You Can't Furlough a Farm: How Farmer Lee Jones and The Chef's Garden Pivoted to Consumer
By: Madeleine McKerrow, Marketing Manager
Mother Nature doesn't stop for a global pandemic. But what do you do when the needs of your customer change overnight?
For this GrindOn story, we’re doing something a little bit different. Instead of focusing on how chefs and restaurants are shifting, we wanted to tell a story that reminds us all why the foodservice industry is so amazing and how you have always shown the strength and resiliency needed to grind on. So, with no further ado...
If you’ve spent any time professionally in a kitchen, you know Farmer Lee Jones and his trademark overalls and red bow tie
But just in case...
Farmer Lee Jones is the man behind The Chef’s Garden, a 350-acre farm in Huron, Ohio that grows produce for some of the country’s best restaurants.And, while Farmer Lee is the recognizable face associated with Chef’s Garden we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the fantastic team he’s got at the farm. A lot of workplaces throw around the term “family” but when Farmer Lee says it, you know it means something deeper. These are his people. And, while it feels like a family, Farmer Lee isn’t running a tiny mom and pop operation. The Chef’s Garden farm employs over 150 dedicated, vegetable-obsessed people. If you were to add up everyone’s years of experience, it would be over 1,000 years. These folks have dedicated their lives to a righteous pursuit in a temperamental medium: mother nature.
While the current global pandemic is a new kind of challenge, Farmer Lee is no stranger to the catastrophic effects that forces outside your control can have on your livelihood. Enter Mother Nature at her worst. At 19 years old, he came home from college to stand, shoulder to shoulder, with his parents as everything they owned was auctioned off. Interest rates in the 1980s hovered around 22%. Combine this with a bad hail storm and everything they’d built on the Jones family farm was about to disappear. It would have been reasonable for Farmer Lee to call it. The industrialization of farming already made it tough for family-owned farms like the Jones to compete. But for someone with farming in his blood, throwing in the towel was never an option for Farmer Lee.
“ There was never any question about it, from the time I was old enough. I always chose the farm.” -Farmer Lee Jones
Farmer Lee Jones, along with his brother and dad got to work. They fixed up a truck that had been deemed too dilapidated to be auctioned off and got to work rebuilding. They began selling small amounts of vegetables at local Farmers Markets. And, as luck (or hard work) would have it, they met a European chef named Iris, who convinced them that there was an untapped market for high-quality vegetables.
While industrialization and globalization were rapidly changing how most American’s ate, Chef Iris was convinced that there was a fine-dining marketplace that would never replace quality with a TV dinner. What Chef Iris was proposing was a complete abandonment of what all other farmers in the area were doing. It was risky and there were no guarantees. So, the Jones family brought it to a vote. Which path would they choose? “Let’s grow for quality over quantity.” And, just like that, the Jones family decided to follow the advice of this chef that no one else was listening to and grow for flavor, grow without chemicals and let the land rest.
"There will always be a place for food grown for quality, grown for flavor, grown without chemicals.”
For Farmer Lee and The Chef’s Garden, this decision was a game-changer. Chef Iris was right and big names like Ritz Carlton soon became customers. Fast forward 30 years and The Chef’s Garden supplies restaurants and chefs across the country.
For Farmer Lee, his focus for the last three decades has been working with chefs to grow the best quality product: hearing what they need, growing it. Then COVID-19 hit (you didn't think you'd get out of hearing about Covid in a Grind On story, did you?)
Response to COVID-19
The Chef’s Garden farm was running steadily in Huron, Ohio. It’s proximity to Lake Erie made the soil perfect for farming, with rich nutrients buried deep within it, and the farm’s commitment to having 1/3 cover crop allows the land to rebuild and be at its most nutrient. Then COVID-19 hit. And the farm, which had existed for over 30 years on a steady stream of foodservice clients lost its entire income stream overnight. You would think that was the hardest part of this story, but Farmer Lee faced an even bigger challenge.
“You can’t furlough a farm.”
Without a customer base, Farmer Lee had to find a way to continue work for his team and planting for the future. He explains his connection to the land like any other relationship you would have: “you can’t just turn off the lights and come back later. You’ve got to continue to invest.” For Farmer Lee, this meant keeping 100 of 150 people on staff, despite having zero income coming in. They had to continue planting, growing, and picking. And, just like many of us who support the foodservice industry, Farmer Lee there were more folks at home needing to cook. This is where the idea for The Chef’s Garden home delivery vegetable boxes came from.
Who needs the grocery store when you can have high-quality veggies delivered to your door?
Farmer Lee and his amazing team got to work, designing different box options (from the Introductory to the Immunity Booster box) and used his existing connections and social media to get the word out. Since its inception, The Chef’s Garden veggies could only be enjoyed at top restaurants. Now, for the first time ever, home cooks can bring this goodness into their homes.
For Farmer Lee a pivot like this was necessary. He had a team looking to him and he needed to do something quick. Similar to when he was 19, Farmer Lee stood on the precipice of losing everything, But with a quick pivot, leveraging the relationships he’s built over decades, a belief in delivering the highest quality product, Farmer Lee found a new market.
I ordered the Introductory Box and was amazed at the quality and amount of veggies that arrived on my doorstep.
That’s what it means to Grind On. And, we know, no matter what the world throws at him, Farmer Lee and his crew will continue to plant, grow and provide our world with nourishment and some inspiration, all topped off with a signature red bow tie.
And for all you readers at home, remember to eat your veggies.
About "Grind On"
When COVID-19 was approaching, no one had any idea how much it would change the restaurant world -- and so many of our lives. Overnight, restaurants either had to close their doors, or figure out a "plan B" to survive. Spiceology is shining light on the many amazing "plan B" stories that showcase the undying spirit of the chef community. They are an inspiration. Grind On is part of a larger initiative called HelpChefs.com, which is providing free resources and funding for impacted restaurant workers. Check out more Grind On stories on the site, and visit the sponsor partners who are donating products and funds to help this community see this thing through.