How to Develop Quality Products by Developing Quality Relationships: A Chef and an Egg Farmer give us the (S)Coop

by Emily Jacobs
Antoinette Bruno
July 2013

The presence of local ingredients in today’s kitchen is as commonplace as salt and pepper. And building relationships with farmers has become a necessity. We spoke with Kathleen Blake of The Rusty Spoon in Orlando, Florida, about the ins and outs of working with small purveyors, and how she tracked down farm fresh eggs from Farmer Dale Volkert. We also talked to Volkert about how his small business, Lake Meadow Naturals, went from a hobby to a thriving farm providing eggs and meats to several restaurants in Orlando. This inspiring tale of two passionate food professionals helping each other succeed and grow their businesses while simultaneously supporting the community at large is what the buzz word “local” is all about.

Interview with Kathleen Blake

Emily Jacobs: Tell me about what you grew up eating; was food an important part of your family life?

Kathleen Blake: Oh yes, I grew up on a small farm in Iowa and every weekend we had Sunday supper at my grandmother’s house. I had a large family with lots of cousins and every Sunday we had an early supper. We’d start getting ready Saturday night, prepping at my grandmother’s. My family would buy whole animals and bushels of vegetables from farmers. On Thanksgiving we had homemade apple pies. We canned and pickled. I tell my cooks, I wasn’t going to the beach when I was young; I was underneath the apple tree husking corn.

EJ: What Florida produce, products, and purveyors do you like to use?

KB: We Source everything here in Florida, except some of the lamb. Central Florida has a lot of uncharted territory, which is not great for collective farming. Much of the produce is being shipped out of state and not a lot of chefs have had access to farmers. When I moved here in 2003, I contacted the Department of Agriculture and made a list of organic farmers in the area. Since 2003, they have begun to grow more consistently and become more established in the community. All my seafood, pork, and vegetables come from within the state.

EJ: How did you meet Volkert and begin using his eggs?

KB: We met online, not a dating site [chuckles], but at I was on the site looking for organic and local eggs. Dale was raising chickens for a hobby and he showed me what he had. He started providing me with eggs and now he supplies me with duck, chicken, goose, quail, turkey, hens, pigs, and lamb. I can go to him for anything. Now he works with a lot of local farmers and coordinates their sales.

EJ: What was your reasoning behind working with a small distributor?

KB: Have you ever had a farm fresh egg? They’re unbelievable! Also, I love having that personal relationship and dialogue. I don’t have to leave a voicemail. I appreciate the consistency of bigger distributors, but I like having the dialogue and talking to people. Dale called me the other day and said he had a bunch of beef tongue and so I put pickled beef tongue on my menu.

EJ: How did you begin working with Volkert on a regular basis?

KB: I kept asking for more. I opened three more restaurants, and I talked to the executive Chef of Primo and got him to order Dale’s eggs. His egg production increased with the demand and now he ships all over. He’s shipped eggs to Canada and to Thomas Keller in New York.

EJ: How did you help Volkert expand his business?

KB: I told people about him and gave out his information. He started to distribute his eggs with a local seafood company, which helped him expand. Also, by word of mouth and getting his name out there. He is quite a salesman himself. His business really grew and he and his partner jokes with me now: this was just a hobby and you ruined it! It’s because of you we’re never going to be able to retire. It’s a joke between us.

EJ: How does working with a small farmer affect your business demands?

KB: People know my reputation for sourcing locally and supporting local business. It’s not easy to manage, and buying from small farmers is more expensive. Also, it’s like getting a mystery basket because it’s tough to know what’s going to be available. Sometimes that means changing my menu, but I like being more creative with ingredients.

EJ: What are the biggest challenges of working with local farmers?

KB: At the end of the growing season, most of the farms shut down. Sometimes, all I get is eggplant and peppers and it’s hard to overcome that. One farmer just started working in a greenhouse, so hopefully I’ll have a wider variety of produce through September.

EJ: Are there benefits of working with local farmers rather than large distributors?

KB: I like to be able to pick up the phone, call, and talk to someone. The local farmers can see how we are utilizing their ingredients and that their hard work, effort, and energy is worth it. For me, you can’t call a big company and speak with someone personally. Small farmers are willing to work with you and grow something specific for you. You can say I’m looking for blueberries or green tomatoes and the farmers will work with you to get you what you need.

EJ: Did your relationship change as his business expanded?

KB: No, and that’s the great thing, too! If anything, we have a better dialogue than in the beginning. I’ve been working with Dale and other farmers for over 10 years. New farmers will hear about me through them and I tell chefs about them. It’s a way for me to pay if forward.

EJ: What do chefs have to gain from developing relationships with local farmers?

KB: If you have a relationship with them, they can grow something specific for you. Not every single person has the same thing on the menu and local farmers will work with you for your specific needs. There is so much available here in Central Florida. I don’t think many people know that we have local pigs, veal, and beef.

EJ: What are the important steps in building a relationship with a purveyor?

KB: Be flexible! You may not get what you’re expecting. Keep the dialogue going and work toward having a consistent product. I’m working with Dale on getting a consistent size hen. You have to have a constant dialogue and be open if you don’t get exactly what you wanted. That may even mean rewriting your menu.

EJ: What is your favorite part about working with local farmers and using their products?

KB: Having them come in and have dinner. I love having them here for a meal and watching their expression. It’s a way of showing respect for their work. Dale comes in a couple of times a month for lunch or dinner. All my farmers have dined here.

Lake Meadow Salad: Spinach, Red Cress, and Escarole Hearts, Lake Meadow Egg, Chicken Liver, and Bacon Vinaigrette
Lake Meadow Salad: Spinach, Red Cress, and Escarole Hearts, Lake Meadow Egg, Chicken Liver, and Bacon Vinaigrette

Interview with Dale Volkert

Emily Jacobs: What was your original intention when starting to raise hens?

Dale Volkert: Well, I first started raising chickens back on my family’s farm in Wisconsin for a 4-H project back in the 1960s. When I moved to Florida, I bought 100 chickens and started raising them as a hobby.

EJ: How many hens did you start with and how many do you have now?

DV: I started out with 100 hens and now we have over 6,000 hens. As more and more chefs called and asked for my eggs, I had no choice but to expand. We got some additional farmland and partnered with other small farms that worked with us to help expand.

EJ: How many eggs per week do you collect and deliver to restaurants?

DV: We collect over 5,000 eggs per day and deliver a couple times a week to restaurants. I work with around 20 restaurants in Orlando and some other distributors in south Florida and central Florida that deliver to Tampa and places like that.

EJ: How did you start raising other animals? How did you expand?

DV: When the hens were done laying eggs, we started selling them to restaurants. That was just when I had a few flocks, but now that I have over 1,000 flocks, I’m able to make a real profit. Now, we do chickens, ducks, this is our second year of turkeys, and we raise some grass-fed beef. We also work with a local producer for heritage pork and work with another nearby sheep farm.

EJ: What challenges have you met to grow your business? How did you overcome them?

DV: It’s always a mix between supply and demand and it’s always a challenge to try and stay balanced. The world of eggs is pretty small and we try and work with chefs and restaurants to help them get exactly what they want so we can get what we want.

EJ: What does the future hold for Lake Meadow Naturals?

DV: Well, it’s all based on what the chefs need and we work with them give them what they need. We’re just going to go slowly to not exceed what we can manage.