Photography by Jenna Noel
John Lash was so inspired by one NPR story, he remembers saying aloud to the car radio: “You know…I think I’m going to do that!”
It wasn’t long afterward that he left his longtime position with a giant retail chain and began living his own version of that story—positioning local farms, and their bounty, within reach of Austin restaurants and groceries.
Farm to Table was born, and John spent the next four months growing his new business by visiting the farmers markets, talking to chefs and restaurant owners and tracking down farmers with a less visible presence in the food scene. He even indulged in a thick slice of good old guerrilla marketing.
“I practiced with peaches and tomatoes,” John says. “I would deliver one tomato in a basket with some information on Farm to Table, and before I even made it back to my car, the chef would be ringing my cell phone asking for a case of them.”
It became very clear, very fast, that John was carving a much-needed niche.
“All food-service businesses have their own logistical challenges,” says David Ansel, chef and owner of The Soup Peddler. “Running out to the farm to pick up a couple of heads of cabbage generally isn’t high on the list of priorities of someone who has to, for example, manage an ornery employee, plunge a toilet, manage cash flow, figure out what to order for Sunday brunch, fix a down credit card terminal and flash ample smiles to all the customers in the course of a day. Restaurants need purveyors.”
John’s new enterprise soon caught the eye of Emmett Fox of restaurants Fino and Asti, and he offered John some insider tips on what chefs most need and value. Half a year later finds John supplying over 40 Austin groceries and restaurants with local farm-fresh greens, vegetables, fruit, beef, chicken, lamb and cheese from a list of growers and suppliers that reads like a Who’s Who of Central Texas goodness: McCall Creek Farms, Finca Pura Vida, Naegelin Family Farm, Animal Farm, Burgundy Pasture Beef, Oak Hill Farms, Blackland Prairie Farm, Engel Farms, Hands of the Earth Farm Farm and Gundermann Farms, to name a few.
“Having a middleman who can provide us simple things like a price list and interface with the farms to guarantee a delivery date actually makes it doable for us,” Ansel continues. “We can shop with him and compare prices against our other purveyors. If it’s anywhere even close, we’ll give him the business. Obviously the product is going to be better.”
And the products appear to be in competition with John to steal the show.
“The folks at Vespaio tell me the goat cheese from Wateroak Farm is the best they’ve ever tasted, hands down,” John says. “And you should hear chefs rave about the baby arugula that’s only 12 hours out of the field. It costs a little more, but it lasts for 10 days and the flavor can’t be matched. It’s incredibly gratifying to bring this level of whole, healthy farm food to town.”
Currently, John and his son, Sam, are the sole employees of Farm to Table. Between collecting and delivering the weekly harvest to the likes of Fresh Plus Grocery, Whip in, Crestview Minimax IGA, Bess Bistro, Texas Culinary Academy, Vespaio, Primizie Osteria, La Traviata, Vino Vino, Jeffrey’s and Cipollina West Austin Bistro, the intrepid gatherers stay busy six days a week. But John finds time for a little fun, too.
“The most fun I ever have is writing checks to farmers,” John says. “There is no place I’m happier spending money.”
“For a chef who wants to use local ingredients, there really hasn’t been an option in Austin until John,” notes Ansel. “And for innovation, you have to have someone who’s naive enough to think their business idea is going to work, and brilliant enough to actually make it work. I guess that’s John. I’m really thankful he’s come along.”