salads or on top of a pie, but they have no place in the sauce.
“In terms of sauce, we definitely only use canned tomatoes,” Varasano says. “You cannot make a pizza with fresh tomatoes. I’ve tried it many times, (and) it just doesn’t have the right flavor to it.”
Another concern for operators is the cost. Local produce is a small-scale operation, and that means it’s more expensive. When Varasano ran out of his favorite kind of oregano, he tried –– and rejected — 46 different kinds from his supplier. Finally, he realized his only option was to pay a local nursery to grow it for him, with the first harvest last September. While he was thrilled to recover the taste he was missing, he admits it cut into his profits.
“I’m going to pay through the nose,” Varasano says. “My cost for that would probably be in the neighborhood of 10 times more than I’m going to buy commercially. It’s totally impractical, but I just really want that one ingredient.”
Partially due to cost pressure from local ingredients, Yudkin’s 18-inch pies cost around $30 each. To prevent that figure from spiking even more, he’s had to consider when going local is worth it. While he says that canning his own tomatoes would be prohibitively expensive, using local fl our was a relatively cheap fix.
“You have to do it smartly,” Yudkin says. “If it’s wheat, you’re talking generally about pennies. It’s not like going to local cheese or local protein.”
Of course, some products are not available locally at any price. Varasano says it’s difficult to find good local cheese in Georgia, and Yudkin says it’s difficult to find it in Oregon. Produce varies with the season. And then there are those weeks where the local farmers simply have a bad harvest. Even when everything is going smoothly, it can be very time-consuming to get local products.
“Last summer, I was running up to the farmer’s market every Saturday and getting basil,” Varasano says. “But it was basically an hour out of my day just to get one ingredient.”
Is it worth it? Clearly, Varasano and Yudkin think so, at least for some ingredients. Varasano says his oregano and basil are worth the time, cost, and effort, and he splurges for local tomatoes when they’re in season. Yudkin has gone further, making local a part of his brand and his reputation. He’s connected his site with various local-food causes, introduced a pizza - by- bike program, and brought in extras like locally made soda to bring additional prestige and foot traffic. But in the end, he says, every operator must concentrate on three things. The restaurant must be profitable, local ingredients and all. The service must be good. And the pizza must be worth it.
“If you’re not doing those,” Yudkin says, “You can’t even have a conversation about sustainable ingredients. You have to have credibility. It could be the most sustainable pizza in the world, but if it’s crappy pizza ... eating is believing.” ❖
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Robert Lillegard is a freelance writer in Superior, Wisconsin.
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