Evan Chender had big plans for 2020. For the past four years he has grown edible flowers and specialty greens for restaurants in Asheville and Atlanta under the name The Culinary Gardener. He hired employees, purchased a four-acre piece of property in the Reems Creek Valley, and planted high-value specialty greens like agretti and ice plants at the request of local chefs.
“After the expansion and lots of reinvesting, I thought that 2020 would be the year that I would finally start making money,” he says.
Then COVID-19 changed everything. North Carolina restaurants closed completely, then opened for take-out only. The chefs that Evan collaborated with weren’t able to purchase the vegetables and edible flowers they’d asked him to grow, leaving him with plenty of produce and few outlets to sell it.
“Sales are down 35 to 40 percent from this time last year, and I anticipate that to be the case for the next few months at least, but probably more than that, because once restaurants start opening again, I just don’t see them purchasing at the same capacity that they were prior to shutting down,” he says.
After years of selling only to restaurants, Evan came up with a new plan. He’d sell his vegetables directly to the community through community supported agriculture, or CSA, in which customers pay upfront for a weekly box of farm goods.
A recent share included sprouting broccoli, garlic scapes, and kohlrabi. Customers could also add Barese chard, a mix of succulent greens and flowers, and flowering bok choy to their weekly box. Pickup is at the farm or the restaurant Cucina 24 in downtown Asheville, where Chef Brian Canipelli serves take-away meals made with some of Evan’s produce.
Although some CSA customers are excited to have access to high-end produce to elevate their home cooked meals, Evan doesn’t see the CSA as a long-term plan. He says that, in general, CSA customers aren’t willing or able to pay restaurant prices for specialty produce, and the logistics of continuing the CSA while providing restaurants with small amounts of product as they open back up is challenging.
“My business is going to get a little bit more complicated because I’m going to have to juggle selling to more restaurants and being able to provide them stuff that they want to buy while also trying to sell as many CSA shares as possible in order to not have unsold product at the end of the week,” he says.
He recently started an online marketplace where he sells items individually, with the hopes of getting more cash value out of the vegetables he’d otherwise sell to restaurants. But it’s not a perfect system.
“At the same time, the stuff that’s really not selling right now, it wouldn’t sell in another circumstance, and those things are really high value greens and edible flowers,” he says. “This time last year, I was doing a thousand dollars a week in edible flowers. There’s no way I can sell that to the public. I couldn’t get enough people to make a thousand dollars worth of edible flowers happen per week for the next two months, which is the main edible flower season.”
He has three full-time, salaried employees who need to be paid every two weeks, and he’s also worried about the winter season when he relies on spring and summer sales to keep the farm going.
“I envision coming into some serious challenges at the beginning of 2021 because I’m just not going to have the amount of cash on hand that I’m going to need. So I’m likely going to have to take out a loan if I can get one,” he says.
Even if tourism picks up later this year, Evan doesn’t think many restaurants will be purchasing thousands of dollars of edible flowers.
“Once restaurants start opening again, I just don’t see them purchasing at the same capacity that they were prior to shutting down. They’re going to start off being more frugal because they’re not going to have that much cash on hand, and there isn’t going to be as much demand for going out to eat, I am expecting, just because I don’t envision tourism rebounding so quickly over the summer,” he says.
Whether he continues the CSA, shifts to an online marketplace, or tries a combination of both until restaurants open at full capacity, Evan is determined not to give up. “I’m not going to quit and I’m not going to let this be the thing that ends me and my business,” he says.
We’ll check in with more farmers from different facets of the local food system in the coming weeks to hear how they’re responding to COVID-19. Find links to online marketplaces for farm-fresh products, including The Culinary Gardener and many other farms, at www.asapconnections.org
Aired: June 8, 2020