What happens when a chef, obsessed with using local ingredients finds he’s spending more time finding and ordering food than actually cooking it? If the chef is Matt Tortora, he starts a tech company and builds an online platform to connect food service workers and chefs directly to local producers.
Tortora and his team at Crave Food Services Inc., launched WhatsGood in April of 2015, after establishing Crave a year earlier. In the process, they are attempting to pioneer a for-profit, virtual online wholesale food marketplace that intentionally ignores warehouses and trucks, but still manages to provide a predictable and profitable tool for farmers, and a sustainable supply of local products for institutions and restaurants such as Jamestown FISH, Johnson and Whales University, and Chicopee (Mass.) Public Schools.
After just a few short months, WhatsGood, has drawn in more than 300 producers from New England (with an additional 150 from outside the region) and holds more than 400 purchasing accounts in the region, as well. “We’re cruising. The growth is really encouraging,” Tortora said in a recent telephone interview.
The platform is free for producers and buyers to join. Tortora said he understands that in order to grow a marketplace, you must have buyers and sellers. “You cannot charge them at the door.” WhatsGood charges a 1.5 percent fee once a sale is generated through the marketplace. Tortora said WhatsGood’s wholesale buyers are often surprised to find that they pay the same, or even less, in some cases, than they would when buying from broad-line distributors, such as Sysco.
“What we’re doing with institutions is essentially a wholesale CSA,” he said. “We’re contract farming what products the institutions are looking for. Although many local producers are not capable of meeting the volume needed by even just a single university we work with, a few local producers growing together, often, can.”
Crave works with many agricultural co-operatives and Tortora said often co-ops are an effective tool for farmers to use to market and begin to sell wholesale. “They do provide that single point of purchasing, as well as help with logistics, which makes things way easier for the buyer and seller,” he said. “Often they are well managed, well marketed, and can help to provide uniform products.”
Many small local producers build the core of their businesses based on the retail market and often notice inefficiencies in selling their products direct to consumers at farmers markets or farm stands. When it rains and no one comes out to the market, or when there are more markets than workers to staff them, relying on retail can hold back the growth of farm businesses, Tortora said. The pivot to wholesale has the potential to connect farmers to a consistent buyer with a guaranteed demand, rain, snow, or shine, Tortora added.
Tortora’s journey began a long way from being a food industry entrepreneur. His life as a chef began as part owner of a bar in Georgia (where he often cooked). He spent the previous eight years stationed in the Navy onboard the USS Rhode Island (a ballistic missile submarine). He would later serve in combat in Afghanistan and the Middle East for a few years as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. It was during one of the common night-time Taliban mortar attacks in Kabul that he informed his commanding officer he had decided to return stateside and to make an impact there; he yearned to be part of something that really mattered: our food.
After spending some time at a culinary school in Harrisburg, Penn., and simultaneously working as a chef at the farm-to-table restaurant Café Fresco, he applied to Johnson and Wales University in Providence, RI. Soon after being accepted, he became a chef at Jamestown FISH in Jamestown, Rhode Island.
It was here that it dawned on him that if sourcing local food was this difficult and time consuming for him, it probably was for other chefs as well. He talked to his peers and found they faced a similar situation. Next, he spoke with producers who explained that they, too, lacked the resources to market the products they had. Efficient and effective communication was clearly needed to streamline things so that “local” wouldn’t remain just a trend, Tortora said. Crave Food Services was born.
A few mentors and investors suggested he start the marketplace in New York or California. However, on his 5-mile commute to the restaurant one day, as he passed a half-dozen farms and gazed out at the aquaculture beds in the Narragansett Bay, he realized that New England, particularly Rhode Island, was the “perfect petri dish” to test if WhatsGood could really work.
“I passionately miss cooking, every day,” Tortora said. Yet he is excited and motivated to see real food system change and is honored to know he is a part of that. Certainly, there are challenges. He laments the short-sighted nature of many organizations and establishments who still haven’t “seen the light,” about sourcing local. The short growing season in New England are tough for providing local food year-round. Also, it’s challenging to get ahold of busy chefs and farmers. He understands and sympathizes with why, as he’s been there, he said, adding that managing a Crave account is about as intensive as handling an email account.
But the biggest problem Tortora sees on the horizon: Chipotle. The fresh fast-food chain, faces scrutiny and possible legal action after a widely public and large scale food contamination issue. “It was the brand everyone grew to love. And then people got sick, and now, everyone has pitchforks and torches.” Tortora insists we must learn from others’ mistakes and that everyone involved in the local food ecosystem must do their part, not only to ensure proper food safety and handling, but to educate consumers to have realistic expectations and understand risk.
He wants to help farmers become educated on food safety issues (he offers to cover the costs of GAP-certification classes to his members) and would like to see organizations like the USDA step up and at least try to solve each labeling and regulatory issue currently stacked against small-to-medium-scale producers.
That’s where his membership in New England Farmers Union comes in.
“The barriers to creating a healthy food system are just huge,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to have the ability to join together, to collaborate, inspire, and communicate.
“Associations like the Farmers Union that provide oversight, expertise, and a communication point help information to get to producers, both local and regional…it’s important. In a way, that’s what Crave is doing, as well. We want to work with these farmers and chefs. We want to propel that collaboration.”