by Marlene Petersen
Scouting Local Food Talent at Feast! Local Foods Marketplace
When it comes to buying local, Nicci Sylvester, owner of Tonic Kitchen and Juice Bar, puts her money where her mouth is. Literally. Okay…not literally. But pretty darn close. A fervid advocate for delicious, regional fare, Nicci refuses to compromise on quality and spends her time, talents and resources scouting out the best.
Committed to Local
“I have a passion for fresh, local food,” Nicci says. She started Tonic in November 2013 to fulfill her dream of owning a restaurant committed to sourcing locally. “I buy local because it’s about living life as a whole package. It’s better for the environment, doesn’t poison my staff with chemicals, supports area farmers and tastes better.”
With local food comprising 75 percent of Tonic’s summertime menu—and 35 percent of its winter one—procuring ingredients is a daily, if not hourly, venture.
“I’m constantly buying something,” says Nicci. “Today it’s honey from Bee Shed [Oronoco, Minn.]. Tomorrow will be chicken and turkeys from Larry Schultz [Owatonna, Minn.]. Right now, I’m going to the farmer’s market and asking around to find a grower who does carrots and beets.”
Creating menus for Tonic involves more than just purchasing inventory from a foodservice distributor like other restaurants do. It’s a commitment to eating in season and constantly examining fresh lists—an inventory of products farmers have to sell now, what’s coming up, and what’s over for the season—to see what’s even available. If Tonic runs out of carrots in the middle of lunch rush, Nicci doesn’t place an urgent order with Sysco or head to Cub Foods. She calls her farmers and hopes they have more. And if they don’t?
“When I’m out, I’m out.” She shrugs.
Buying at Feast!
Although most of her contacts for local goods come from the Rochester Farmer’s Market, Nicci enthusiastically added a new resource in December 2014: Feast! Local Foods Marketplace.
Photo by Nancy Weingartner for Foodservice News used with permission. For Tonic Owner, Restaurant Is Her Version of the American Dream, Nov. 2016
“The second I heard about Feast!, I wanted to be on board,” declares Nicci, who has supported the two-day event since its inception as a consultant, sponsor, participant in Rochester Restaurant Week, presenter at the tradeshow and buyer at the festival.
“The whole concept goes with every vein of my body. I love the face-to-face interaction. You’re seeing your growers standing in front of you. Real people, trying to bring great food to people who deserve it, want it, need it. I made a fantastic connection there: I got the best Greek yogurt from Country View Dairy [Hawkeye, Iowa]. I use it in my smoothies because I want the best smoothies.”
Through Feast!, Nicci has also made connections with Blue Fruit Farm in Winona for red currants, Easy Yoke in Millville for rhubarb and Bushel Boy Farms in Owatonna for tomatoes, among others. This year, she’s on the hunt for local white cheddar and Swiss…and any other opportunity that might come along.
“If you want to buy and sell locally, you have to be at Feast!” Nicci advises. “There’s nothing else like it. You’re surrounded by people who get who you are and what you’re doing, and they want your product.”
So, if you, like Nicci, want to support local farms and food businesses (or are one and would like to be an exhibitor), plan to attend the Feast! Local Foods Marketplace tradeshow Dec. 1, or festival Dec.2, 2017, at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minnesota. For glimpses of past shows, check out the photo gallery.