Two weeks ago, for the first time in a year, Mountain Sweet Berry Farm’s Rick Bishop felt a wave of relief: This was going to be okay. It was Wednesday, he was at the Union Square Greenmarket, and fine dining was back. “I was completely overrun with restaurants,” he says. “People I hadn’t seen in a year were like, ‘We’re back, we’re going to open up, and we’re going to need some ramps!’ I’ve been scared for two months now, going, What am I doing? What am I doing? It was like driving really fast in the fog.” And all at once, it seemed, the fog had lifted. “We completely sold out — full truck gone, my receipt book was empty. And I was like, Wow, this is great. We’re back.”
As the city’s largest greenmarket, Union Square occupies a singular place in New York’s culinary ecosystem: At the same booths where people buy salad greens for dinner, chefs are stocking their kitchens to prepare for that night’s service. The farmer-chef relationships are close, and what chefs can’t buy, they’ll commission. “I grow a lot of really weird stuff for Frenchette,” says Bishop, who counts Jean-Georges, Daniel Humm, and Tom Colicchio among his regulars. In a normal year, he estimates, restaurants account for 40 percent of his business. But this was not a normal year.
Every facet of the food industry was thrown into crisis, but farmers had one issue that restaurants did not, and that is that farming is very, very slow. It is not set up for pivoting. You are always betting on the future, and once crops are planted, there’s not a whole lot more that can be done. In restaurants, chefs frantically overhauled their menus to feed a terrified city. On farms, seedlings kept obliviously growing. “That’s just the steadfastness of farming,” says Quarton Farm’s Kellie Quarton. “Okay, this huge thing is changing, but we still have to keep going.”
Still, they did what they could to brace themselves. “I said, ‘Let’s just skip a bunch of the herbs and the restaurant-specific items,’” says Bishop. “The baby French leeks and the French cronses, which are a real tiny little tuber — last year, we just dropped them.” When the cancellations started coming in, the first thing Norwich Meadows’ Zaid Kurdieh did was ditch celtuce; at chef-favorite Campo Rosso, Chris Field pulled way back on agretti. More than half his business had been restaurants, but the lay appetite for the salty, seaweed-like Italian succulent struck him as somewhat limited. “We scaled that back a tad,” he says. “Just out of precaution.”
Meanwhile, farmers were dealing with a second question: what to do with the produce they already had. In one of the great ironies of the pandemic, Bishop had the best potato crop of his life last year. “I thought, What am I going to do with all these potatoes and no restaurants?” Kurdieh was looking at 500,000 pounds of root vegetables still in storage, more coming, and half his usual market — 50 percent of his business had come from restaurants, and now it was down to zero.
To make up for what they’d lost, farmers started experimenting with potential revenue streams. Some of them were clearly temporary measures — nobody, not farmers and not restaurants, saw Michelin-starred meal kits as the future. They plan to stick with other changes, though, even as restaurants bounce back. “We ended up working twice as hard to sell the same crop,” says Bishop, “but it worked.”
They turned to home delivery, leaning on restaurant suppliers turned retailers like Baldor, Fellow Farmer, and Natoora. At its peak, Norwich Meadows was selling 2,000 boxes of à la carte produce a week on Fellow Farmer. Kurdieh figured if he “just broke even, paid all the bills, kept our guys employed, I would be ecstatic,” but by the end of the year, he realized the farm had done “way better. It was almost as good as 2019, which was our best year ever,” he says. “The home delivery thing really, really paid off,” agrees Bishop. “Baldor just became a lifeline for me.”
In-person shopping habits shifted, too. Without restaurants, people seemed to be cooking more than ever, and open-air markets suddenly seemed a lot safer than indoor grocery stores. But while the Union Square Greenmarket had been the city’s blockbuster, business was booming at neighborhood markets in Brooklyn and Queens, and farmers doubled down on the outer boroughs, Westchester, and New Jersey. “The smaller markets we did doubled in sales, even in some cases tripled,” says Kurdieh. At his market in Ramsey, New Jersey, sales were “off the charts.” To Lee Houck, who runs city operations for the Vermont-based Deep Mountain Maple, New York City’s reorientation was exciting. “People were really spending time in their own neighborhoods,” he observes. So far, that hasn’t changed.
And now, after a year of endless pivots, discounted potatoes, and four-star meal kits, the restaurants are back, only nobody is sure exactly what that looks like. “I can tell you, just from seeing the chefs at Union Square every day, I know they’re getting busier and busier,” says Houck. But hope is hard to calibrate. “We don’t know what the future of the pandemic is, so we’re all sort of unsure how to behave.” Everyone is hopeful, and everyone is cautious, and everyone is treading very, very lightly.
Chefs, farmers say, are enthusiastic, but they’re hesitant to make commitments. Instead of plans, there are a lot of conversations. Who can take a risk? “Restaurants are requesting crops,” reports Kurdieh, but “we’re being very cautious.” The last thing he needs is a glut of niche produce they can’t buy and he can’t sell, but in a sense, it’s progress: The future is bright enough to ask.
It is the moment Bishop has been waiting for. “I’m prepared for it,” he says. “I was hoping for it.” He had taken the leap and grown everything this year, the baby French leeks and the cronses, planting them before he was sure that it made any sense. But in the last few weeks, the panic has started to dissolve. “Even though this last week has been really busy, it’s been calming,” he says. “It’s a pretty good vibe right now. I feel it’s coming back.”