When Deb Lutz left her corporate job marketing consumer-packaged goods after 22 years, she was just looking for something she could call her own.
And for a way to give her daughter, who suffers from Prader-Willi syndrome — a rare genetic disorder causing an insatiable appetite and chronic overeating — a healthy place to eat out.
That she stumbled upon the farm-to-table restaurant concept that was about to explode onto the scene was just a bit of business luck.
Now she's a franchisee of b.good — a fast-food concept that's built entirely around farm-fresh products — at the Promenade at Sagemore on Route 73 in Marlton. She believes in the concept so much that she obtained the rights to all future franchises in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area.
“I wanted to get into something where I would own it, make the decisions, deliver a great experience and, at the end of the day, be closer to the customer,” Lutz said.
Her desire to get into the restaurant business brought her to the International Franchise Convention in New York City in June 2013. There, she met Anthony Ackil and Jon Olinto, two lifelong friends who created the 11-year-old Boston-based restaurant franchise b.good, and she knew she had to get involved.
B.good's motto is, “Food made by people, not factories.”
Each restaurant provides a healthy, lean, minimally processed menu of burgers, sandwiches and kale and quinoa bowls, plus salads, smoothies and shakes that are locally sourced and seasonally inspired. Ninety-five percent of the menu is gluten-free, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, and all of the toppings, sauces and dressings are all natural and homemade.
B.good in Marlton, for example, will source its beef from Roseda Farm in Monkton, Md., its dairy from Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, Pa., and its produce from Bill's Blueberry Farm in Hamilton, Marolda Farms in Vineland and D. Spina & Sons in Salem, to name a few.
“At any point in time we're sourcing from a minimum of six farms in New Jersey for the season,” Lutz said.
Over the next five years, Lutz has already committed to opening at least four b.good locations throughout New Jersey and in the Philadelphia area.
Her Marlton location — which opened June 26 with 20 employees — is a “foolproof location,” she said, maintaining a great lunch and dinner crowd.
Lutz has set the goal of serving 600 customers a day, and she may have no trouble achieving that.
B.good's locations in Boston have experienced double-digit sales growth since opening in 2003, and the owners plan to continue expanding nationwide.
While the franchise's concept isn't technically new — “farm-to-table” has been trending since 2007, according to researchers at Rutgers University's New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station — it does present a unique fast-food opportunity for local agricultural economies.
Traditionally, farmers grew large volumes of produce to sell to brokers, only to receive a minimal share of the food dollar paid for by the end-consumer.
As executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau for more than 30 years, Peter Furey saw firsthand how this not only created financial issues for farmers, but also for supply and demand.
“New Jersey always had some competitive advantages, being on the East Coast and fairly close to metropolitan markets,” Furey said. “But, over the years, all that competitive edge was lost because of huge volumes of produce being shipped into our markets by producers from other states and countries.”
In response, farmers began to employ direct marketing approaches.
“Out of their own instincts for business survival, farmers began to sell directly to customers by putting up farm stands,” Furey said. “Then came things like pick-your-own and community farmer's markets.”
According to EatWellGuide.org — an online resource provided by the GRACE Communications Foundation in New York City to locate and contact direct markets — there are 407 local, sustainable and organic resources throughout New Jersey. That includes 68 farmers, 107 farmers markets, 44 restaurants, 16 bakers and 25 community-supported agricultural programs.
In total, New Jersey has about $1 billion in agricultural sales and is ranked fourth in the nation in the value of market products sold per acre at $1,408 — more than three times the national average, according to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture.
With all these sales, you would think the farm-to-table business model would be easy. It's not.
New Jersey farmers are trying to create sufficient “volume movement” to achieve profits despite smaller drop-offs and potentially longer transport times to farm-to-table restaurants, said Jack Rabin, the director of farm programs at Rutgers' New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.
“If you want farm-to-table to grow as a business model, we actually need more specialized commercial distributors and middlemen who can aggregate the farm products from farmers and get them to companies such as b.good,” Rabin said.
But wait a second — isn't the farm-to-table movement all about getting rid of the middlemen?
Yes, Rabin said — so what's actually needed is “a new generation of locally sourced agricultural product distributors that respect and maintain dignity pricing for farmers.”
Such as Red Tomato in Plainville, Mass., or the Common Market co-op in Philadelphia, both of which provide fairly priced, local New Jersey produce to b.good via nearby farms, while connecting farmers and consumers through education about sustainable agriculture.
While it all may sound too fancy for some tastes, Lutz said she's succeeded in working within b.good's cost structure using this “new crop” of distributors.
“It's not as expensive as people think,” Lutz said. “A lot of times, it even costs less.”
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Planting the seed
Who started the farm-to-table concept? You may be able to credit Rutgers.
Since 1880, the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station has allowed agricultural professionals to breed crops and collaborate with farmers to create better varieties of produce specifically tailored to New Jersey soil, weather, water and so forth.
Now, Jack Rabin, director of farm programs at Rutgers NJAES, believes a major cultural and therefore agricultural shift has begun to occur with the emergence of restaurants such as b.good.
“Consumers now enjoy vast power and influence,” Rabin said. “New Jersey farmers are depending on them to be the beneficiary of this cultural shift, when eaters make efforts to open their wallets for local choices.”
For example, he said, higher-income consumers want their food to reflect their personal lifestyle values by being healthier, convenient and having a positive economic and environmental impact.
Therefore, quality chefs want to distinguish their menus with local ingredients to drive traffic to their establishment by satisfying patrons’ values. — Meg Fry
Farm to schools
Over the next year, New Jersey farms will be expanding direct marketing from the table to the desktop.
According to Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, the USDA will spend $4 million on New Jersey fruits and vegetables to be delivered to state schools.
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Furey said.
A five-bill legislative package to financially support the New Jersey “Farm to School” program is awaiting Gov. Chris Christie’s approval after passing the Legislature on July 2.
Developed by the Department of Agriculture in conjunction with the Department of Education, the program aims to improve school nutrition and support local farmers by: