Your favorite restaurant has a chalkboard cataloguing “Our Farmer Partners” telling you where they source their eggs, their proteins, their vegetables and their cheese. Or the menu lists, “Farmer Jeff’s Grits with Farmer Julia’s Kale, Forager Shadawn’s Chanterelles and Farmer Aldo’s Bacon.”
Are the restaurants going out to all those farms gathering the items they need for the menus?
In a few cases, yes. The chef may make an occasional trip out to a farm. In some cases, the farms are delivering to the restaurants’ back doors.
But in many cases, the restaurant is ordering from The Turnip Truck of Georgia.
Michael Schenck founded The Turnip Truck in 2008 because he wanted to make it easy for chefs to feature “source-verified, locally produced food products.”
Working out of a warehouse on Ottley Drive just north of I-85 in the center of the city of Atlanta, Schenck and director of operations Joel Allison begin their days at 6 a.m. Monday through Saturday. They’re creating route lists based on the orders placed the day before from a list The Turnip Truck updates twice a week. Chefs have ordered farm-specific products, such as purple sweet potatoes from Crager Hager Farm in Bremen or Corno Di Toro peppers from Crystal Organics in Newborn.
The Turnip Truck’s ordering system makes it easy for chefs to choose items by farm or artisan producer, or just to browse the entire selection of leafy greens whether from a local farm or farther afield. Yes, The Turnip Truck augments local produce with items a restaurant needs that might not be grown locally like Florida citrus.
“We have a network of over 50 farms and artisan producers,” says Schenck as he tours me through his walk-in coolers full of produce. Over there is the corner devoted to East GA Produce of East, Georgia (yes, the farm is named after the community) and its bounty of persimmons, hakurei turnips and persimmons. Just coming in the cooler door are boxes of mushrooms from Sparta Imperial Mushrooms of Sparta, Georgia, with pounds and pounds of shiitakes. “Those mushrooms are some of our biggest sellers.”
Another cooler holds dairy products and cheese and eggs from White Oak Pastures, Beulah Farms and Local Lands. An adjacent freezer contains value-added products like The Turnip Truck’s own line of frozen field peas, chopped tomatoes and fruit, produced when the seasonal bounty exceeds customer orders, and shelves in the shipping area store dry goods like Oliver Farm benne seed oil and Muddy Pond sorghum syrup.
“We currently serve around 75 restaurants and institutions in the metro Atlanta area and beyond, and have recently begun direct to the public sales on our website http://turniptruckga.com. On our site, customers can find local products in season, searchable by category or by the specific farm. Each farm has a landing page with pictures, available items and the story of the farm,” Schenck explains.
He’s made it easy for folks to shop just like their favorite chefs. Schenck trained as a chef, and worked in upscale restaurant kitchens for more than ten years before making the transition to the supply side.
Jarrett Stieber of Eat Me, Speak Me is one of the chefs who routinely orders from The Turnip Truck. “I buy directly from the farmers but I also place an order with The Turnip Truck once a week for local dairy, occasionally cheese if it’s not a style we make ourselves, and any local produce that wasn’t on my farmers’ direct availabilities lists that we need to round out a full menu for the week.”
Stieber appreciates their role in making produce from local farms available to kitchens across the city. “Their approach to helping restaurants source product from local farmers is a tremendous help towards bolstering the seasonal awareness movement.”
On the farmers’ side, Nicolas Donck of Crystal Organics appreciates the role The Turnip Truck plays in the economic life of the farmer. “Michael takes a lot of pressure off farmers in finding a market for their produce and dealing with payment from the restaurants. We really appreciate his support of local farmers.”
Not having to go from restaurant to restaurant delivering products, not having to worry about when or if they’ll get paid, knowing what they’re growing will have a market, all are good reasons why a farmer might want to turn some, if not all, of their sales over to The Turnip Truck.
And Schenck’s vision of connecting farms and artisan producers with local restaurants has grown into a business that is now a $2 million a year operation. “We’ve put over $3.5 million back into the pockets of our local food producers since our founding. In 2015, we had total local food purchases of $680,463 and this year, we are expecting to finish out with local food purchases of over $750,000.”
That the business is a successful venture financially is important, but Schenck has a whole other set of reasons for wanting to do what he does. “It may sound cheesy, but the fun part is working with the farmers. They know they can grow something and we’ll have a home for it, week after week, year after year. It’s sustainable.
“We strongly believe in the transformative properties of local food systems, both in the very real economic benefit that comes with keeping your food spending dollars in the local economy, but also the real benefit to the consumer and the community as a whole. If you think about it, there really aren't many things that we come into contact with in our daily lives that we can know the true story of its origin, where it actually came from and what it is actually made of. To know who grew the food you are eating, and knowing that it came from a good place, is produced in a responsible manner and that you can be comfortable knowing that there are no unnecessary chemicals or pesticides or undue environmental stress due to transportation is an incredibly great feeling.”