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How to Source Sustainably in a Fast-Casual World

Maggie Borden

May 10, 2017

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There was a time when “fast food” meant paper-wrapped burgers and boxes of chicken nuggets that were served up in seconds and uniform in taste, texture, and appearance, no matter where in the world you were. But as the “farm to table” ethos expands to “farm to takeout,” new challenges have appeared for chefs and restaurateurs trying to source sustainably while feeding a growing audience in a timely manner. Can you truly know your farmer if you’re serving 120 covers an hour?

To answer that question, we spoke to Matt Weingarten, culinary director at Dig Inn, one of the leading chains in the sustainable fast-casual dining space. The New York City–based restaurant group, that has recently expanded to the Boston area, emphasizes and advertises its sourcing practices as part of its mission to “[form] genuine, trusting relationships with our farmers and partners, and [serve] food that embraces the seasons.” Weingarten, a JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change alum, shared his thoughts on scaling up responsibly, expanding to new markets, and how employee treatment affects your overall sustainability as a business.

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JBF: Before working at Dig Inn, you began your career in fine dining, then moved to work at Sodexo. How did your idea of what it means to source sustainably change when you moved from fine dining to the scale of working for a food service operation like Sodexo?

Matt Weingarten: I came into Sodexo very green and gung-ho and thinking I would change the world, but I ended up getting a good education in supply sourcing and distribution, and how the way Sodexo built its system to work best with a certain style of growing and distributing your food. Ultimately, my thoughts about the kind of food we should be serving never changed. It’s more about learning how the system’s set up, how to work within the system, and how to be able to push in directions that really support a more mindfully sourced kind of food and agriculture. I learned best by asking, “why can’t we do this?” Those kinds of questions taught me about all the ways food has to pass through different regulations and distribution chains.

JBF: What is your definition of sustainability for yourself and for Dig Inn?

MW: It would be easy if I could just slap a label onto any one Dig Inn product and say “that’s our version of sustainability,” but it is definitely more nuanced than that. We ask a lot of questions and we really want to understand all of our partners’ business models. We understand that we are a user within the system.

So there are some things that we’ve decided as a company to stand behind: all of our protein is antibiotic-free, and we’ve chosen to use only wild seafood. But in other ways we try to be flexible: as far as produce, we’re not a 100-percent local company, because we think it doesn’t make sense in terms of scale and the broader context of changing our food system. Instead, we try to work with mid-sized farms that meet our requirements for pest management and diverse crop integration. We ask a lot of questions and we really look for partners that are at a point where we can grow with them, and where they can educate us as much as we educate them.

JBF: Does Dig Inn require its producers to be certified organic? Or do you look at producers on a case-by-case basis?

MW: Not everybody that we work with has organic certification—transitional farmers are kind of our sweet spot. Transitional means the folks that are already following the practices that we look for from certified organic farms, but don’t necessarily have the overhead that requires getting certified. It’s complicated, but we are very involved in our producers’ growing practices. Our supply team has visited a good number of the fields where we grow all of our major crops, so we actually know what our producers are doing at the individual level.

JBF: Dig Inn has now expanded to the Boston-area market. Are there any challenges that you’ve encountered moving into a different metropolitan area?

MW: Moving into a second market is very significant for the growth of the business, and has been a really big challenge as an organization. We’re used to working within our New York City foodshed, where we understand how the sourcing affects our menu development. We chose Boston for a number of reasons, but a major one was that it’s still part of the Northeast foodshed, so we have some producers that just moved over naturally to supply that new market.

A real challenge was dealing with central versus non-central distribution. There’s a supply center up in the Bronx that we use to aggregate a lot of our produce, and so we looked into how to get that produce up to Boston. It turns out some of the farms we sourced from for New York City are located in New England, so from a food-mile perspective it didn’t make sense to truck it down here and then have it redistributed back up to Boston.

We also took it as an opportunity to expand our sourcing partnerships. In fact, on the New York City early spring menu, we’ll be highlighting some fingerling potatoes from a Maine farm, Pete’s Greens, that we discovered through that research process. That’s one of the main reasons I’m excited to open up more Dig Inns across the country. You get to learn about so many more communities and form so many more partnerships by doing so.

JBF: Is there any food or dish that you wanted to add to the menu but couldn’t because of logistics and working at this scale?

MW: Asparagus is actually a good example. A big goal for next spring is to figure out how to partner with farmers that can support us on asparagus at the quality, the quantity, the sourcing practices, and the price that works for us. Right now it’s a challenge: we have a pretty short window that doesn’t really span a full two-month menu season for me.

Our current solution is to just not run it for the whole season. We’re going to buy as much asparagus as we can when it’s at the right price point, serve it for three weeks, and then it will come back off the menu and we’ll replace it with some sugar snap peas. That’s a different model than most of my regular menus, because we usually lock in ingredients for a two-month period. But it’s a great example of where we are right now and how we literally need to wait another year to get better. We work with the seasons so it takes a little bit of patience and a lot of planning, but when we do it correctly everyone gets to enjoy the literal fruits of our labor.

JBF: Seasonality and limited harvesting periods are built into sourcing produce, but do you have any proteins that you have struggled to have on the menu because of needing to scale up the amount of product?

MW: Protein’s a real challenge, especially when we talk about scaling it up. We’ve attacked it from a number of angles. First, I believe that we serve the properly proportioned amount of protein. Our protein is about 4 ounces per plate, surrounded by 70 percent vegetables. That helps us somewhat with the scalability. We’re also concerned about versatility: right now I’m looking for a chicken leg that I can use in I multiple ways. We’re currently using a skinless, boneless thigh, and I started looking for a different option, but it’s challenging to find that at this scale.

Fish remains a challenge. Right now, we have wild sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay in Alaska, and it has been on our menu for over a year now. I’d love to use more fish but there are very specific seafood seasons, which require more research on our end.

We’re learning that dealing with scale means we’ll need more patience than one would imagine in terms of research and development, supply work, and menu planning in order to be able to put serve item exactly how we want it. It’s really different from a “normal” restaurant where you get on the phone at midnight and place an order and it’s at your door the next morning.

JBF: You participated in our Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. Is there anything that you’ve changed or done differently since you attended, either in your advocacy work or professionally?

MW: The boot camp I attended focused on two topics: raising the minimum wage and school nutrition. To be honest, childhood nutrition was not really on my radar as a chef/restaurateur. But we recently opened a location in Rye in Westchester, which was our first suburban Dig Inn, and since then I’ve become really tuned into what was going on with the kids in the area. I want us to reach out to the schools and find out how we can get more involved as we become more of a part of the community.

Learn more about JBF Impact Programs.

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.