From soil to table: A local farmer’s perspective on working with chefs in King County

Steel Wheel Farm in the Snoqualmie Valley is a small, first-generation family farm focused on improving the way produce is grown, harvested, and distributed. Steel Wheel sells their produce to local restaurants and at farmers markets in Issaquah, University District, and Capitol Hill, as well as at their on-site farm stand in Fall City.

The Local Food team spoke with Steel Wheel farmer Ryan Lichtenegger about how he builds relationships with restaurants, the challenges and opportunities Steel Wheel faces when working with restaurants, and some of his future plans for the farm.

How does Steel Wheel Farm build relationships with restaurants?

“Building relationships with restaurants can be really tough,” said Ryan. “When we first started, we were really small. We approached restaurants after farmers markets with the food we didn’t sell and offered it to chefs and restaurant staff.

“We would pull up to the back of a restaurant and ask for the chef,” he said. “Shaking a chef’s hand at their back door and giving out our business cards personally really built some of our most meaningful relationships. This approach worked out well for some restaurants and for some it didn’t.”

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Ryan Lichtenegger, farmer at Steel Wheel Farm

Steel Wheel Farm continues many of the relationships with chefs they built in those first few years. “Chefs and farmers aren’t so different,” said Ryan. “We work long hours to provide the best quality food for our customers. When we visit a restaurant and enjoy our experience, we’ll let the chef and restaurant staff members know that they’re doing a great job and then tell them we grow produce they can use at the restaurant.”

Steel Wheel has an organic approach to building relationships with restaurants.

“We sit down with chefs and go through seed catalogs to determine which crops they want us to grow,” said Ryan. “We’re always open to growing new crops and sometimes we’re not sure what will be popular to grow for that season. Kale was ‘in’ for a while and now other crops are becoming interesting to consumers.”

Steel Wheel focuses on growing food that will be popular that season so consumers are not only satisfied but also impressed with the uniqueness of the interesting varieties of crops offered.

“It’s exciting to pick a chef’s brain because they usually know what will be popular that season,” Ryan said. “Will red or green salad lettuce be better? What type of kale do people like more? This approach really adds to the quality of our service. Chefs benefit by receiving the crops we agree to grow for them and we benefit because we know what is popular during that season.”

This approach is also useful because the farm receives reviews of crops from previous seasons.

“Chefs will tell us if a crop was too bitter or if there were too many bugs in our artichokes, for example, which helps us improve our on-farm practices to see what methods work best for producing high quality crops and what methods we can scrap,” Ryan said.

There are also chefs interested in Steel Wheel Farm who contact Ryan through the farm’s website, by referral, and through farmers market visits.

“Sometimes chefs will come to our farmers market booth and test our produce,” he said. “After that, we’ll schedule a meeting and work on a plan. If chefs aren’t going to farmers markets, they ought to start. That’s where the freshest produce they can find will be.”

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Steel Wheel Farm at a local farmers market in Seattle

What are the challenges to providing local food for restaurants?

“Sometimes it’s difficult to stay connected with chefs who move around and work at different restaurants,” said Ryan. “Less stability often causes us to lose relationships with chefs so we try and focus on chefs who are dedicated to working closely with us and putting in regular orders.”

“Working with restaurants is also a big investment,” Ryan said.

“We put time, money, and communications efforts into these relationships so it can hurt our business when chefs move from restaurant to restaurant often and end communications,” he said. “Bigger farms can produce more consistently. Farms that only grow one or two crops can also more consistently provide those crops to restaurants.”

Ryan said Steel Wheel focuses on specialty crops, which sell out quickly because chefs seek out uniqueness.

“Chefs want crops that aren’t on other menus,” he said. “Also, some restaurants change their menu seasonally and some only change once a year. We love the restaurants that use chalk board menus and change their menu daily. That style works best for us. We can call them up and tell them we have fresh broccoli we can deliver that day, and then the chefs can make dinner courses right away for customers. You can’t beat the freshness of harvesting a crop in the morning and seeing it on dinner plates in the evening.”

What are some of the opportunities you see for farmers interested in working with restaurants?

“We have some of the best farmers markets in the country,” said Ryan. “We’re really lucky to be able to drive half an hour to the market and give customers the freshest products. We’re able to sell everything we grow, which we contribute to savvy customers and proximity.”

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Steel Wheel Farm at a local farmers market in Seattle

Ryan said more opportunities to sell directly to restaurants will likely open up as establishments commit more and more to buying local food.

“Chefs will receive the highest quality ingredients, with fresh flavors and nutrient dense produce when it’s picked the same day or the next day. It’s better for local farmers, chefs, and consumers,” he said.

“Restaurants are not only losing quality in the food they don’t buy local but their money also could go directly to a local farm when they buy from us or another close farm business rather than a large corporation.”

What are ways that King County and other organizations can help build a better farm-to-restaurant pipeline?

“Networking is important. We could always use more spaces where farmers can swap information with other farmers, chefs, restaurateurs, and distributors,” said Ryan. “We love participating in Taste of the Valley and An Incredible Feast. These events really help us connect with people and grow our business.”

Ryan also said there was a need more farmer-chef advocacy and groups, which is why outreach is always a big help for them.

“There are also issues of land access and permanency in King County, and many organizations are actively trying to support increased access to farmland,” he said. “We have to keep pushing for local food because consumers won’t stop demanding it.”

Any exciting future plans for Steel Wheel Farm?

“My dream is to sell food into school districts and give children nutritious food to eat,” said Ryan. “We hope to get a few steps closer to that goal this year. It’s hard to set up relationships with school districts, but we’re working with Farmstand Local Foods, which makes accessing some of those institutions a little easier.

“My mom works for an elementary school as a lunch lady, and I can’t believe some of the food they serve,” he said. “The schools have moved away from having lunch staff cook lunch, which has really taken away the lunch staff’s creativity and nutrition from the children.”

Ryan has big plans to work with school districts but doesn’t plan on stopping his work with restaurants any time soon.

“We’ll continue working with restaurants, and we’re excited to continue developing those relationships and find new chefs to work with.”

All images courtesy of Steel Wheel Farm.

Visit Steel Wheel Farm’s website here.

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