It's no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on the food industry. Bay Area restaurants have struggled to stay open with a significantly reduced customer base. Farmers have had to pivot their business models to recoup losses from partnerships with those restaurants. Small businesses have struggled to secure funds from PPP loans. The future of food in the Bay Area is uncertain, to say the least, if not downright bleak.
But somehow, despite it all, certain food producers have managed to fare well during the pandemic. In some cases, they've thrived. Here are five of them.
The Flour Miller
"I didn't realize that baking was going to become the therapy of choice for a lot of folks during lockdown," says Capay Mills owner David Kaisel. "We were completely blindsided by this. In the space of a couple of weeks, we were on the same list as toilet paper and hand sanitizer."
Back in late March and April, sourdough made a sudden resurgence. Pandemic baking became its own thing. With more of the workforce at home, and with more time on their hands, keeping a yeast-pet and making bread suddenly put a stress on big-box stores. Grocery shelves were left depleted of flour, which is where Kaisel comes in. His independent operation 45 minutes west of Sacramento went from selling 600 pounds of flour per week to more than 2,500 pounds a week in April and May. He was able to fill in while the supply chain recovered from its shock, selling direct-to-consumer and via farmers markets. He introduced larger, five-pound bags, and customers started buying 8-10 pounds of flour per visit.
To keep up with demand, Kaisel had to increase production significantly. "We were milling nonstop," says Kaisel. There was even a point at which the production space became too small. "We're a tiny operation, and we didn't have room for the flour we were milling," says Kaisel. He ended up making several deliveries of flour to San Francisco each week just to make space in the shop.
Before the pandemic, roughly half of the sales for the seven-year old mill were direct-to-consumer, via farmers markets like the Ferry Building and Oakland's Temescal market. With restaurant wholesale vanishing practically overnight, consumer sales skyrocketed so quickly that Kaisel had to create a website and online marketplace. He had to throttle demand because of concerns about volume. "It was a bandwidth issue more than anything," said Kaisel.
Capay Mills went from a one-man operation to one with two part-time production assistants. Kaisel's currently scaling up the production facility and working on a relocation to Woodland. And while things have quieted down a bit since that first surge in spring ("No one wants to bake during summer," he says), as of the end of July, his volume is still up about 20 percent over last year.
The Fish Purveyor
While customers were scrounging in March to buy flour, eggs and milk for baking, the seafood industry began rethinking its heavily restaurant-dependent business model. Online grocery shopping and delivery has seen a huge surge in the Bay Area, and between launching a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) subscription and selling at farmers markets, Hans Haveman and Heidi Rhodes of Santa Cruz-based H&H were able to fast-track the expansion plans they'd had in the works for years. "We were lucky because we already had the tools to accept people who were looking for an alternate way to get food," says Haveman. The two were able to quickly supplant their lost revenues from catering with a successful consumer-centered model.
Haveman says that because people weren't going to restaurants, many looked instead to seafood as a way to get high-end products to cook at home. Like Kaisel, Haveman and Rhodes saw a hoarding type of mentality early on, which they say has since died down. But because of their higher sales, the duo has been able to increase their fleet of drivers from two to seven. They've also expanded their online store so people can order more products for delivery, beyond the CSF. It's something that had been in the works for a while, Rhodes says, but the pandemic had a snowballing effect. In the span of a few short weeks, their CSF membership went from 150 to 500 enrollees.
The Small, Family-Owned Farmer
Kenny Baker runs a small 10-acre family farm with his wife Molly in Watsonville. Before the pandemic, Lonely Mountain Farm sold mostly through farmers markets. Because of the limited growth opportunities of selling to farmers markets, Baker had been looking to expand to restaurant wholesale operations. But before he could, restaurants were gone.
Because the future was so uncertain, the Bakers decided to plant for the customer instead of restaurants, a major change to their crop plan. "We kind of bet on the fact that some of our labor-intense crops that were for the fine dining world were not going to be bought up by customers or wholesalers," Kenny Baker says. "We were able to still grow everything that we grew, but not, like, little tiny cucumbers the size of your pinky nail."
Baker also began working with the grocery delivery service Good Eggs, further increasing his business at a time when people aren't comfortable shopping in the grocery store.
The Strawberry Farmer
At Swanton Berry Farm, owner Jim Cochran says that people in the past years have driven long distances to spend the day picking berries. "It was a good way to get out of town," he says. "People would stay for a longer time and eat shortcake." And while the pandemic decimated the you-pick business model, oddly, his farmstand sales have been about 20% higher than last year. Instead of lingering around, people come in and buy their strawberries, shortcake or pie, then leave. Grocery sales have been up 6% and farmers market sales have been up 12% over last year.
The strawberry season isn't without risk. Every year, Cochran puts his house up as collateral for a loan in order to farm strawberries. After 37 years of being in business, it's taken a toll on him. Last year in June, he sold about $54,000 worth of strawberries in you-pick sales (about 10,000-11,000 pounds). He started February worried that he wouldn't be able to pay his loan back, but says now that he's actually on track to pay it off. Demand throughout the season hasn't waned, even while Cochran looks to downsize due to a production problem that affected yields.
All in all, despite not having you-pick, and the challenges of the pandemic, Cochran says it's a mystery why he's been able to do this well.
The CSA Farmer
Unlike many farms in the Bay Area, Lorraine Walker of Eatwell Farm had primarily focused on CSAs and just one farmers market before the pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, she'd already planned to increase planting to expand into wholesale. The decision was fortuitous: when the pandemic hit, she was able to meet the increased demand for her CSA program.
The Saturday before Mayor London Breed announced shelter-in-place, Walker remembers watching the number of her memberships go up. The day after Breed made the announcement, Walker had to turn off signups because she couldn't keep up with the number of boxes. "We jumped up pretty close to just over 700 from about 500," she says. Within the first few weeks, Walker says she had just over 1,000 people on the waiting list to join the CSA.
It hasn't been all easy. With CSA programs, there needs to be a dedicated drop-off and pickup site. During the course of the pandemic, Walker lost a couple of pickup locations in San Francisco, including one in the Mission. "All of a sudden, we were scrambling trying to move those people, and the Mission was already heavily impacted."
She ended up turning to her members to look for a new host. And while other farms had to learn and pivot into a CSA model, Walker was already ahead in knowing how to operate. "It's a different way of farming," says Walker. "If we're growing with the idea of wholesale for a restaurant, the restaurant wants certain items in the season, but they want to get it for a couple of months. I don't want to put the same exact things into a CSA box week after week, month after month. We need to switch it up, so it's really a different way of growing."