In 2001, farm-to-table dining was in its infancy in Portland, led by pioneering chefs like Greg Higgins and Cory Schreiber. The idea of buying food directly from farmers and considering how ingredients were grown was new and novel.
At Grand Central, we were busy running a growing artisan bakery. But as we started hearing about the burgeoning farm to table movement, we became interested. We cared about the environment and humane animal husbandry. Most importantly we cared about flavor.
Still, it seemed like the only restaurants doing farm to table were high-end white tablecloth places. Back then, a Grand Central sandwich cost $5.50. We didn’t see any way we could pay the premium for farm-direct ingredients and stay true to our desire to provide affordable food.
But we were curious and always hungry for the most delicious option.
Meet the farmers
On a beautiful spring day, I joined Laura Ohm, then a kitchen manager at the bakery and now our product director, at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds for a Chefs Collaborative event. This national organization is organized around the motto Change Menus, Change Lives, and the simple idea that being aware about ingredients and seasonality can fundamentally change our food system. The event was designed to help chefs connect with farmers and offered workshops, a “speed dating” exercise and a fabulous lunch. What changed my life was that day’s keynote speaker Tod Murphy, who ran the Farmers Diner in Vermont.
Tod was committed to purchasing only local food and serving it at affordable prices. He was able to do so, he told us, by building supply chains and working directly with farmers. On the drive home, Laura and I decided we had to figure out how to be part of this movement.
Buying for flavor
It started that summer, with tomatoes.
In those days every Grand Central sandwich came with a tomato slice. We’d serve them year-round, for moisture and texture, though they generally were flavorless, rock hard and pale. With Tod’s words in our heads, Laura and I designed a menu that was more seasonal in nature. We would only serve tomatoes when we could buy them from our local farmers, when they were juicy and irresistible during the hot weeks in August and September
Sixteen years later, the lion’s share of what comes into our bakery and kitchen comes from local farmers: honey and wheat, row-crop vegetables, eggs and all kinds of fruit. Our meat comes only from sustainable producers who treat livestock humanely. We treasure our long-term relationships with these farmers, and we value the care they put into these ingredients, which shows in the flavor and quality.
We have Chefs Collaborative to thank for not only for those spectacular, juicy local tomatoes that show up every summer, but also for this awakening to the value of seasonal food, and its benefits to eaters, rural communities, and the entire food system. And today, serving delicious food from well-raised ingredients is the core of Grand Central Bakery’s mission.
So when customers ask, why is your BLT so delicious, and we tell them it’s really about that local tomato served in season, I like to think we’re inspiring customers to seek out more seasonal, local produce as well.
Add a tomato, change the food system
That’s the power of collaboration and education. By changing how people look at ingredients, we can change the food system.
This is why we donated 25 cents from every tomato-based sandwich to the Good Food Fund in 2017. The fund supports Chefs Collaborative programs that teach chefs about sourcing, cooking and serving well-raised ingredients and helps build a better food system.
We hope everyone who walks through our doors in late summer enjoys a ripe local tomato on a Grand Central sandwich or in a salad, and eats plenty more while the season lasts. You’re doing good with every bite.
–Piper Davis, co-owner Grand Central Bakery and Chefs Collaborative board member
Watch the Grand Central BLT video!