Focused on hot stuff, no matter the weather

Feb 7 2019

The Recorder, February 4, 2019 by Richie Davis

SUNDERLAND — Temperatures struggled to rise out of the negative realm last week at Kitchen Garden Farm, but owners Caroline Pam and Tim Wilcox were laser-focused on hot stuff.

The 2,400-square steelframe building that will be the farm’s new commercial kitchen is up, but awaiting interior walls and $180,000 in equipment for which they’ve received a federal Farm Service Agency loan following a federal shutdown delay.

By August, the factory, which also won a $142,876 state “community food ventures” grant, should be ready to start producing The Kitchen Garden’s three sriracha sauces and two salsas in time for the harvest of organic peppers, onions, tomatillos and tomatoes that will go into making new batches of the products that are truly hot – spicy and popular.

The farm, with 13 of its 50 acres just outside the new commercial kitchen, started in 2006 and began making five

gallons of its version of Southeast Asian sriracha sauce in 2013 at the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield as a way of having something to sell at its first September Chilifest.

“The demand was insane,” recalls Pam, who says production jumped 10-fold to 4,000 bottles in 2014, then quadrupled in 2015 and doubled again to 32,000 jars in 2016.

But production schedules at the Franklin County Community Development Corp.’s commercial kitchen – an incubator for startup businesses and other farms that harvest around the same time of year – slowed that growth to 34,000 bottles in 2017 and started them thinking about building a commercial kitchen of their own.

“It had gotten to the point where we were up there three days a week, monopolizing the kitchen,” said Pam, explaining that the shared space needs to be booked months in advance, so there’s little flexibility, but plenty of uncertainty about exactly when crops need to be harvested. (This year’s production, which is just winding up at the Greenfield kitchen, will total 46,000 jars of the original, habanero, and ghost pepper sriracha varieties.

“If peppers come in a week early, we can’t get in there. In 2017, we had great weather and we had peppers we had to let go by in field because we c o u l d n’t get them processed. That was the moment we knew we were supposed to launch.”

It worked out that delays in processing their loan and starting construction caused Pam and Wilcox to push back their project, instead of trying to focus on it while harvesting 6,000 pounds of peppers, along with 50 acres of other crops, racing to get sriracha to store shelves around the country and planning the two-day Chilifest that attracts about 1,000 people each September.

“I’d much prefer to be dealing with the project now, so there’s more time to research all the equipment,” Wilcox said. “It’s a good block of time to get the building done.”

The couple, who launched Kitchen Garden after starting out farming a single rented acre, plan to continue using the Greenfield kitchen’s new freezer for its freezer for roasted salsa ingredients, but foresee their own dedicated kitchen as a way to maybe double their value-added products from one-quarter of the farm’s total revenue to half.

That will take expanding the litany of outlets, which now includes Whole Foods in Hadley and eastern Massachusetts, as well as farm stands and specialty food markets around New England, New York City, N.Y. and as far away as San Francisco, Calif., Austin, Texas and Minneapo-lis, Minn.

It also means adding to Kitchen Garden’s line of products, which will allow the couple to use the kitchen yearround: pestos, pickled peppers, chili oils, organic San Marzano plum-tomato products and giardiniera made from farm-grown cauliflower, celery, carrots and peppers, for use as a sandwich condiment or charcuterie plate.

“For me, the criteria for making a product is it has to be primarily from farm — that it’s essential and relevant 365 days of the year, not obscure — and that it’s something that’s already a part of our lives, that we choose to eat,” says Pam.

Having the commercial kitchen – with an outdoor cooking area for roasting peppers, onions and garlic for salsa, a seating area for 40 or 50 people to host monthly chili fests and other events, and even plans for an outdoor pizza oven someday – will make it easier to integrate the”value-added” food production into the rest of Kitchen Garden’s farm operation and be able to make small batches of products more efficiently, rather than in bulk batches.

It should employ six workers, in addition to the roughly 18 who work on the farm in peak season, says Pam.

“One of the coolest things about doing these food products for us,” says Wilcox, “is there’s the potential to reach a much wider audience. When we started out, we were standing at the farmers market in Greenfield from 9 to noon on Saturdays, but the market was limited to whoever’s around during that tiny time window. Now it’s like anyone who has condiments in their fridge is our potential customer base, so it’s a much bigger potential growth opportunity.”

Kitchen Garden, whose sriracha was a 2018 Bon Appetit “Top Pantry Pick,” and which in 2017 won both a national Good Food Award honoring “tasty, authentic and responsible food,” as well as a medal at the more gutsy NYC Hot Sauce Expo, has latched onto a naturally fermented product that’s become a popular niche product that Wilcox says bridges the specialty item market that’s mainstream enough to be sold at Whole Foods and San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Markets.

The sriracha is also served at Boston’s Eataly and San Francisco’s China Live, as well as Hope & Olive in Greenfield, while being among the featured items on Island Creek Oyster Bar’s “For the Love of Spice” menu next week in Boston.

“If you look at the statewide value of the agriculture industry and at how many acres are in production and how much value is being produced, when were starting to do hundreds of thousands of dollars of value per acre, there’s a lot of potential growth there. If more farms started doing this,” Wilcox observes, then stops. “We’re kind of out in front doing that ourselves. It’s extremely challenging. Infrastructure is a huge barrier — and regulation.”

The farm itself has tripled in size over the past five years, but Wilcox and Pam find it more rewarding to be creating recipes, developing and marketing products and do business planning, while training their employees to move into management functions.

“We’ve evolved the farm every year,” says Pam. “We’ve never done the same business plan twice. We’re always trying to anticipate what the market opportunities are, to analyze with sharp eyes where the inefficiencies are.”

Now that the farm is about as large as they want, having a new kitchen for products that use a greater share of the produce – 95 percent of its acreage still goes to growing organic produce sold to restaurants and stores from Cape Cod to the Berkshires as well as New York City – will allow the business to expand without taking on more “climate risk management” out in the fields.

“We really thrive in startup mode,” says Wilcox. “That’s what keeps it interesting.”

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