Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Full Circle Organics Goes Beyond the CSA

Plus Old Brooklyn Bagels & Deli opens in Rockridge.

By Luke Tsai
Wed, Aug 8, 2012 at 4:00 AM

Full Circle Organics, an organic produce company based in the Seattle area, recently expanded its farm-box delivery service to include the San Francisco Bay Area. That in itself is no big news: Just a few weeks ago I wrote about Alameda-based Golden Gate Organics, which implemented a near-identical business model more than a year ago.

But the increasing popularity of companies like Full Circle and Golden Gate seems indicative of a broader trend of offering small- and medium-size organic farms a new marketplace — one that might prove more sustainable and economically viable than selling at farmers' markets and distributing community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes.

Andrew Stout is co-founder of Full Circle Organics, which started fifteen years ago as a five-acre family farm. Over the years, the farm slowly expanded and eventually began distributing produce through the traditional CSA model. But by 2001, Stout had decided that in order for his business to take the next step, he would need to change that model.

"The market channels that exist — the farmers' markets — are fantastic, but they have self-imposed limits," Stout explained.

Only so many people can make it over to a farmers' market during the given four-hour window when the market is open. A small farm only has the wherewithal to sell at so many farmers' markets. And, for better or worse, a traditional CSA box is limited to the fruits and vegetables that are grown at a single farm.

Call the new approach "network farming," then — the idea that small- and medium-size farms should pool their resources to create a more far-reaching and supportive business infrastructure. Under this model, a company like Full Circle Organics provides marketing muscle, an online distribution portal, and a dependable customer base. In turn, the wide network of individual farms allows Full Circle to offer its customers a greater variety of high-quality produce all year round.

The questions Stout poses are interesting ones: Have we reached the limit to which small, independent farms, farmers' markets, and CSAs can snatch market share away from Big Ag? And, if so, do businesses like Full Circle Organics provide a way to push the sustainable food movement forward?

Stout stressed that he's a supporter of farmers' markets and that he's friendly with the folks who run successful CSAs in Northern California. He sees himself as an ally — not a competitor — to companies like Golden Gate Organics.

But, as Stout put it, "The amount that [all of the farmers' markets and CSAs] here are doing is, I think, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of food distribution."

The statement might seem hyperbolic, but Stout's point stands: The real competition is the industrial food system, and the sustainable food movement's future lies in wresting customers away from the big-box supermarkets — not in fighting over the limited pool of existing converts.

'Old Brooklyn' in Rockridge

A new cafe in Rockridge is boiling bagels in-house and claiming — at least by way of its chosen moniker — to offer a taste of Brooklyn.

About two weeks ago, Rockridge's Cafe Zoe morphed into something called Old Brooklyn Bagels & Deli (6000 College Ave., Oakland) — an interesting development, given the fact that Jason and Mark Scott, the brothers behind Authentic Bagel Company, had originally planned to partner with Cafe Zoe's owners on a similar concept. When I spoke to Jennifer Le, one of the owners, she told me that she's part of a new ownership group that took over Cafe Zoe three months ago and reopened the shop as Brooklyn Bagels after a three-week renovation.

You set up certain expectations when you put "Old Brooklyn" in your name, but Le qualified any claims about authenticity by saying that what they're doing is more of a fusion: "East Coast meets West Coast." So, for instance, the extensive sandwich menu includes a fairly standard corned beef Reuben, but also something called the Napa (a BLT with avocado) and another one they've dubbed the Santa Cruz (with roasted veggies).

According to Le, the partnership with Authentic Bagel Company didn't work out because the Scott brothers were more focused on their wholesale business. When I asked Jason Scott about this, he told me that he and his brother had been willing to stop expanding their wholesale operation, but that Cafe Zoe's management wanted them to drop all of their existing accounts as well — something they weren't willing to do. He also cited various philosophical differences with respect to "standards of quality and ingredients."

Le said the shop developed a new recipe after the split. I tried a couple of the bagels and thought they were okay, but distinctly non-Brooklyn-esque. There are quite a few non-traditional flavors: pesto, "tropical," Asiago cheese, and so forth. And the plain bagel I tried had a smooth exterior skin and a dusting of cornmeal on the bottom, but was very sweet. The bagel's interior was fairly soft and bready — not dense like a true New York bagel.

According to Le, Old Brooklyn Bagels & Deli's grand opening will be on Wednesday, August 8. They'll be running a few promotions that day — a free cup of coffee or soda with any food purchase. For now, the cafe's hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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