DAVID GATHY, WHOLE ANIMAL BUTCHER

David was born and raised in the Maple Bluff area of Wisconsin, and has always been an animal-lover and an artist. He is currently a whole animal butcher at the Conscious Carnivore, which offers grass-fed, humanely-handled, and hormone and antibiotic-free meats. They work with Wisconsin farmers to provide Madison and the surrounding area with ethically sourced and humanely-slaughtered animals.

When I meet somebody, it always starts off with small talk, but when they ask, “What do you do?” and I tell them I’m a butcher, that’s when it all sort of takes off.

“Oh my god that’s so cool.”

“How did you get into that?”

“How did you learn that?” 

Questions like that. And then the whole conversation kinda is all about me. I don’t know—something different, not everybody does it, you know? 

When I was 14, I worked at Noah’s Ark pet store one day a week after school. I carried heavy bags of pet food from the truck up these rickety old stairs. There was a butcher’s shop right next door: Jacobson’s. When I was sixteen, I decided I wanted to do that instead. It seemed cooler to do. Later on I met a girl, and we moved down to Chicago. That’s when I really got into whole animal butchery.

The first couple of years were really intense. 10-12 hour days with a lot of not-so-nice people. I was 21 at the time I moved there, and besides me the youngest man there was 50 years old. They were pretty old school…kind of hardened. “Just put it on the chopping block and go at it” type of thing. I kinda learned on my own. And that’s really the only way you can learn—hands on. You can’t read books and know how to do this stuff.

David at work inside the Conscious Carnivore
David at work inside the Conscious Carnivore

They molded and formed me to become a good butcher, so I’m thankful for that. And they did lighten up to me after a while. But the hardest thing was messing up. I would get very frustrated when I didn’t understand something I was told to do…and cutting myself a bunch at the beginning—that was not fun. Once I was given a forequarter beef, the middle, and I was told to take the bone off of the rib-eye. I didn’t really realize that the bone curved, so I cut straight. That was about a $400 piece of meat that I just basically ruined. That was tough… I was really hard on myself for that one.

So about three years ago I was looking to get back home to Madison; I missed my family. But every butcher shop was so boring and mass-produced — not what I was looking for. And then I was contacted about this position with the Conscious Carnivore. I liked the cause, I liked the fact that we’re supporting local farms, and that the animals were humanely handled and animal welfare approved. That’s why I hopped on it, to get back home and because it’s the right thing to do—because I believe in it. All of our animals are locally sourced, there are no hormones, no antibiotics, no pesticides in the grass, and no feedlots. It costs a little more for the farmer to do it this way. It costs more for me to sell it to you this way, but you can come in here and know that what you are eating is good, and it’s been treated right.

In Chicago, it wasn’t farm-to-table. It was a mass-produced feedlot, but I never thought of it, you know, because I never killed them and I never saw them…coming here really opened my eyes, and I would have it no other way and I would work at no other place because of that.

My previous job at Jacobson’s really didn’t require much training either. I opened a box, cut open a bag that contained the muscle of the animal, cut the muscle into steaks, and put it on the counter. Repeat. There’s no skill in that. Here, on the other hand, you’re getting the whole animal. You’re going to turn red, you’re going to sweat, and you’re going to need to take a break. You have to know where to cut, too. If you cut the wrong area, you could be selling a $19 rib-eye for the price of an $8 chuck. So there is more skill and technique involved. It adds value to what I do and makes it absolutely more enjoyable.

Common misconceptions of butchers…? That they’re mean. That they’re dirty, that they’re bloody (Turns to ask his coworkers) What do you guys think? (They laugh in agreement). Yeah I would say “mean” is the first thing—that you have to be some 500-pound guy with a cleaver over your shoulder, or something. But no… quite the opposite.

Actually a really important thing is personality. And you either have it or you don’t… I really feel strongly about that. If you don’t have a good personality, you are probably not going to succeed. A butcher who has not worked with the public before can come on pretty strong and not be the nicest. You’ll hear about that later, so you better know what you’re doing, or you’ll lose that customer.

You have to know how to sell it, and you also have to know how to cook it. You can’t hand someone a piece of meat and get “x” amount for it and not know how to cook it. And if you tell them the wrong thing, then you’re probably going to get a phone call, and you’ll have to pay them back because you told them how to cook it, and it was wrong. Obviously you need some skills, but I would say personality, being able to talk to the customer, and really know how to cook is essential.

I never was trained in cooking. I honestly learned just by taking stuff home after work when I was in Chicago…I was about 21 years old when I started experimenting. Cooking, grilling, crock-potting, pan frying; all that stuff I just had to learn by trial and error. Now I love going on YouTube and watching cooking shows to learn more and make myself better. But I never had a teacher teach me how; it was all self-taught. I really didn’t learn much from my mother growing up either. No, she never let me in the kitchen; she has a cleaning issue (laughs.). She thought that I would make a mess, and no one else in my family cooks. Part of the process was actually just interacting with different chefs that come in, and wanting to try to do what they do. And if I nailed it, great. If not, I would just have to try to do something different and improve from there.

Working here, not only do you have to know basic cooking skills, but also how to work with unique cuts. Because we use the whole animal, we have to educate the consumer on different cuts that they’re not used to. If you go to a normal grocery store, you can get either a New York strip, t-bone, or rib-eye; that’s it. But there’s so much more to the animal than that. And that’s part of the fun of it—being a knowledge base for the consumer. We offer classes here for the public to try and educate our customers on how to handle different cuts of meat. I teach the bacon, the forequarter of beef, hindquarter of beef, whole hog butchery, and the whole lamb butchery class. Around thanksgiving we do whole turkey butchery as well.

When you are teaching a class, you don’t know what people are thinking because, you know, they’re listening, learning. And then afterwards, when you get a standing ovation or cheers, that’s pretty cool. That’s my favorite part of teaching—that people actually enjoy what they’re doing and don’t feel like they’ve spent too much or that they didn’t get enough out of the class…that’s my favorite part.

I’ve gotten to introduce the teres major to customers, which is actually the second-most tender muscle on the animal, and it is delicious. Quick, high-heat, slice against the grain, tender as can be, and actually has more flavor than a tenderloin for half of the price because of where it lays on the chuck (the shoulder). I really enjoy telling people, “Trust me, take this home,” telling them how to cook it, and then they come back and they’re like, “You’re right!” Then they usually come back and buy another one. People coming back and saying that it’s the best meat they’ve ever had. That’s very rewarding…that’s the top of it right here.

The meat counter at the Conscious Carnivore
The meat counter at the Conscious Carnivore

Coming to the Conscious Carnivore was the first time I had had the opportunity to witness a humane animal slaughter. In Chicago, they didn’t allow us to see any of that because they know they are not doing it the right way. If you saw it happen the way they do it, you wouldn’t like the meat. But if you didn’t see it or didn’t know, you’d probably still like it because, well, it’s a steak.

Witnessing Bartlett’s method of animal slaughter was eye-opening. I had been cutting meat for so long—over 10 years—and had never seen an animal slaughter. For it to happen that quick and easy, for the animal to never see it coming and then (snaps) its life is taken away—made me realize that other poor animals in feedlots are watching it happen to other animals before them. The fact that this was done one at a time, that was big for me. If the animal wasn’t ready, we would have to wait. There are no stun guns used, no beating, no pulling, just let it happen. Sometimes we would get ten in one day, other times six or eight… but that really surprised me, the care involved. I’m just such an animal person, you know, so it’s just awesome to find a place like this.

David’s family has always had pets in the house. Mostly dogs, with the exception of a little sparrow they affectionately called “Chirper.” He and his siblings rescued Chirper after finding him stuck in their air conditioning unit in their home, and raised him for the next two years.

David at the Conscious Carnivore
David at the Conscious Carnivore

— Sarah Kaveggia

GRACE DEUBLER, FOOD SCIENCE STUDENT

 

A food science student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Grace Deubler interned in the research and development sector for food giant, Kraft, and also for a professor at UW-Madison growing beets for research. Navigating both of these internships, Grace found her post-graduation plan, which involves working with futuristic proteins.

I’ve always loved food. I love to eat. I love to go out to eat and cook. I love things like the Madison Farmers Market, so I think my passion for food led me to it [the food science major] because initially I was kind of thinking about majoring in chemistry but food science is much more applicable, and it’s a lot easier to understand in my opinion when they give you an example related to a Twinkie instead of related to some tiny, tiny molecule you can’t visualize. It kind of just connects two things I love.

Food is what fuels your body. So I think studying food is very important. And I think one big thing is that it can control food safety, so we can prevent people from getting sick and dying from just eating one piece of bad food. It also helps in developing countries, where they may not have the same standards that we have, so we can begin to teach them how we produce our food, so they can feed more of their population in a safe way.

Kraft changed the way I saw big food. A lot of times I would think that US consumers believe that big food runs the food industry and they are just doing what they want when they want—making decisions that maybe aren’t the best for consumers—and consumers don’t really have control over it and it is big food that needs to change. But in reality all the decisions made at companies are based on market trends and what consumers want. And they really want the best for their consumers, but they still want to sell them a product that they can afford, which I think a lot of people don’t take into consideration.

I was an RDQ intern (at Kraft), so I worked with the Planter’s group, which makes trail mix and nuts and corn nuts, and I worked for research and product development. My favorite part was that I really got to own my projects and they were really important for the company. I got quite a bit of interaction with the management, actually. They were all very real people. They are down to earth. Everyone I met was so excited to help me learn as much as I could.

While I was interning, Kraft was acquired by Heinz. And so just seeing the company change and go through the merger was kind of hard to see, just because I knew what it used to be, and it was changing. Change is hard. They had to let go of a lot of people, which is hard to see. It also changed the company culture quite a bit. When I started, it was really open and a really fun culture and they were really focused on innovation and research and it was a really happy place to work. I think that all their employees really enjoyed coming into work everyday. Heinz seems a lot more structured and a lot more corporate than Kraft felt—they are really more focused on the bottom line and moving through as fast as they can, while still making a quality product.

I got to read consumer complaints—some of them were just ridiculous. They would complain if there were too many crumbs in their package of granola. So it’s just—consumers are very picky. There is a lot of waste in the food industry. And it is really difficult to get around that, and so I think that’s another important thing about studying food, is learning how to prevent waste and learning different ways to use this waste so we aren’t just throwing it away. We can maybe repurpose it and use it for something else. At Kraft they would just get rid of it because consumers would complain about it.

Kraft was really working to clean up their labels and take out ingredients that consumers didn’t feel comfortable feeding their families. They definitely are trying. Consumers are really pushing for “clean labels” which doesn’t really have a definition, but it is basically what consumers don’t like. If they don’t know what it is, they don’t want to see it on the label. For example, they have a Crystal Light line now that’s made with stevia—I believe they used to use aspartame. They are trying to remove preservatives, even though preservatives are important to help keep food safe.

People are just not educated on the preservative topic. So for example, a consumer could say they don’t know what acidic acid is and they don’t want to see it in their food. But that’s just vinegar. It’s just how food companies have to label. The other thing is, people don’t want to pay a lot for their food. America has one of the lowest percentages of income spent on food than anywhere else in the world. And so if consumers want to keep buying food as cheap as they can and it not go bad in two days, they are going to need to be okay with preservatives. The words many times are scarier than the preservatives themselves. For example, in deli meats they use nitrates to keep them fresh, and people don’t like that. But food companies have found ways to get around this. For example they put fermented celery in the product, which eventually through chemical reactions it forms nitrates anyways. So it doesn’t say nitrates on the label, but it’s in there and protecting the food from growing harmful pathogens.

From my knowledge, there really isn’t any scientific data that supports local food for being any healthier for you. But what it does do is that it obviously is good for the local economy. It’s also environmentally a better decision, because you are not shipping food across the country. And some people claim that non-GMO organically grown foods are better for you, and that could be true, but there is no research at this point. There is absolutely no research to support GMOs being bad for your health. There is no scientific data that supports that. So I think for now, people should be aware it’s in their food, and I don’t disagree that it should be labeled. But I think consumers need to know more about it before we choose to label it. Otherwise people won’t eat foods just because they are genetically modified. I think some people think GMOs are when you combine two different plants. So let’s say you put together like two different strains of beets, let’s say, which is basically what they did for my project. Uh, that’s not a GMO, that’s just kind of putting together two of the same species. It’s like when humans mate, kind of, I guess. But a GMO is when you put genetic information from one species into another.

I also had the opportunity to intern here at UW-Madison. The professor was Erwin Gouldwin from the Horticulture department and he is working with Senica Food Corporation to develop a deeper pigmented beet—they would use that beet to make a natural food coloring basically. If you have a deeper pigment, you can get a richer color, and you can get more of the color that consumers are used to with dyes like red dye 40. And so basically they are just aiming to keep food looking the same, but making it a little bit better for you.

They were successful. He bred this new type of beet and so he had to grow it from the seed to produce more seeds that would eventually be used in a larger-scale production. It started from a population of 1,000 plants and they wanted to keep at least 500, so they would get enough seeds to continue growing them. And I think we got about 75% growth, so we reached our target by a lot. And, yeah, the pigment was better. The color was better.

GRACE1

I kept the plants. In August of 2014 they planted the seeds, and I was not a part of that. But then I began by watering them and they were watered every day. Beets actually have a unique growth process, so it takes like a full year for them to kind of reach their whole thing. They go through winter underground and then they regrow in the spring and they produce their actually beet. So it’s a pretty long process. And the professor I worked with actually found a way to shorten it to like just the nine months of the school year that I was there. So he made like a fake winter, and the plants were stuck in a cooler for a few weeks and then brought out. It was really a unique process. I really enjoyed my beet internship.

I enjoyed doing the plant-based research, but I think that’s just because it was not long term—it was not my whole life. I preferred Kraft. I just prefer being in a more office setting, a more controlled setting. Being in the greenhouse you never really know what you’re going to get that day. So I definitely want to work within the food industry working in either product development or research and just trying to better products.

With such a growing population and so many people struggling financially, there is no way we could feed the US population on organic locally grown food—that’s just silly. I think it is important to study food, because it will increase the interest, and hopefully the funding, for more research on nutrition, safety, and new food products. And it also keeps the price of food down—and we are able to feed more people if we can find more efficient ways to produce the food.

So for instance I am really interested in futuristic proteins, like less common ones. So I could do a project on the functionality of cricket flour in different foods and how you could incorporate that into recipes. A big trend right now is protein. Consumers are all about getting as much protein as they can. Post graduation I am hoping to eventually go to grad school. Usually in grad school you find a focus, so for example you could focus on proteins and then you would be doing specific research on proteins working towards a thesis and you would defend your thesis. Eventually I’d like to work in the food industry, hopefully for a company on the smaller side doing product development and research on futuristic proteins.

— Katelyn Burkhart

JANINE LUKASIK, SERVER AT FAT JACK’S BBQ

Janine, a self-proclaimed vegetarian and history buff, has worked at Fat Jack’s BBQ on and off for the last 8 ½ years. After completing her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, she decided to take time away from her studies to continue waitressing and decide what the future has in store for her.

 I’ve been a vegetarian now for 12 years, so longer than I’ve been at Fat Jack’s. Ha, it’s funny. It’s like [pause] I see the irony in it. It was just after my 14th birthday and I was watching the animal planet and it was talking about gorilla poaching and how people would poach gorillas for their hands to make decorative things and to eat them. They had the black-out faces and the augmented voices of the people. And they were getting interviewed like, “Why do you do this to these majestic creatures?” And they were like, “You know, its good money.” And the one guy says, “…and they taste really good.” That was literally just my “Oh my God.” Apparently, they taste delicious and I’m like, “well, that’s a really bad reason to eat something.” And that was pretty much my only reason for eating meat at that point.

I mean eating meat is no longer a dietary requirement in our living situation, my current living situation. I have plenty of access to other foods: dairy products, grains, vegetables, fruits. I mean, America does not have a problem getting food to middle class wealthy people and I have always been the middle class. I had tried being a vegetarian on a few other times before this. They never lasted very long. So this was my third attempt at being a vegetarian and it stuck.

I’ve never eaten anything at Fat Jack’s, other than like the grilled cheese. We make some pretty kick butt grilled cheeses, and there’s grilled mushrooms and onions and you put lettuce and tomato on it. It changes how I know the food. I never went to the restaurant when I did eat meat so I’ve never had any of it. I spent the first 3 years of my life there just asking for adjectives. Like describe it to me. I would pretty much just ask everybody, “Is it smoky? Is it sweet? Like, how would you describe it?” So I think then that’s actually turned me into a really good server, because now I can describe the foods really well because it’s like I’ve never really actually experienced them, I’m just telling the story about the food kind of a thing and that’s kind of fun.

I love talking to people. I like meeting new people. I mean, on any given day being a server, I get to walk up to like 50 complete strangers and get to have a legitimate conversation with them. Some of them don’t and that’s cool. Not everybody is wanting that level of personal interaction, but most people will tell you about their day. Like “Hey, how’s it going?” And when you do have more regular customers, you can kind of ask a little bit more specifically. Like, “Did you go to your cabin last week?” or something like that and it’s people that I would probably never talk to.

I don’t know if I could just live my life in a people-less job. It’s exciting to just talk to people. But then conversely it’s like a Russian roulette wheel. You meet some real winners. Some people that are just mean, some people that are just unhappy either today or in their life. I don’t know, but all I know is that I’m not making them happy. Like it gets real frustrating cause at a point just tell me what you want. I don’t have a real opinion in this. Just tell me what you want, and I’ll do it. You don’t like the sandwich? Do you want a new sandwich? Do you want new food? No! You just want to sit here and pout. Okay. I can’t help you here. I don’t care what you eat sir. I don’t. Just tell me what I can do to make you stop being so upset right now and apparently it’s nothing! [Laughs]

I pretty much have to justify why I’m a waitress still. It’s a lower perceived job. Like why are you still doing this? Don’t you want to do something? And it’s just like ouch. I’m not dealing with anything super important, but it’s still a f*cking job. In a country of this size, we have a lot of really stupid specialized jobs. And it’s like yeah, if you just take the stupid specialized job and put it right here it’s stupid. You know what I mean? I mean like yes, the fact that I just ask you what you want, go over there, get it and bring it back. It’s a stupid job. But it’s a job that’s needed because we all heavily specialize our fields now.

I wound up meeting a lady at a bar and we were talking and she was like, “So what do you do? Like what is it that you do in your life?” And I’m like, “I’m a waitress.” And she’s like, “No, no way”… she actually didn’t believe me that I was waitress. She was like, “You’re too well spoken to be a waitress.” And I’m like “that’s all waitresses do, I mean and carry a lot of stuff, but we talk!” I don’t know. A few years ago, it used to make me mad and now it’s kind of just kind of, I mean, I wouldn’t want to do a lot of people’s jobs either. Like I get it, if you don’t want to do my job, that’s fine. But it’s good for me, and it really doesn’t cut into my sitting around time.

I make pretty damn good money for what I do too. I’m good at what I do and that’s something thing that I think people are always just… [pauses] Being good at what you do—it doesn’t matter what it is that you do—people should just take pride and try and do their job the best that you can. I think that confuses a lot people. Like, well why are you trying to be the best waitress? Well, ‘cause I’m doing it… that’s why. I learned all those cool tray tricks. Just sayin’. Like cause if I’m going to be a waitress for 8 years I gotta be able to do something with the tray.

I’m kind of at this juncture twiddling my thumbs before I go back to grad school cause I went from high school to MATC to the UW really quickly with actually very little, and I would take summer classes a lot. So I really was enjoying some time of just not having to necessarily focus on what other people are thinking is important, but I would like to think that I’m still continuing my studies. I’m still reading a lot of classical works. I’m still working on my Latin and Greek. But, kind of in my own way, in my own speed right now because I would really still like to keep moving forward with that.

I’ve always kind of had a really strong passion for history, and specifically lores and mythos. I like the origin stories like how people wind up making their framework for the world and the Greco Roman stories were always just something that were amazing. My mom’s favorite is the Iliad and the Odyssey and she would read those to me and my brother when we were little. And I remember those just being like such vivid, ‘cause they are, they’re such vivid stories, back when there was no TV or anything like that. These were the stories that you would tell your family. You would sit around and they still kind of have those impact moments. I don’t know, maybe some of the characters are less sympathetic over the thousands of years, but there’s still a lot of real human emotions in them. I don’t know and I’ve always found them very interesting. And when I finally realized that you can pursue that as an actual course of study, I jumped on that and did not let go. I thought it was awesome.

Dream job? I would like to go into pottery restoration. So, all the smashed up bits of pottery that they find, I would like to be the guy to put that back together. But, waitressing is a phenomenal time-filler job. You can do it while going to school. It’s great to have a job that when you leave the job you don’t have to worry about anything. You can close the book and say, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” There’s nothing that I need to be “Well, did I make sure that I did this?” Well no. It’s done. Today is done. Tomorrow will begin a new day.

— Jessica Nickels

DJ MAYER, FORMER OWNER OF DJ’S VILLAGE JAZZ

 

DJ Mayer grew up in Portland, Oregon, working various restaurant jobs to get through school. In the late 1980s, he and his father bought a restaurant and went into business together. The decade that followed was a valuable learning experience filled with late nights, long shifts, and far more stress than he initially imagined.

One day my dad called me and said, “I bought the Rusty Duck. Get your ass home.”

At the time I was living in Maui waiting tables and tending bar at a place on Front Street in Lahaina. So I bought a plane ticket, quit, flew back, and got ready to fire up a restaurant.

I think he decided he wanted to go into the restaurant business because he was looking for something to do, and because he had just always wanted to have a jazz club. When we bought it he didn’t have any experience in the restaurant business. Maybe some experience sitting on the other side of the bar, but not on the working side. So we kind of went in as partners. He put the down payment down and I was more the working partner because I had done so much restaurant work.

Mayer photo 1

We kicked around a bunch of names, but my dad came up with it. He thought of Village Jazz. Three years later we changed it to DJ’s village jazz because everyone would just call it DJ’s anyway. We had music 6 nights a week at that time. Jazz music. Tom Grant, Leroy Vinegar—all of these Portland people that are still around today. And occasionally, because my dad was pretty connected with the jazz scene, we’d get big name people from the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s and we’d sell 120 tickets for 15 bucks a piece and have shows.

The menu was what I knew. I knew I could cook steaks and seafood. We’d buy it in big packages and I’d cut the sirloins, the New York steaks and the tenderloins and the big halibut chunks from the whole fish. We cut all our own meat and we had the best meat in town. We’d have specials on fish and things like that and I’d order them from the purveyors that I liked the most: the ones that had the best deals but also the best quality. For years I only bought from Hartung Meat Company. It was the best meat. It came in big vacuum-sealed packages and we’d open it and cut it into steaks, only what I knew I needed that night. Every day I would cut meat and fish. We got really good at ordering the cheeses and the milks and things too so that we could rotate through and date them. You get really good at that because you can’t afford to waste it.

When we opened it was insane. We had like one night where it was just invitation only so I could get all the bugs out of serving and cooking. We had people that we knew that filled the whole restaurant and we bought them all dinner and drinks. It was a pretty wild night. We were pretty busy because it was new and the area didn’t have much else at that time.

DJINS

We were just a one-restaurant shop with about 15 employees. It was kind of scary because they’re all counting on you. That’s their job. You gotta keep things rolling or they don’t have any income. They can’t pay their rent. And because we were so small, you’re gonna be close to these people. I learned, probably too late, that you shouldn’t be. It’s harder to be tough on people. Hard to separate. We had a lot of fun but there’s times where I wish I would’ve been tougher on them to make things run smoothly. If I’m being too nice they think they can do anything they want and call in and say, “Oh sorry my daughter’s sick, or I have a hangover man can you find someone else to work for me?” They think they can do that because we’re friends. I’m not the boss, I’m their friend… and you can’t really reprimand your friends.

We caught people stealing a couple of times. We used numbered tickets for orders. People could find a way to not turn in tickets to keep the money. It was a pretty simple system but it worked enough that if number tickets were missing we knew something was wrong. One waiter checked out in the office every night and I come in one morning and here are his numbered tickets in the garbage can! I go “ya know, if you’re gonna throw them away and steal the money maybe don’t leave them in my garbage.” We had a talk and I said “ya know you should be fired, but we’re gonna give you another chance because you’ve been here for four years and we’re friends.” He did pretty good after that, but then I heard he was stealing again.

You just hope those things don’t happen because you know these people so well but ya know, they did. The restaurant business is notorious for that. Restaurant people can be very flighty and undependable. It’s just kind of the nature of the beast. It’s never really a career for them so they don’t take it as seriously.

As a whole though we were pretty steady—busy on the weekends and during special shows. We stayed pretty much the same for 5 or 6 years. But I was so young. I didn’t know that really we should be failing. I think they say 90% of restaurants go out of business the first year and the rest in the second but I was too naïve to know that we were actually beating the odds. But we were never making enough that we could open another location, or really get what we needed in the kitchen, or expand so that we could pay ourselves what we deserved.

We could never get over the threshold to make enough money where it was worth our time. I was technically the manager, but I got a really small paycheck. Which is why I would bartend. I would pull a shift almost 6 nights a week bartending or cooking in the kitchen. Which, I really wish I wouldn’t have. I should have been spending that time making the restaurant better, figuring out menu items, and training employees. I should have been at the front door greeting people. It was a big mistake I think.

At the end we were having a lot of financial problems because things had slowed down over the years. Our food was really good but people’s tastes changed. I can’t say for sure but my dad was a smoker and you could still smoke in restaurants and bars then. People were getting tired of that and he wouldn’t go “no smoking.” I think we lost a lot of people because of the smoke.

We tried different things. We tried to reel in our costs, which I could’ve been better at. When you have problems like that and you can’t make payroll… you know, people are expecting to get paid so the first check that’s no good is mine.

It just got so stressful. Nothing we did seemed to work. Maybe we didn’t know what the right thing was. I took a vacation and my dad had to do my job too. When I got back he was so beat up I don’t think he ever came back to work. He just went home and came in every once in a while. So I had to start doing his job, and my job, and pull shifts… I didn’t wanna do it anymore.

Then I got married and when we were on our honeymoon I called home and said, “I think we should sell.”

He said, “Yep lets do it.”

For all the ten years of work we did we lost a fortune. But when we sold it we made sure the contract with the guy before us was paid. And we got a contract from the new people for a 5-year plan, which went to my dad. So that was a bit of retirement. We paid all the employees, we didn’t owe anybody, we didn’t default on anything, but we didn’t come out with a profit.

And I got a grand piano, the one in my living room. That was pretty much my severance. I also got a bird from a guy that came in every day.

You know, whatever you’re doing you’re learning something, but I wish I wouldn’t have done it for so long. That was a big time in my life where I could have been developing something more permanent instead. But it’s 24 hours a day. There’s no taking a week off, you’re lucky to take a day off. When we decided to start it looked like a really good opportunity to do something that I knew. But you have to be able to hit the ground running, hire the right people, keep your food good, keep your service good, and be there in front of those people all the time. In hindsight there are some things I would’ve done very differently. But at that age, I didn’t know any better.

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JENNIE CAPELLARO, OWNER OF THE GREEN OWL CAFE

Jennie Capellaro, long time vegetarian and foodie, intertwines her love of animals, the environment, and food at her very own Green Owl Café—the only vegetarian restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. During her time in Law School at UW Madison, she had an epiphany that owning a restaurant was her dream.

I studied at UW Madison—history in undergrad and continued on at the Law School. My law degree has been…well, not very relevant to what I’m doing now. I just kind of had an epiphany in the middle of Law School that I wanted to open up a restaurant. I’ve managed and worked almost every position in the restaurant business since I was 16 or 17. Once I was old enough I always had a part time job waiting tables and I kind of got it in my head that I wanted to open a vegetarian restaurant someday. I would ask for positions in the kitchen like some prep shifts so I could get a feel for how the kitchen works. I knew it from the waitress side but not the other side.

The Green Owl Café became that reality for me.

I have been a vegetarian since I was about 20 or 21. So it’s been about 22 years. I was working as a door-to-door canvasser for Green Peace discussing environmental issues. I had grown up in a small town and I had never been exposed to these kinds of ideas—linking the environment to how we eat. The people that I was working with made me much more conscious of that kind of stuff and it started to click.

I was actually working at a restaurant that had really good lamb kabobs back then…I remember proudly telling everyone, “I don’t eat the lamb kabobs anymore, I eat the chicken ones!” and no one was really impressed with me. Then I started putting it together…there was no difference between lamb, chicken, or any other animal. Thinking about where my food came from and putting together my love of animals was new. You know, I have pets that I love and the animals that are raised on farms are not that far away from that. It just took a couple months and then it felt easy.

I was already a pretty good, competent cook I’d say. Even before I became a vegetarian I was very interested in cooking. To be honest, I’m also a big “foodie,” so I care about food a lot. I never order or buy meat but if there’s an interesting dish and it’s being ordered by someone else, I think, “The damage has already been done.” So I’ll have a bite. I’ll take a bite of something like a bratwurst because I like the flavor, but I could never consume a whole bratwurst. I think at a certain point I would just be like “Oh god…this was a pig.”

My older brother lives in Germany and he somehow claims to be vegetarian but then is often talking about these German sausages. So if I were to guess, my brother and his wife are pretty similar to me in that they mostly maintain a vegetarian diet except for when they are visiting a region with a specialty food—then they’ll take a bite. My younger brother has been a vegetarian ever since he was a child—he just never liked meat—so it was something we were used to in my house.

So, I like owls…I think they are fascinating. When people say, “owls are carnivores” I say, “well not the Green Owl!” The Green Owl Café presents a vegetarian and more ecological way of eating and that is something we need more of.

The Green Owl Café was very well received by the community—we opened in late 2009. The people in the vegetarian/vegan community and Madison in general were very excited. We even had an unexpected line down the block for job interviews… it was actually a little scary and intimidating. I had a couple people helping me divide people up and doing short five-minute interviews—people really wanted to work here! It’s been pretty good here since then. We got Madison’s Favorite New Restaurant in 2010. We definitely got that “bump” of people who are always interested in trying new restaurants but since then our customers have been pretty consistent over time.

There are numerous awards that I’ve gotten that I feel very proud of. We got an award from PETA for having one of the best vegetarian BLT’s. We consistently win Madison’s favorite vegetarian restaurant from the Isthmus favorites and Madison Magazine’s food contest. I think the best part is just being here and making people happy.

I wear many hats. Today I was waiting tables, which I do from time to time when we are kind of short staffed. I started waiting tables a couple months ago because I realized I want to connect with my customers again. When I am in the kitchen or the office I am not getting that kind of exposure, so it’s kind of fun for me. Other than that, I fill-in in the kitchen as needed from dishwasher to prep cook to line cook. My daily tasks as restaurant owner are almost too numerous to list but they include payroll, paying invoices, running for supplies and various things like putting out fires and solving crazies with the computer system.

There are definitely some food safety issues that we don’t have to worry about as a vegetarian restaurant. When you’re not dealing with raw chicken or blood you don’t have to worry about those kinds of things. It’s just a really different feel…that kind of danger in the kitchen. Of course you still have to be careful and refrigerate things and watch out for expiration dates but there’s a difference when you’re working in a kitchen without meat. For the vegetarian employees and myself it makes it a lot more pleasant to deal with tofu versus deveining shrimp—something I never ever want to do again.

Unfortunately, there is currently this big movement of meat-focused restaurants that use the entire animal, which I suppose if you are going to eat meat, it’s the right way to do it. Less waste. Maybe not the best timing for Green Owl because it seems like all of the sudden eating animal hearts and things like that were kind of the rage. I still think that there’s a core population of vegetarians and vegans that really appreciate us and there’s also meat eaters who enjoy eating a different type of cuisine here at the Green Owl.

We are just trying to offer vegetarian “comfort food.” The overarching theme is vegetarian so we can do a lot of different ethnicities and things…we have a sesame peanut noodle dish, an African sweet potato stew, and then we do some things that sort of replicate meat dishes like the TLT with avocado which is a tempeh bacon that we make in house—it doesn’t really taste like a BLT from what I remember, but it’s just a really good sandwich in its own right. The TLT is definitely one of our most popular items. It’s the variety of different food choices that make people happy.

Some people get overwhelmed because they are not used to having so many decadent vegetarian options. There are a lot of personal favorites on the menu. There’s a salad that’s called “Izzy’s Salad,” which is our own version of a Greek salad with tabouleh, hummus, and grape leaves in it. My background is a ton of different ethnicities, but I identify as Lebanese. My grandmother who lived in Milwaukee would cook Lebanese food for us. My Mom would cook some special Arabic dishes too. I lived in this small town and everyone was like, “what is that?” when they would see my school lunches. My grandmother’s nickname was Izzy so it’s a nice little tribute to her. The TLT is also one of my favorites…almost addictive. I also often crave the vegan nachos—I would definitely consider that to be vegan “junk food.”

We don’t require employees to be vegetarian or vegan. We are about half and half, leaning a little bit more towards vegetarian in our staff. What I have found is that if they have a love for food and for hospitality in general it works. We’ve definitely had people who are vegetarian in our staff who end up not being very good cooks—it’s more that they want to have the lifestyle but they don’t really have the cooking skills. That’s something that I figured out eventually. There are people who are just talented cooks who have a great sense of flavor and what things should taste like.

We get a lot of our produce from large distributors. We are told that they try to provide as much local food as they can. The potatoes we get, which we make into really good roasted red potatoes, are grown here in Wisconsin. We try to get farmers market produce as much as possible. There are so many moving parts to a restaurant that we had to give up our CSA box. We’d be like, “Oh, shoot! We forgot to pick up the CSA box and now we don’t have such and such.” The farmer’s market makes more sense because we make a deliberate stop for things that are in season, like eggplant for example. We also have some farmers who we work with who drop off kale and other vegetables when they are available.

I’m here so much that I don’t have too much opportunity out of the workplace. In my own life I’m vegetarian and even though I spend a lot of time here cooking I still love to cook at home and have dinner parties—always vegetarian of course. I suppose I’m promoting the lifestyle that way in that aspect of my life.

Some omnivores might not like the idea of a veggie meatloaf that sort of resembles a meatloaf but it has mushrooms and walnuts in it. Some people are like “I’m not eating that!” if they get dragged in by a family member or something like that. People have different reactions…some also say, “wow this tastes just like meatloaf” or even better. You have a whole range of reactions from vegetarians and vegans too—some people say how they don’t want to eat things that resemble meat at all and others find themselves comforted by food that reminds them of things they ate growing up.

I think everyone can come to vegetarianism or veganism for their own reasons. I respect the range of reasons why people make their choices. For me, the real reason was that I had this epiphany about the animals and how eating them just started seeming so bizarre—how could I have a dog or cat that I love and care for and then go and eat a cow or pig. I grew up on a farm so cows surrounded me and they are just really nice, intelligent animals. People have all different reasons—health aspects, environmental, etc. We are just here to provide the food and people can have their own reasons for why they come in, but we are always happy to have them.

— Ashley Hampton

JONNY HUNTER, CO-FOUNDER OF UNDERGROUND FOOD COLLECTIVE

Jonny Hunter is the co-owner and founder of Underground Food Collective in Madison, WI. With an undergraduate degree in English and a Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and no professional culinary training, Jonny helped create a butcher shop, catering company, meat processing company, and the restaurant Forequarter. Even though he has a hand in many things, Jonny is “kind of obsessed with simplicity.” He thinks about chicken soup almost every day and how to make it fill “that nourishing moment.”

Every day, this is my life. This is what I do. I don’t have days off. I think earlier this year I had gone something like 47 days straight working. And then most weeks it’s 6 days a week, even Sundays, which is the one day I probably would take off, I still somewhat work. In a lot of ways if you own a business, you’re always working. I founded Underground Food Collective with my brother Ben in 2005, and I’ve been working in food since then. Currently we have a restaurant, a butcher shop, a catering company, a meat processing company, and we’re in the process of opening another butcher shop in Minneapolis and another restaurant in Madison. So Underground Food Collective is just a collection of businesses, it’s always been focused on kind of working within the community, so that means working with small farms, from the region, and supporting farmers. We have a really strong focus on people in general, but we also run a business and are deeply interested in doing things that mean sustainable lives: treat people well, and kind of see people develop as people.

I think when we started off we were really the first people in the area to do farm-to-table event based catering. Our sourcing still is really pure. When a costumer comes in and says they want food from local farms—when you work with us—that’s happening. We work with a lot of small farms in Wisconsin and now we’ve expanded to the Midwest a little bit for some of our sourcing.

Before I did Underground, we had this space called the catacombs, which was kind of an anarchist group of college kids who ran a coffee shop in a church basement on campus. I think our company isn’t a very linear company, we started catering as kind of a side thing back in 2005, and we were working other jobs, and I was in college, I was finishing college at the time and it just seemed like an extra revenue, so we created the Underground Food Collective as kind of a way to do some catering. This included events, and so that was one thing I was excited about—doing events around food that supported organizations that I thought were doing a good job. This included, like, a nonprofit that worked on farmers rights in Oaxaca, Mexico, and doing a bike ride called “Bike the Barns,” which I founded in 2006. And so Underground Food Collective kind of grew out of these events and a few catering gigs.

Once we kind of started to focus a little bit, the catering company grew and we started getting interested in animal husbandry and meat processing and preserving, and we were approached by the state of Wisconsin who was interested in seeing a value added product for pork developed, and that was kind of not even something we’d thought about doing—starting a business—we were just kind of curious. So when we did the value added thing for pork that kind of turned into Underground Meats and the state of Wisconsin worked with us to see that happen, helping us with some of the logistics and the food safety side of that. From there we opened a restaurant in 2010 called Underground Kitchen that was built off of a lot of our events that we’d been doing, catering events as well as pop ups in New York. At this time even though it wasn’t like a full time job for anyone—I was in grad school actually—it started to become a very real business. In 2009 we had maybe 2 employees and by 2011 we had 45, so it was quite the jump.

So we had this restaurant called Underground Kitchen that we opened in October 2010. It was the first restaurant that we had opened, so that was a pretty crazy process for us since we’d never opened a restaurant. And it was just off the Capitol square, so it was pretty cool to see that process happen. I learned a lot about cooking and food and how a restaurant runs. I’ve never spent as much time in a single space as I did in that restaurant, and it did really great. It was really busy, and it got great acclaim, and I think it was generally pretty respected but… we did lose it to a fire that happened in the building in June 2011. So that was a pretty big step back because we had invested so much time and energy into the space. It felt like a huge loss to see that disappear. I mean everything we had built there was ourselves, but I think the thing about the company that was nice was that we had a staff that was working and two other businesses to move forward with, so we reinvested our energy into Underground Catering and Underground Meats at that point. Immediately we started looking for a secondary space, because we realized it would be a long time before we got into the space where Underground Kitchen was—if ever. So instead of waiting for all the insurance stuff to play out we started looking for another location.

We opened Forequarter about a year later, and I think that year was a really great year for us as a company, because we had all this time to think about how our next restaurant would be, and the opening staff at Forequarter, a lot of them had closed Underground Kitchen with us, and so we were able to take this on, and I felt really close working relationships with them. I really do like the people I work with, which I think, [while] running a business is a pretty dangerous thing to do—to become committed to them. But the other version of having a detached hierarchy is just not really something that I want to have. The definition of wanting a smaller restaurant is an interesting thing because we kind of wanted to control the experience a little bit more. The opening chef at Forequarter was this kid Sam, who, still works with me quite a bit, and he and I just spent like 6 months talking about menu items, and coming up with what we wanted our restaurant to be, so when we opened that restaurant it was pretty seamless, and I felt really proud of the food we were putting out right away. When we craft a meal, I think that there’s a thoughtfulness that goes in there, I don’t think there’s any restaurant in town that spends the amount of time on ingredients as we do.

I’m the maintenance guy on most days, [laughs] but I play a lot of different roles in the company. I’m the culinary director, so any food that is cooked or prepared … I’m the final place where that goes. I lot of times I delegate that out, but in some ways I will be overseeing kind of how its developed. And catering, I actually end up doing catering most of anything, just cuz it’s harder to staff and that’s where I do a lot of cooking. And then butcher shop has a staff as well. I oversee a lot of just the day-to-day food ordering, vendor communications, stuff like that. On top of that I also do most of the business development, so I oversee all of the income and expenses for the business, taxes, general payroll and stuff like that. It’s like really hard to separate yourself from [work]. I have a really hard time taking vacations— not because I’m so busy, but because it’s just like hard to separate yourself cuz everything is always going and there’s always things you’re trying to think through, and it can just be difficult to not be in work mode.

My parents were Christian missionaries, and that’s not something I’m super proud of participating in, it’s actually something I’ve pretty vigorously rejected, but I have been to over 45 different countries, so I’ve had all these opportunities to eat in these places. A lot of the techniques, we’re drawing from other cultures, like fermentation from Southeast Asian cooking. I love the creative side of this job, that is something I’m really drawn to. Getting to solve problems and seeing how those things play out is a really wonderful process that I find invigorating.

It’s hard to run a business. There are a lot of loose ends: weather in Wisconsin…. At this point we’re running four very different very complicated businesses, and it seems like something always has a problem and something is doing really great. You never really feel like you’re ahead—and that something is dragging you down—that something’s not going as well as it should, or that you’re understaffed, or that the worlds gonna end [laughs]. One story that’s kind of funny, I remember when we were doing one of our first pop ups in New York, there was like 80 or 90 people there. I was really nervous it wasn’t going to sell out, but it did sell out and was written about beforehand in the New York Times, so that was pretty extraordinary. And then were sending the food out, and I’m thinking everything is terrible, and I never think this. But then someone who I knew came up to me and was like “everything is so good.” That was the moment where I was like, “I think we’re ok as a company. I think we can do this. I think I can cook.”

My relationship with my brother has really changed a lot through the company’s development and growth. When we were opening our business it was defined by our relationship and our goals. Ben was the one who took this company and was like, “ok, let’s just take on any project and any task. And we will just move forward and solve issues no matter what comes up in front of us even if we haven’t planned it out.” As we’ve grown we definitely don’t work under the same structure as we did back then. We definitely have taken on very different roles within the companies. I think it’s a surprise to almost anybody that I took on the culinary side of it, I think everyone always viewed Ben as more of the culinary side and that I would be more of the structural and logistics and marketing. But it didn’t really happen that way and we’ve kind of found ourselves in that process.

Partying is our mission. Which I joke about a lot, but I kind of believe it. I think that partying as a state of mind is like on of those things where it’s not about getting fucked up, or like, you know, whatever that means, but I think about it down to its core—just enjoying what you’re doing, and being around people you love. I think it’s about being happy, it’s about having a good time, it’s about doing something that you care about passionately, and it’s about doing it in good ways and responsible ways. I guess it’s not so much a mission statement, but a declaration of how we function. I think I could do what I do now pretty much every day for the rest of my life.

Jonny was just named chef of the year by Madison Magazine and recognized as a “Forward Under Forty” by the University of Wisconsin Alumni Association.

— Zoe Devorkin

GREG BECKER, PESTICIDE SALESMAN TURNED APPLE GROWER

 

Greg and Barb Becker built their New England-style homestead and filled it with wonderful antiques and stories of their hobby apple orchard-turned booming business. “My wife and I were on a trip to the island of Maui, and one evening we had dinner at an open air restaurant. The name of the place was Pineapple Hill. Pineapple Hill is also the name of our orchard—we kinda plagiarized it to be honest with you.” Greg’s orchard does not grow pineapples, but what it does grow, besides apples, is a sense of humble beginnings and the relationships that can be harvested from growing food. “After all the pineapple is the symbol of hospitality,” he says.

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My wife and I built this home in 1979 and having a few acres of land to go with it, I thought it would be kinda a nice idea to have a small apple orchard—at that point it was just a few trees. I would have been thirty-one years old when I planted my first trees. The company that I worked for then was a crop protection chemical company…involved in agriculture primarily in the row crops. The company also had a line of products that would be used in the fruit industry—I thought it may be a good idea to have the apple trees and then use some of the same products to see how they performed so I may do a better job of selling people in the apple orchard industry. Our orchard is certainly one of the smaller ones; we have a little better than an acre and half of actual fruit production. My wife’s background was more in education and if anything, I did it on a small scale, so she didn’t know really when to say no because it didn’t seem like all that much.

It was never designed to be a full time business. It was designed to be perhaps at best a small family business were the kids could participate. For me it was a hobby, I love growing things, and I just enjoyed it and such, [as] opposed to really making a livelihood of it. When we first started out my wife and I were working. We both had full time jobs, so the orchard really wasn’t open to the general public per se—well it wasn’t closed either. If you wanted to come out and buy some apples, sure, we would be happy to take care of you, but I really didn’t have a little business store or anythin’ like that.

An orchard business is like any other business: you have to develop relationships with people. I found my inspiration in an apple orchard grower down in Oconomowoc…I always admired his skills with people. Meeting people is always going to be a favorite part of the business if you didn’t enjoy working with people you’re probably in the wrong business because most of what you do is really face-to-face. Through the years we’ve developed some wonderful relationships with people that come every week, and they buy apples from me as well as apple cider. I have been able to work with one of the local schools, and it’s been really enjoyable because they really appreciate what you do for them. They appreciate the quality. They want to work with local growers and show their students that the small local grower can produce as good of fruit as you can get from Washington State or anyplace else.

It’s a lot of apples…a third goes to the Harvest Festival, a third would be the farmers market, and then we sell probably a third of our apples right out here. As more people find out about our orchard, they like the quality that we offer, we’re getting a lot of people that come out to our home. You come out here and it’s just like you’re in New England…just leaves a neat sense of feeling inside that it was worth a drive out here.

You do get a lot of satisfaction of producing something that people enjoy and appreciate. The last thing that goes into the apple is the sugar. You leave them hang till they’re ripe and ready to eat—you really have a wonderful product to share with customers. The one interesting question that seems to come up at times is “what’s your favorite apple to pick?” and my response is “the last one.” The season is over.

When you own the business, again something this small, it’s very difficult to justify hiring people… and secondly, to find skilled people that would have the same commitment as I do. In the season…with these bigger trees, it requires picking up the apples that haven fallen. That’s done either every day or every other day. You get a day when the wind is blowing, you come out and the ground is full of red, and they’re not nearly as valuable then on the ground as if they were hanging on the tree. Sometimes the trees are a bit more or less productive—several hundred boxes that we will harvest over the course of the season, and its gunna vary a little bit from year to year.

Picking the apples is probably the biggest labor, time-consuming project that we’re involved with. The bigger trees we have are twelve or fourteen feet tall. It requires a big ladder, so it’s up and down the ladder all day long. I would say the elves at night do a lot of the work, but in reality… I do it. I have two replaced knees, and I shouldn’t be on a ladder anymore. And that physically is difficult as you get older—you can’t really pick that many apples in an hour. It’s probably more important, quality picking as opposed to quantity picking. I don’t pay anyone by the hour; I just pay them to do a good job picking the apples. You have to understand the more apples you pick the more chances you have the apple is gunna be bruised.

We’ll get started in the morning probably eight or eight-thirty after the dew dries a little bit so that you can pick the apples without being wet. And for the most part, we’ll pick apples pretty much all throughout the morning and have lunch. And then after lunch the apples will get graded and polished, and then boxed or bagged and ready for sale. We have about a dozen different varieties of apples that start maturing in late August. The first couple are called the Paula Red which is an overall eating and sauce apple, and after that we’ve got the traditional Macintosh, Cortland, Spartans, and Galas. The Empire is actually my favorite eating apple…the Empire is a cross between a Macintosh and a Red Delicious, and it’s just a wonderful eating and baking apple.

Most the folks that try the Honey Crisp apple—they just absolutely love it. Maybe it’s just the crunchy, juicy, sweetness of it that people enjoy. Maybe it’s the size because it is a rather large apple, or maybe it’s the color. The color seems to stand out like a fire engine red. And maybe it’s just peer pressure that when you’re talking in the office, “You oughta try these Honey Crisp apples.” I have one heirloom variety called a Snow apple…that one probably has more of an emotional response by people. They seem to remember it on grandpa’s farm…they’ll chose that apple simply because of the memories. Most of the other apples are chosen simply because of flavor.

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People want a nice clean red apple and if you left it up to Mother Nature it’s not necessarily going to grow that way—you need to use things… crop chemicals, or as I would say, “plant medicine.” I mean people have no problem taking prescription drugs to make them feel better. When an apple tree is sick or diseased…it still needs the same attention. Organically grown food is a niche for some people—they feel that’s safer to use. If the apple is diseased—I beg to differ. When you use something that is locally grown you can take a lot more confidence in eating it. I’ve taken all the necessary precautions safety-wise so that not only can my customers feel confident to eat this stuff, but I’m going to do it as well. In a lot of respects you’re in control of it, you designed that tree the way it’s supposed to be, and granted Mother Nature is still going to have the last say in it.

Life really could not exist unless you had six inches of topsoil and it rained; I mean that’s the basis of life. One of the necessary ingredients to living is eating. And consequently to [be] part of that process—to produce something that is as enjoyable as eating an apple—that goes back to Adam and Eve. I think anyone really should take part of food growing, whether it’s a garden or anything like that. I mean that’s as close to nature as you can get. You have to go in with the idea there is more to life than making money. It’s a way of life, I guess more than anything. And if you enjoy being outside—being with Mother Nature and prolonging your working career so to speak—it really is a healthy lifestyle.

We aren’t as young as we were and most everything around an orchard is physical labor. Sometimes the returns don’t seem like they’re worth it until you have a day like this in October when it’s just a gorgeous day and you get a chance to reacquaint yourself with friends that come out here every year—and you say you know this really is kinda a nice lifestyle. It’s enjoyable. I do remember going out to orchards when I was smaller, and it’s interesting how those visions or memories—they still stick with you. Maybe it was the smells. Maybe it was the sights. Or just just a wonderful fall day to be out and about, but you remember those were neat family things. And to me that’s just one of those lost parts of Wisconsin history—just a small family orchard. And a lot of these orchards were mom and pop type affairs just like ours. Right now, I don’t think any of my kids will have any desire to own this orchard after we leave it but still anyone that comes out here perhaps we will have inspired them in one way or the other to live the lifestyle that we have very much enjoyed.

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— Kendra Trost

ANDREW HUTCHISON, BAKER, BUSINESS OWNER, & BREAD LOVER

Andrew started working in the food industry right out of high school but never envisioned baking, let alone being a business owner, as his career. His passion for art, local grains, and being in the kitchen led him to where he is now: manning the ovens at Madison Sourdough in Madison, Wisconsin. He never intends to leave.

I started as a baker at Madison Sourdough, and I ended up buying it four years later. I like being a business owner because I get to control some of my own destiny in some ways. It would be hard for me to be told what to do. I’ve had to make hard decisions, and I enjoy that. I really like being responsible for myself and for the people who work for me. I took over this business when I was twenty-five so I had a lot of learning to do. That’s pretty young for a business owner. The weight of the responsibility of that… I had to grow into that, but I really, really enjoy that.

The company was very different when I started. We weren’t in this location, we didn’t do food, we didn’t have a café, we did like six types of bread and some pastries, and that was it. Our commitment to local sustainable foods, local producers [pause] wasn’t as strong then. Once we took over, we made some really quite simple changes like getting our butter and eggs and milk and stuff… foundational things that we produce a lot of… in Wisconsin.

I had my first co-op membership when I was eighteen, which was awesome. I started my first garden when I was twenty-two, and that really changed my perspective on quality of food, freshness, and the sort of importance of like sustaining your own, if you will… Or trying to support people close by and support a much more sustaining community. I think the co-op turned me onto, “Okay this is cool. This is coming from a specific farm that’s really close to Madison.”

We’re not 100% committed to working with local farmers. A lot of it has to do with quality. Like greens that have a ton of bugs in it as an example… We can wash ‘em multiple times here, try to deal with it… if I get a customer, which has happened, who says, “There’s a caterpillar in my salad.” That’s really unfortunate. At the same time it’s kind of cool because you know its super fresh because that caterpillar is still alive. There’s something kind-of special about that, but also the customer doesn’t understand, and that’s an issue.

Berger photo 2

What drew me to it then is different from what keeps me here today.

My first baking job was with The Great Harvest Bakery. This was right out of high school when I was eighteen and the breads that we did there were very different than the breads that I’m interested in now, but at the time it was pretty amazing. My interest in the baking wasn’t just the job. I wanted to really enjoy the things I was making. When I was a child the idea of being a chef or a baker or a cook was a very different thing than it is today. In the early 90’s and the 80’s being a chef or a cook was like a straight-up blue-collar job, you know what I mean?

Art is a way of thinking creatively… It taught me to think a certain way about what I do. I went to [UW] Madison here—when I graduated I had a bachelor’s of fine arts. I was between a rock and a hard place financially because I put all my eggs in one basket for this job I ended up not getting, and I just needed to do something that I knew how to do. Baking and working in the kitchen was something I was comfortable with. I drove by Madison Sourdough and I was like, “I’ve had their bread. It’s really good.” I stopped in and they said they were looking for someone. The next morning I called, set-up an interview, which was at 5am in the morning the next day, and I thought it would be kind-of a cool thing to do for a few months.

After a couple months, it became clear that it was something I really enjoyed and something that I would commit to working for at least a year. Learning how to make decisions and living with them—it’s a good lesson. Life is too short to sit around and worry about the past or the future; you just need to go forward.

It was a lot of hard work, but the company was so small. I was the only full-time baker along with the owner and his wife, and there was something special about that because I got to engage with the owner who was the head baker and really ask a lot of detailed questions. There was time for that conversation to happen. When I was starting it was truly like old-school master and apprentice relationship, where the standards were very high for me and I really enjoyed that.

I worked six days a week. I worked from 2am until 11am each one of those days. I would get up in the middle of the night. I would have a lot of solitary time… Like a good four hours of solitary work, which I really enjoyed where I could just focus on the work and the rhythms… Listening to music… kind of meditate on what I was doing. Not just making bread but what I was doing with my whole life.

It was a sort of transitional period for me. I look back on those days very fondly.

What I liked about making art was that I had a connection to all other artists before me, and I really feel that even more strongly about baking: That I work within a tradition that gets passed down. When I get up at 3 o’clock in the morning I think about the other bakers who are up doing the same thing, and I think about the bakers who did it the generation before me, and I think about the person who taught me how to make this bread and that he learned working mostly with French bakers. To connect to that kind of history… it carries a lot of weight for me.

After a year of baking, my first year of baking, I took some time off. I was like, “Oh, I’ll take some time off and I’m gonna go travel.” When I was in Paris, Cam Ramsey who previously owned Madison Sourdough, hooked me up… I got to work with this baker for a few days and it was really, really inspiring. At the time I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back and continue to bake. After that experience I was like, “Oh, I am super into this. This is really cool.”

It’s like a connection to that history. To see a third generation baker doing what he was doing… we were carting around breads on the street. Just walking deliveries on a little cart, going to restaurants, having espresso with chefs… their lifestyle was so routine and so set, but like simple and enjoyable in a lot of ways. They worked really hard but it was just sort of like, “This is what we do. We live above the bakery. This is what we’ve done for generations.”

Berger photo 1

My role as a baker is to take the wheat, which is just this seed of grass, and guide it towards it’s like intended… most excellent purpose… which is a loaf of bread.

Bread is essentially fermented grain. It’s amazing that as a culture we’ve developed skills to get there—guiding that process to make something that is truly nourishing and stable. It’s truly transformative. Wheat, in particular, has been the cultivated crop of the world for thousands of years. There’s lots of other grains out there, but wheat… It’s been sort of foundational for civilization as we know it.

I love bread.

There’s nothing like a good-fresh-warm baguette. With some butter on it… like high-fat butter… it’s so good… Specialty breads are great, like nut breads, but I’ve grown more and more to really appreciate whole-grain loaves as my everyday bread.

I’ve really held onto staying a baker. Other chefs who cook still and own their restaurants will say the same thing: If you back away, if you leave that, you’ll lose something. Something will be lost… Whether it’s like really tangible or more kind-of like the spirit of a dish, or the spirit of a bread, or spirit of a place.

I’d rather give up the business and still bake. Its kind-of crazy… There’s usually three bakers when we start the morning, and we’re all kind of waking up, but we all know what to do. We all have our stations. We don’t really talk a lot for the first few hours unless we need to, and I think that’s important to just kind-of like get into the process, get into the day. I enjoy the mornings because I need that little bit of solitude… that quiet. I’ll never not be a baker.

— Liz Berger

CHRIS BERG, BUTCHER AT A SMALL GROCERY STORE

In a small town the odds of finding your ideal job are low. Chris Berg did: as a butcher at a local small grocery store. He bought a home with his wife right down the street. He grew up on a family farm. It was hard for him to give up farming, but becoming a butcher was just a happier and better way of living for him. He has been at Gempler’s Supermarket now for 15 years.

I grew up in a small dairy farm in Green County, Wisconsin. It was a family farm that had been in the family’s name for a hundred years and it was a very good place to grow up and… a good way of life. I really liked it.

I had a close friend that was a butcher and I had asked him about the job and what it involved. My guidance counselor told me I had to choose a profession—butcher was what I ended up choosing and I went from there. It was something I could do part time and still be on the farm with my father, so it kind of fell into place. I didn’t get into school right away because there was no opportunities—it took me a year before I got in there.

The schooling was a 22-week course and they just taught you the basics, mostly how to cut beef and pork. You had two directions to go, you could either be a sausage maker or you could be what they call “in slaughter,” which you were, ya know, butchering animals. That’s what I chose and it’s not an occupation for everyone, let’s put it that way. There is a lot of people that do not care to go that direction.

If you are a meat cutter—the education I got—you had to learn how to be a butcher first. If you were a sausage maker, you kinda ended up being in the sausage kitchen all the time—at the time, that really wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted that meat cutting experience also, so down the road I could use it to my advantage. My favorite part of being a butcher is—believe it or not—you know what all the good cuts are, so when you go home at night you are certainly gonna have good meals. You know what the good stuff is.

Some of the animals are no fun to cut, that’s for sure. I guess once you get used to it they’re all about the same. The big thing is you have to learn the bone structure of the animal. Once you learn the bone structure you know where to cut the meat off the bones easier. If you don’t know what the bone structure is, you don’t know how to cut or prepare a lot of the cuts like steaks and roasts. You gotta learn the bone structure—and the good parts of the animals where the good stuff is—and from there it makes it pretty easy.

I did work part time with another experienced butcher at a store—as they say, on the job training is always the best training. Certain days I would be a meat cutter or a butcher and then I would go back and still have my chores and things to do on the farm with my father. It worked out as a part time job from the get-go and it really fitted my situation, let’s say.

I also ended up at a locker plant to start off with, so I quit that job and decided I better do what I went to school for. And there again we did the slaughter and meat cutting there and I was there for probably 2 ½ to 3 years. I would work one day a week on what they call the kill floor, where you would slaughter and then the next day you would start to cut meat and do the beef and the pork. You would have custom orders and people would have their animals brought in and leave an order how they want ‘em cut and wrapped. I actually learned more from on the job training then I did in school. There again, on the job training is hard to beat.

The older guy that I worked part time for decided to retire and I went up and talked to him about the job at Gempler’s Supermarket. They were looking for someone and I told them I would be interested. I don’t know if it was more of what I wanted—but an opportunity. After about 2 weeks they give me a call and just said, “Come on in and start your job.” And as far as the interview went, it was pretty much non-existent because they knew me and I just more or less walked in and started.

Well when I get to work the first thing we do is we start to assemble equipment. We have to go through the equipment all the part and pieces to make sure I hadn’t missed cleaning some of the parts or pieces might have some meat on them. Then we have a place where we hang our special orders, we start to arrange our special orders so we can start to work them into our daily schedule. We go out and look in the meat counter and see what has to be cut. We might be out of this that or the other thing and we have to write those items down and come back and start to cut those items and put them back into the meat case to get things where they should be so the customer has some product to buy. But believe it or not, dealing with the public is probably one of my least favorite things because you have to continuously act like you are pleasant although sometimes you aren’t. You got your good people and you got some people that might not be so good.

Then on Mondays we have price changes for our new specials for the week. So we take the prices from the previous week and we put it back to regular price. And prices for the new week we put on sale price, so we have sale items every week.

Then close up. We turn around after we are done at the end of the day—we there again do just the opposite. Sanitation is a big part of any meat cutting store, any grocery store, or custom locker plant. We take apart all the equipment and tear it down. We have to do the pre-rinse. We rinse everything down and try to rinse a lot of the excess meat particles and stuff off the equipment. Then after we do that we do the soap cycle which is [a] machine on our hose that puts soap on all of our meat cutting parts, and we scrub up to try and get nice and clean, then we turn on the rinse and go around and rinse. Then once we do that we turn on the sanitizer and we sanitize all our equipment. That kills a lot of the bacteria, so after that we are ready to call it a day.

Well the store that I work at is a fairly good-sized store. I would rate it as a medium-sized store. It’s not real small and it’s not real big. It’s probably 4500 square feet and out of that maybe 1/3 is our meat processing room. We have a smokehouse; we have a sausage stuffer, a saw, a grinder, a tenderizer and we have several meat cutting tables. We also have several cooling tanks.

The machinery used is mostly meat grinders and meat saws. So first you took and sawed the carcass into different parts, whether it be the shoulder, the rear part of the animal, or the middle and at the loins, you would start to break it down from there. A pig—you would make pork chops and from the rear part you would have the hams and hocks. And the front part, the shoulders, you would have pork steaks and a shoulder roast. A lot of people don’t realize where the different cuts come from in an animal. Actually pork and beef is just pretty much the same bone structure, but just different names for the body parts, let’s put it that way.

We also have what they call a tenderizer, so I can cut some boneless pork chops and run them through the tenderizer and that makes a pork cutlet and we sell a lot of those. Same with the beef. I have to saw what they call a short loin and the short loin is where your T-bones and porterhouse steaks come from. Porterhouse I usually get 5 to 6 of those on a short loin and then you have to a trim ‘em, clean ‘em up with a scraper, take the bone dust off of them and put them on a tray and make them look real nice so the customer likes the looks of them. Once we get it on the tray we put some film over it and put it in the meat counter and that’s the way that works.

Then our other machine that we use a lot is the grinder with beef. We have our ground beef, ground chuck, and ground round. The ground round is usually taken from the rear part of the animal—they call it the bottom round—and that’s a very lean cut. We run that through the grinder and we usually get right around 90% lean grinds out of that part of the animal. Then for the ground chuck—that comes from the front part of the animal and the ground chuck has a higher fat content, but it is excellent for burgers on the grill. The fat is actually what gives your meat a lot of flavor. You wouldn’t wanna make a hamburger out of ground round because there is very little fat and you would be disappointed at the end result. You wouldn’t have the flavor you do with ground chuck, so there is a difference. Actually ground round and ground chuck are our top sellers in the whole meat counter because there is so many things you can do with ground chuck and ground beef.

I guess the big thing that has changed over time is the amount of product we are producing. I would say at this time we are doing a lot more sausage making. It has become successful where we are at and our meat counter has done very well. I’m thinking [I’ll] keep going as long as I can, god willing. I’m about 58 years old and I’ll probably have to go about another 10 or 12 years. I really don’t plan on retiring. I’d like to… as I get older maybe go part time and have a niche, something I can do on the side to keep busy. I guess that’s my retirement plan. I’m gonna go until I can’t go full time anymore or maybe go part time.

— Marissa Berg

BERNIE MAYR, LIFELONG OSCAR MAYER EMPLOYEE

Bernie Mayr spent his younger days working on his family’s small town Wisconsin farm. To support his family, he pursued work outside of the home and found a lifelong career at Oscar Mayer Industries. Although he’s retired now, he looks back fondly at his 30 years spent working for a company that uses “everything but the squeal.”

The family farm was the primary food source. Anything that was raised on the farm was fed to us. My mom always had a great big garden, too, but my dad would go hunting and anything he killed was fed to us at the meal. ‘Cause this was back in the depression days and anything he got was fed to us. He was the boss of the farm ‘cause he had bought the farm and of course he was in charge all the time. Two of my brothers and I were talking about taking over the farm quite a bit after I got married and I had two boys. We were talking about buying the farm from my dad, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with it. He wanted us to work on the farm and he would pay us wages. Well, the wages back then just weren’t sufficient enough to feed a family. So that’s when I decided to go and find a job somewhere else.

When I quit the farm I went to Del Monte Canning Factory in Arlington and I got hired. Wages there were a dollar fifteen an hour, which was not very much but at least it would pay my rent and feed the family because we were working quite a few hours a day. I worked throughout the summer there and I was hoeing cabbage and I was cultivating corn. I went to work in the fall in the corn factory canning sweet corn and from there it was on to the sauerkraut. We were pitching sauerkraut out of the vats that went into the canning. At that time, it was in October already. When sauerkraut is done… you’re kinda out of a job at that time.

So I was looking for another job. At the time there was the Vietnam War going on and Oscar Mayer was hiring, probably due to the fact that a lot of the people working at Oscar Mayer were servicemen and were called into the service. Oscar Mayer had a contract to provide food for the soldiers and that went on for quite a long time so I was pretty sure of a job there and I got hired. The starting wages were $2.40 an hour. That was in 1962, in October.

Total time working there was 36 and a half years. I probably worked in 6 or 7 departments after that. Or, yeah, I worked in sanitation and I worked in beef kill and I worked in the canning department and I worked in slice back department for a while. I never did get to the inedible department—I was happy that I didn’t get to that. That was where any abscessed meat or any hog that the US inspectors decided wasn’t edible—either the whole animal would go to inedible or parts of the animal would be cut off and go to inedible where it would be ground up into feed and bagged and taken out and fed back to some animals. It’s kinda a gross situation, I guess, but they used everything.

All the animals were raised on a farm, of course, not at Oscar Mayer. Farmers throughout the country were raising the animals and then if they wanted to get rid of any animals they could haul them into Oscar Mayer and sell them. Then they would go in through the gas chamber—cows would get shot in the head with a 22 and get hung up by the hind legs and then get opened up and all the guts and everything taken out. They would get skinned and washed up and then go into a cooler where they would hang overnight or into the next day or so to cool down. They would be taken from there to a room where they would cut all the beef up—and they had a separate room for the hogs where they would cut ‘em up—into all of the different pieces they would need for doing certain things. That was pretty much the whole process from the farm to the factory and going into sausages and smoked bacon and hams and all those such things

The most surprising thing that I ever seen was when I had a job with another fellow that I was sticking hogs with. This was in a period where of course the hogs were going through the gas chamber so they weren’t dead but they were out completely. We would have tours come through the hog kill once and a while… where we were stickin’ the hogs. This gentleman that I was stickin’ hogs with—he had a cup behind him in the sink and when these tours would come, he would take that cup and put it down. He’d stick a hog and put it down there and he’d get a cup of warm blood. He would actually drink some of that blood in front of this crowd of people, which mighta grossed some of them out I’m sure!

The process of making hot dogs was uuh [pause] they used to say at Oscar Mayer, “anything and everything goes into the hot dog, except the squeal.’” [laughing] And I think that’s about… they were right on target with that saying. I think pretty much everything did because the parts and pieces that were cut off from making the bacon slabs and making the hams and so forth—stuff like extra skin and excess fat off of a lot of those pieces and that—went into tubs that just, I’m sure, went right to the hot dog grinding and got ground into hot dogs. A lot of the skin from the ham from the jowls went into the hot dogs and possibly even the pig ears. I’ve heard that pig ears a lot of the times went into the head cheese or blood sausage.

The bacons and the hams and so forth were quite natural because there weren’t so much preservatives in it, but then when you go to the lunch meats and that type of thing, there’s a lot of preservatives in there to keep it from spoiling. There’s like nitrites and of course there’s also a lot of salt and some other preservatives, but I don’t remember what they were named… they had a quite a few of ‘em. They had a big spice department there at Oscar Mayer. All the preservatives in the food, that bothered me quite a bit and still does because I’m on a lower sodium diet and so on and so forth. The factory meat or factory meat meals—I stay away from those as much as I possibly can. I do most of my own cooking if I can and I do have a garden which I eat a lot out of the garden so that’s my prospect on the food industry.

When my dad and I was farming he would bring anything to the table from the land. If he was out working the field and he got a woodchuck or he got a rabbit or a squirrel or anything like that, it was brought to the table and fed to us so nothing went to waste. Because back in my earlier days, or his earlier days, it was the depression and there just wasn’t food around at that time and they had to make do what they could and he never lost that trait. I think [knowing what was in the food] did effect the choices that I made because there was probably a long period of time that my wife said that I never ate a hot dog at all which I guess she was probly right. If I had a hot dog once or twice a year, that was probly about it… so I guess it changed my view on eating quite a bit.

Bernie (the farthest on the right) in uniform with some coworkers.
Bernie (the farthest on the right) in uniform with some coworkers.

Oscar Mayer was sold to General Foods by Jerry Heagle, who had worked at General Foods at one time. I think that’s why we got sold to General Foods. We went on a couple of years and then we were sold to Kraft by Bill Morris and that was back in ‘80 or ’81. I was making 12 dollars an hour at that time and I got cut 2 dollars an hour and I don’t think I ever got back to that 12 dollars an hour until ‘94 or ‘95. That was a pretty big hit on our wages. But we were treated pretty well at Oscar Mayer. It was a good place to work and they treated us well.

ELIZABETH PRATHER, COMMUNITY GARDEN COORDINATOR

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Prather works with the Billings Metro Project as a community garden coordinator. Lizzie was a part of the Americorp VISTA program.

I began to have a love of gardening when I was younger and would garden with my parents growing up. I also gardened at college when I went to UW-Green Bay. I majored in environmental policy and planning. I have had a passion for sustainability and local food since early on in high school when I did a speech for my communications class on climate change and researched ways to become more sustainable. I also became a vegetarian when I was sixteen because I felt it was a sustainable food option.

I was the Americorp VISTA community garden coordinator from January 2014-January 2015. I worked alongside another Americorp VISTA. I found this job because I was looking up entry-level sustainability jobs and it eventually led me to the Americorp website. I looked at environmental positions on the Americorp website and came across the community garden coordinator position in Billings, Montana. One of the things that drew me to this position was because we were creating sustainable food options.

I gained a lot of experience in my year with Americorp at the garden. Americorp VISTA is a twelve-month volunteer position. We provide indirect service and make it a goal to create sustainable programs and fight poverty in the areas we serve. There were 20 of us in Billings and we were a part of the Billings Metro VISTA Project. My partner was Liz, and we worked with the Billings Parks and Rec. Liz and I collaborated with other VISTAS who had successful community gardens so we could gather more information.

I had an internship the summer before this position, but this was really the first time in a professional setting for me. When I first got to Billings there was an orientation for VISTA about how to organize groups of people and volunteers. In the first week of training we also learned a lot about how to fundraise. I also found it difficult that I had to fundraise for the first time and felt awkward asking people for money. I was very nervous at first, but it turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the job.

We advertised the garden pretty well. I got experience writing a press release. We also had two to three interviews for newspapers and news stations. We hung flyers around the low-income neighborhoods and handed flyers out in the local schools. I really enjoyed doing this, and I felt that we got the word out pretty well.

All of this was new for me and I learned so much the first year with VISTA. I did not organize people or anything prior to my experience with Americorp. I gained knowledge of the local food options of people in poverty. I learned the connection of sustainable food choices and people in poverty. I also learned how to fundraise and ask for supplies. We worked with over 200 volunteers throughout the summer. I learned how to write press release, event planning, and advertising. We planned an event at the end of the season to raise funds for the garden and it was a great experience for me. People definitely enjoyed the garden. There was some frustration in the beginning because of the ground squirrels getting into the food but we put up a fence. Overall, people were very happy with the garden.

My role in the food system was giving people the knowledge and access to grow their own food. We provided workshops to teach these skills to the gardeners. We brought in master gardeners to come in and teach these classes. We also hosted food camps where kids would come out to the garden. I sometimes would help out with the food camps if there were too many kids for the other volunteers to handle.

I was probably in the garden 70-80% of the time. The garden is in a big, open space near the outskirts of the city near the south side. There was a school and a neighborhood nearby, but that was it. The garden was located here since it was a food desert where a lot of low-income people lived. In the beginning we had to do some office work and work on connecting people with resources they needed for the garden. We would start off answering emails and figuring out how to organize plot owners. In the winter we researched a garden manual of what to plant and how to plant it. During the summer we would go out and talk to the plot owners and water communal areas of the garden. I would sometimes plant, weed, and one time I even helped to put up a fence.

I went to the garden one afternoon and met up with Jan. Jan talked about how excited she was about the garden and having fresh vegetables to take home. She was one of the low-income gardeners and she told me how much money she was saving on food for the summer. She even planned to can some of the vegetables for the winter months. She even agreed to be part of the advisory board when I left and that meant a lot to me.

prather0 prather1

We had a lot of trouble with the soil in the garden. We didn’t realize how hard it would be to grow plants in Billings. The soil was like clay and lacked nitrogen. We tried to use some compost but it still didn’t work. Plants were growing up with yellow leaves so that’s when we talked to staff and decided not to keep the garden organic. We originally wanted to make the garden organic and half way through the summer we weren’t producing enough food. We sat down with staff and decided the focus of the project was to provide low-cost food so we decided to switch to a nitrogen fertilizer. I did come to this job excited about the sustainable aspect of it so it was hard for me to switch to the non-organic garden… The fertilizer started to help grow the plants and we felt we made the right decision to go non-organic. We are hoping that will help for the next year.

This was the first year of the garden. There were 250 volunteers and 47 plot owners. In the garden we grow zucchini, beans, pees, spinach, radish, watermelon, raspberries, grapes, strawberries, and many other vegetables and fruits. We decided on these foods because of the growing season in Billings and based on what seeds/plants we were able to get donated. I wrote a grant to get a greenhouse and one of the main points I made was the greenhouse was needed to extend the growing season for low-income people. I felt this was very important for our goals as a VISTA project.

A lot of the people in Billings knew about the garden by the end of our first season. This past year they drew more people in and got more produce out of the garden. When we had events at our garden people would ask us how to apply to be a plot owner. Most of the plot owners were white because a lot of people in Billings are white. I would say just under half of the plot owners were low-income. We couldn’t really attract homeless people since they had more on their mind than trying to come to the garden every day. We planted the communal areas so we could donate some of the food to other food banks in the area.

A lot of middle-income people were attracted to the garden. Since it was a city organization we couldn’t say that only low-income people were able to come even though that was the original goal of the garden. I think some people thought it costs too much. There was a deposit fee of 15 dollars and it ended up being around 40 dollars. We tried to wave the fee. We got a lot of seeds donated and tried to help lower the cost. We fundraised the money for the seeds. We also had people donate seeds to us right away once word got out about the garden.

Sense of community is a benefit of having a community garden—a place to come together and help out your peers. A lot of the plot owners became friends and people were careful to leave produce in the communal area for the other plot owners. Many also shared the food they grew on their own plot of land. I think people garden as a hobby and a way to save money. I do it so my environmental impact can be minimal. In the future I want to have my own garden, but I don’t want to be a coordinator of a community garden—I want to work for a grassroots environmental nonprofit fighting [for] environmental issues.

— Claire Prather

JACOB MARTY, GRASS-FED LIVESTOCK MANAGER

Jacob Marty is a recent college grad. He found his calling while attending UW-Stevens Point. He recently returned home to his family farm, where he uses his college education as a way to impact the local community and environment while raising grass-fed beef in a sustainable way.

I’m 23 years old and just returned home to my family farm to start the transition of ownership from my father to myself. I grew up on a dairy farm that has been in our family since the 1850s, so I’ll be the sixth generation to live and work on the farm. I graduated in December [2014] from UW-Stevens Point where I studied wildlife ecology with an emphasis on research and management—with a focus on the ecosystem—and minored in biology and conservation biology. I have been full time on the farm since February, about seven months.

I grew up on the farm with my three brothers—one older and two younger ones. We didn’t really have chores that we had to do every single day. It was more if there was something that needed to be done, then whomever was around would help my father, with the preference being the oldest one to work. I helped milk cows when I needed to; drove tractor and the skid-loader to do field work off and on for my father. So I got a little bit of exposure but didn’t have to be relied on to have the farm function with me.

Growing up, I was really kind of turned off from farming. So when I graduated high school and went to college I really wasn’t planning on farming at all. I wanted to go and study endangered species and preserve habitat for them and help wildlife and mother nature’s health. When I was at school though, coming from an agricultural background with that context and way of thinking, I was really kind of looking for wildlife management. I always asked, “How do you manage wildlife on farms?” And there wasn’t much going on. No one had done many studies about it and there was not much—techniques or practices to go off of. I kept trying to figure that out and I was not getting much help from the institution so I had to research it a lot on my own.

I studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, and there isn’t a lot of wildlife, but people try to make habitat with their own property. So I started to be influenced by that and by my junior and senior year, I was starting to consider farming. We had a barn fire four years ago that made me start thinking about the legacy of the farm and that we should keep it in the family and how I could contribute to that since, at this point, it doesn’t look like my siblings are at all interested in coming back to the farm. So it slowly started looking like there would be a fork in the road and I had to take one of two options, but then I found a way to comingle those two and come back to the farm while also managing and studying nature along with it. It would take me a long time in the wildlife field, and academia, research, so I kind of started to see that I might be better suited and could have a bigger impact earlier and in the long-term if I go farm and show people the way first hand.

We used to be a dairy farm, but I don’t want to milk because of the time commitments 24/7 every single day of the year, so I’m switching over to pasture based systems that focus on meat production: grass fed beef and grass finished beef, pasture raised pork, and pasture raised poultry products. Right now we have 56 cows, 7 pigs, 20 chickens, and I also have bees. I just started farming in February so this year was really the first step, baby steps, to get started and get our feet underneath us. But we are looking to expand considerably in the next few years.

Right now we have four hundred and ten acres on the farm and I manage fifty and my father manages the rest, but the plan is to slowly convert large amounts of field at a time to my grass-fed beef operation. My father has been farming for four decades, so he thinks that his way is the better and I think my way is better. Sometimes it is a burden to be trying to do multiple things from different ends of the spectrum, but overall the transition has been very good. My dad has been very helpful and willing to relinquish land to me and then also help me with my endeavors when I need it, but sometimes there is quite a bit of butting of heads.

A typical day starts at six or seven, sometimes later depending on time of the year. We’ll get up and do chores, which consist of feeding my father’s feedlot cattle and then I go and feed my pasture-raised animals. I move two fences for the cattle so that they have a new, fresh piece of grass field for the day, a 200 by 400 square foot lot, which equals a little less than two acres per day. Then, I go let the chickens out of their mobile coup in the pasture and then I will go and cut some forage for my pigs to eat and take that to them. We repeat that again in the afternoon. In between the times—say between 9 and 4 when you wouldn’t be doing chores—you can be working on other projects that help streamline and make yourself more efficient. For example, building mobile coups from old wagons or making water that is a little more automatic. That takes away the amount of work you have to do.

I don’t mind working seven days a week. I’ve gotten into a routine and it’s something I really enjoy and am passionate about. I’m a homebody now. I do get away because I can set up my system to function for a couple of days with a little bit of input from my father or someone else. Even if I leave for a day or a half- day, I just… I get homesick and farm sick if I’m not home to do that stuff.

In my system, because there isn’t a lot of machinery use, there really isn’t a lot of hard work. It’s a lot more low-key, making sure things are in the right place at the right time. It’s a lot easier on the body. I’ve actually lost a lot of weight because I’m exercising more with walking and stuff like that, but I’ve also lost a lot of muscle mass because I’m not working as hard.

The big part of my farm is the grass-fed beef system, which means the animals are raised out on pasture or a field and they are fenced in and feed themselves and spread their own manure. Really you allow the animal to do what it wants to do, which is eat, and give it a natural environment so that they do more of the work than you do. What I farm is grass. The animals are my tools to manage the grass and to make sure it’s growing at the optimal stage at all times. What I’m trying to mimic is natural grassland relationships that were here before humans really cultivated and colonized America. Specifically, it’s mimicking the bison and how they were living on the open prairies in America. Bison would be grazing throughout North America, but they would also be having a predator pressure—well I don’t want predator pressure—so I serve as a fake predator by fencing them a correct way. If they eat a lot and stay there, there isn’t much to eat, so they are constantly moving. Picture bison with their head down, moving miles a day constantly eating. Well for me, I am using cattle as a substitute for bison because they are easier to handle, they’re something that works better in our human made systems, but I’m trying to act as a wolf basically, not to scare them, but with fences to keep them moving constantly.

I have my pigs in a completely separate system right now. Next year the plan is that they’ll still be in a separate system but on the same land. I have them in a leader follower system. Both the pigs and the cows will function as the leaders. What they’ll do is graze off the grass and get the high energy forage off that, because I’m really trying to convert energy, proteins, and nutrients into meat that I can sell. So I want them to have the best stuff. Then I’ll follow chickens afterwards. Chickens are omnivores that like a lot of insects. They’ll eat some of the leftovers that the pigs and the cows miss, but really what the chickens are going to do is eat all the insects that now have fifty percent less places to hide and they’re exposed. Chickens will go and clean that through, but they will also eat a lot of pests, specifically flies that lay eggs in cow pies. I have them about three to four days behind the herds of cattle or pigs because then the growth stage of the larvae on the cow pies is at its optimal for harvesting by the chickens.

Jacob's father, Jim, says hi to the pigs
Jacob’s father, Jim, says hi to the pigs

I’m concerned and take responsibility for the farm and its effect on the local environment and the global environment. On a local scale, I’m most worried about degradation of land; losing soil through erosion that will likely make its way to waterways and never be able to come back. I want to prevent contamination of the resources that my community and myself rely on, specifically the ground water. Everything relies on water. If the water in the environment is not safe or healthy, things that rely on it aren’t going to be either. On a more macro scale, I’m very concerned with climate change; specifically, global warming and how it may change weather patterns and produce more drought or wet years—not having as consistent of weather in the long-term—so that’s why I want to build a resilient system. A non-resilient or vulnerable system may be knocked out. It’s just like nature.

I like doing my part to take care of the environment, but my favorite thing to do on the farm is cut forage for my pigs. It is an early morning type of thing that is really relaxing and calming and not hard. There isn’t a lot of human, city-associated sounds—not a lot of traffic or things going on. The stars at night are awesome—just being out in the pasture where there are tons of birds, a lot of insects around, and butterflies. It really means a lot to me that monarchs, which are endangered, are out there. And it’s a system that I am providing for them. If everyone was doing that monarchs wouldn’t be endangered.

— Lucas Marty

OSGÜR “FIGO” AKCAY, MANAGER OF GOTHAM BAGELS

Osgür “Figo” Akcay immigrated to the United States from Turkey in 2001 and now lives in Madison, WI. He is the manager of Gotham Bagels in downtown Madison.

I was going to college in Turkey, and my cousin lived here in U.S. I wasn’t doing really good there, and he said, “Why don’t you try to come here, and if you like it, you can stay here.” Then I decide to try something new, so I move to Madison. And without any English, so it was really hard. I remember the first month I was home by myself until he gets home. It was really hard. Then start learning all the words one by one, and repeating all the time to myself.

Watching TV helped a lot. I was watching the Friends and Right Price…? The Price is Right. I was watching that too, with the caption on, trying to understand the whole thing. I think if you understand first what’s going on, then you probably get the words better. Like the basic words, I probably know like 80% of it. But if you go to politics or stuff, then I don’t know. [laughs]

That was about the same time I learn to cook. The guy, his name was Ricky, and he taught me. I was working at the pizza joint on Bassett Street. Used to call Casa Bianca. I start as a dishwasher because I didn’t speak any English, so that was the only job I found. Then I start to figure it out, all the words. Then he said, “Do you wanna be a cook?” I said yeah. He start teaching me all the simple cooking things. All the sandwiches, all the subs, all the pastas and everything. That was in 2001. So I start from there, and I keep doing it.

I was here in Madison nine years. At 2009 I move to Milwaukee. I stay there about three years. In 2011, I move to Turkey, stay there like a year and a half, and I didn’t like it, and I move back here to Madison. Bring my wife too. I got married in Turkey. Then I was working for her dad at his restaurant. I mean it was six months honeymoon and seven months working for him.

I been living in U.S. here 15 years now, and it just feels like this is my home too. Like, if I go to Turkey now, all my friends they moved or they got married or they do something else, and I have nobody there besides my family. And here I have more friends than in Turkey right now. Especially Madison. I love Madison.

Working in restaurant in Turkey is very different from U.S. In Turkey there is a butcher. You go there, buy your meat. And there’s like a big market, so you just buy vegetables from them. You pick it, whatever you want to pick, and bring it to your restaurant. They don’t have like a big Reinhart or U.S. Foods or anything like that—all small businesses.

I actually like to go buy my own meat. See what I’m getting. And all the vegetable that I’m buying. All the stuff, I see it and then I buy it. But here you just call and you just say, “Hey, I want 40 pounds of chicken.” They just bring the chicken to you, and you don’t see what is in it. And like, if there’s something wrong with it, you just have to return here.

I love going in the summer to the farmers market in Madison, because all the stuffs are fresh and local. It just feels like in Turkey. You just go there and you pay the cash, and you just come back and you use it. Fresh produce.

I think customer service here is better. In the small restaurants in Turkey, if you go to restaurant and you don’t like the food, and if you said to the waiter that your food is not good, they don’t care. And here is totally different. If you go to restaurant and server ask you how do you like your food, you always say, “Good.” But in Turkey if it’s not good, you just say, “It’s not good.” You don’t have to be nice to them, and say it was good. If you go to Turkey and talk to the manager saying your food wasn’t good, he starts saying, “Oh, maybe just you didn’t like it.” People care here more than Turkey.

I like working at Gotham because I don’t really feel like I do a customer service relationship. They are like my family. I know everyone by the name and what they order and everything. And that makes me happy. And for my customers, they actually know about my newborn son, and my wife and everything. It’s just like having a bigger family every day.

But sometimes it’s hard. I try to be always calm, and always be nice to customer. And when I come here, and I try to smile to everybody, and they just look at you, and they don’t even say good morning or anything, and they just have that attitude. That makes me frustrated sometime, because I keep everything at home. I don’t bring it at work. When people start arguing with you about some stupid things, about the stuff that they didn’t get. They just fight with you. They don’t try to help you out to fix the problem. They just try to put you down and try to make you think it’s your mistake, but sometime they do mistake too, and they don’t say that they did a mistake. They just want something free.

But, mostly its good. There is lots of stuff that I like about my job. There’s so many good times. One of the big ones—when my son was born, I saw his name at the specials board in Gotham and it says, “It’s a boy.” That makes me really proud. Like people I work with, they care about me as a family and they enjoy the moment with me at the same time.

There is also some stuff I miss about Turkey. I miss some of the foods. In Turkey, we had a gyro. People call here “gyro,” but we call it “doner.” Just like the same meat, and they have a lamb, ground beef, and tail fat. That’s the only thing I miss here. Nobody use tail fat here for lamb. It’s like, there is a tail part of the lamb, and it’s only fat, and when you cook with the meat, it’s juicy. It makes it so much better. The meat doesn’t get dry, and it’s so more juicy and fatty. Just like having a bacon—fatty.

I miss all the kebabs there in Turkey. Everything over there is homemade. The guy does it in-house over there. They don’t buy it pre-made or anything. I like to try all the fresh food. All the small businesses. When you go to their restaurant, you feel like you’re in your own kitchen. And you know the owner and all about it. And I’m trying to do the same thing here at Gotham. When I work at restaurant, I like to know all my customers, what they do in the work and everything, and I think I’m doing really good on that.

When I work at Gotham, I start making new cream cheese and everything. Like all the stuff from the back home I was doing. Like feta cream cheese. All the eggplant dishes I was doing here. I was proud of those.

Like, first, when I try to do something new, I have to like it. I have to put lot of spices into it, like cumin or fresh dill or lot of parsley or lemon juice. I mean, if I add those I feel like I’m trying something—Turkish food. Pizza is totally different, but I try to make it… I love eggplant, and I do anything with eggplant. And I do eggplant with pesto and tomato and everything. What I learn here, and I mix that stuff with Turkey, and I think I make a good combo with those two.

Another thing about working in U.S., is sometime I think, I wish that English was my first language, I do better with workers. I would have a better communication with them. Or trying to explain myself better, because sometimes I misspeak or misspoke, and they just try to do something else. Then I try to think Turkish sometime and try to speak English, and it just makes it hard for me. That doesn’t help me all the time.

Some people take advantage. If I tell somebody they made a mistake, and they would say to me, “Oh, I thought you told me that. I thought I didn’t understand you.” Or they say, “You misspeaking,” or something. That always goes on their side, not my side, because I don’t think I can explain myself better.

Now I speak Spanish and English, because when I work at restaurant, I was working with lots of Mexican. I was learning English and Spanish at the same time. I know mostly kitchen words in Spanish, and that helps me all the time too if I go to different restaurants. Because, if you go to restaurant, most the people works in all the kitchens are Mexican or Spanish, and if you know any Spanish words it’s always plus for you.

But I like being in restaurant business. I like talking to people. I like serving them, and I would do the same thing again. I just like cooking. I like to learn new stuff. When I came here, at the Gotham Bagels, all the stuff I know is all making sense to me. And I really like doing what I do now.

— Maggie Roovers

ERIC GORDON, CARPENTER AND GENERAL CONTRACTOR

He is a Chicago man with three decades working in the construction industry under his belt. Food has played an integral role in the development of his relationships throughout the years in a variety of work settings both as a carpenter and a general contractor. He has eaten at every hot dog joint, sandwich shop, pizzeria & taqueria you can find in the city.

I’m more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy for my normal meals. We’ve had a whole health craze since the ’80s…what do you call rabbit food? Salads… everyone wanting to eat healthier … That sent us to a lot of those healthier restaurants that I typically wouldn’t go to.

There’s stages in the construction industry, and you start off as an apprentice where you’re at the low end of the totem poll. Even though you’re at the low end you still intermingle with journeymen carpenters, superintendents, owners. You’ll still have some sort of interaction with them and you see what they do on a daily basis, and if it appeals to you you work towards that position. You start off and you’re carrying your lunch. It’s kind of a cycle. You start out you’re a grunt. You’re doing all the manual labor, then you start using your mind a little more. Then you move up—you become a foreman—then you have to tell people what to do. As you step up from there going to a superintendent, to a general contractor position, you have to know what all the trades are doing.

Typically, you get 30 minutes for lunch. Period. Start to finish. And if you’re in a high rise or a building that has an elevator… if everybody leaves to go to lunch you only have five minutes to eat a lunch by the time you get down. So they’ll typically have a truck on site to buy something. Typically they would have burritos, hot dogs, cheese burgers: something that you can eat with one hand while you’re still doing something else. They try to give you a cold drink, a hot sandwich of somethin’ [pause] you know easy for you to carry back and forth.

Most of us that work in the field have a lunch box that was an integrative part of tool box because it was so valuable. I would say that the majority of carpenters would bring their own lunch. Usually no one wants to take that time standing around waiting for the elevator so they would just stop working where they’re at, sit down somewhere comfortably and open up their lunch box…and then they’d get their full 30 minutes from working and still eat a halfway decent lunch. Usually it would be a steak burrito or a chicken burrito. Those would usually be big—you wouldn’t finish it all in your half hour of eating. Depending on the season it would change from hot soups in the wintertime, typically with bread, or summertime would be more your cold cuts lunch meat. Peanut butter and jelly was always a standard for everybody.

Not to stereotype any carpenters or anything like that. You work hard to get to lunch—you’re very hungry. You’ve got a short period of time to eat, and you’re trying to eat as much as you can in a short period of time, which is why you’ll grab for a burrito that has meat, lettuce that kinda stuff to get as much as you can into your stomach. Tamales were a big hit too because the cornmeal keeps you full and they were easy to slide down. The carpentry industry has an array of ethnic people…your average project would last 3-4 months, you’re gonna be with that person everyday for and you guys kinda get to know each other discussing stuff you know.. “have you ever had it?!” They’ll always say, “My such and such is the best you’ve got to try it.” They all have their own food that they eat, and we get to try it.

In the stage as a carpenter and you’re trying to move along, time has become important. You’ve got young kids at home, you’ve got a wife, whether she’s a stay at home mom or you’re paying for a babysitter, the sooner you can get that babysitter out of the house, [the] more economical it would be. What guys have done… they’ve got the power bar stuff. They’re not taking a lunch. They’re not taking a break. They want to work straight 8 hours and get out without extending the day with having lunch or break. So to keep their nourishment up as they go, they would put a power bar in their pouches and they chew on those as their working. They’re not filling a meal but their eating enough for where they can get home and get to the kids as soon as they can. A lot of guys have evolved to say, you know, I don’t wanna stay at work, I don’t want to sit in traffic with everybody else. That’s another type of carpenter—or type of person—that weighs more value on time than they do on eating.

It’s definitely effective because they’re not taking the break…the coffee break and the lunch break…they’re constantly focused on the project at hand- you don’t have downtime. Let’s say lunch is 12:00 to 12:30, well, quarter to 12. They’ve got to go wash their hands and go to the bathroom before they go to lunch—they’ll do that on company time. You lose productive time from stopping and starting. You’re sitting at lunch and then oooooh oh oh you may have started a conversation at 12:27 then 12:30 you walk away from break area and you’re starting conversation, you’re losing productivity. There’s something to be said about working straight 8 hours to get home. You’re focused on the project for a full 8 hours, that way it’s more productive.

We had a garage on the southside of Chicago, and near that garage there was a Mexican restaurant, and I was there one day and their door was not closing. The owner happened to be there in the establishment and I said, “hey I can fix that door for you, no problem.” I said, “yeah I’m with a construction company.” You know I fixed the door within a matter of minutes. I had the door fixed, he was so happy it got done I ate there for probably six months to a point I felt guilty. It didn’t cost me anything but time and I was on my lunch when I was fixing it. It was a great deal.

Part of my job [now] is to entertain clients and therefore it’s a weekly ordeal or a weekly job for me to take someone to lunch so you know for having that as part of my job I would eat out a lot more than most people would.

I leave it up to the client 100% and I’ve eaten food that I’d never eat normally the most with going out with clients. Pretty much most of the Asian food I typically hate but if the client wants I would go there and eat that. Indian food—definitely wouldn’t eat that unless the client really wanted it.

We had gone to a restaurant downtown and it was a steak place, so I was definitely happy with the food that was being served, but then as we were there eating it was kind of a tight quartered restaurant and they sat some people down the table next to us and it just happened to be Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen. My size is I’m 6’2., 2 ½… 180 pounds, so I’m not the smallest guy, and the client I was with a large fella, and then with the basketball players sitting next to us they were tall. We were….infringing on each other’s space because there wasn’t enough room to sit comfortably and as we were there we were looking at each other and we just started talking. We got a relationship going to where we had another lunch after that at a different restaurant. That experience really enhanced my relationship with the client because for a fluke these superstars sat next to us. We were able to…get to know them on a personal basis that kept the relationship with me and the client together and the client was extremely happy and he had autographs for his kids, so it was a really nice experience for both of us.

The industry is extremely competitive and a lot of construction is kinda the same. You’re doing a lot of the same things so what you’re trying to do is relate to a client on a more personal basis. Usually if you take them out of the work environment and into a restaurant they change somewhat and become a work friend. Then you get to know them a little better from a friendship standpoint they feel more entrusted in you, so if they have a problem or have something that needs attention it’s like calling a friend. It kinda works to both of our advantages. The trust is built not so much just from our work performance, which is very important. Two companies if they both perform the same way in the field, the person who has the more personal relationship with the client is going to get more work… I don’t want to say easier, but more appreciated work.

When you just sell work for years and years, you miss working with the tools so then you find time and you say, “I don’t mind doing that, I’ll do that myself, I’ll do the ceiling.” It’s enough to keep you lively and keep your finger on the pulse. You’re not asking someone to do something unrealistic because you just did it. Then you know when a guy’s killing you on a project. Hanging ten sheets of drywall when he should do fifteen/twenty. It all ties in. But all in all I’ve had a great career…I had fun at all stages because I like what I do…I still do.

— Sela Gordon

MIKE THIEL, TEXAS LONGHORN RANCHER

Turn off the country road into the long gravel driveway. Pass the large sign on your right that reads “Churchview Cattle Company” and to your left a bright red barn. At the end of the driveway lies a small, cozy farmhouse. Walk into the kitchen of the house—it’s covered in wood from top to bottom, giving it a real homey feel. Mike is sitting on a bench, taking off his cowboy boots and hat. You’ll tell by the dirt on his pants that he has put in a hard day’s work being a Texas Longhorn Rancher.

I’m 57 years old. I was born and raised here right in the home place right where I’m at. Growing up we had a bigger family. There were eight kids and my parents. We had a dairy farm at the time—we milked cows. My father at one point when the kids got bigger, he started working off the farm, so kids did a lot of the work: milking cows, taking care of cattle, cleaning barns, bailing hay, helping planting and filling silos.

My dad, even with him working off the farm, he did most of the fieldwork. As we got older between the kids, everyone took turns getting up in the morning to milk, to help milk at night, and stuff like that. My oldest brother is 10 years older, then my youngest sister is probably about six or seven years younger. So as time went on the older ones would do the heavy work and everybody had chores. Then everyone just graduated to the next level of work whether it be loading wagon or milking or stuff like that. My mom was always there. She was a stay-at-home mom. Farmed…and she drove tractors for bailing.

The farm itself has been in the family since 1870. It was homesteaded by my great grandpa John Thiel. For the most part they always milked cows and it was different—then you milked by hand. I think when my grandpa took over there was maybe 13-14 cows, plus pigs, and chickens, and selling eggs, and stuff like that. When my dad took over they had about 30 cows. They had pigs until about the mid ‘60s. My mother raised chickens for meat—usually a couple hundred a year to sell to the public. At the time, she butchered them and us kids would help. Then as we got the farm, the fifth generation, we were only milking cows.

It was quite a trying time back in the ‘70s, early ‘80s. Out of 45 cows the one year, we probably had 10 or 12 abortions due to Leptospirosis. And in the following year we had a few more until we had it settled out and stuff. That’s quite an issue when it comes to your milk production. You lose calves. The mental stress of that when it’s going on… Yeah that was probably about the worst time. Until ‘89 we had about 45 to 50 cows and by that time we sold the cows, switched over to beef cattle, and that’s about where we’re at right now. We had seen longhorn cattle at horse events for the rodeos and ropings and stuff like that. My wife had seen cattle on route to work and would see a herd of them here or there. We just investigated into it and thought that was something that we wanted to try.

If you split it up for the size of operation, we have about 30 breeding cows plus young stock and it varies. Before we sell cattle for the feed—for the feeder sales—we could be up to 60-70 head at a time. Just guessing spreading it out, the busy times and the light times, probably averaging about 3 to 4 hours a day with this size operation, throughout the year. Right now we got about 35 head in the breeding program, plus there is some 25 plus calves, so now we are talking 65 head, couple bulls, so where talking about 65-70 head right now. Yeah that’s a small operation. That’s a large hobby farm or that’s a small operation. Part-time.

The way we set it up the cattle get checked every day. We have to make sure that there’s always water, checking that morning and night. The cattle get fed, and they have access to hay 24-7. I have to move feeders, it’s called bail grazing, depending on the weather. I’ll have to move them once a week or every few days to move new bails. That varies from week to week, that’s a couple hours a day just checking. In the winter you have to deal with the snow and ice and stuff like that for feeding them. Then in the spring you got calving and we rotational graze, so we spend time getting fencing ready for the pastures. Once that’s set up cows get moved about every second or third day depending on the season. Once you’re past calving, it’s getting the bulls out for breeding, and in fall weaning time, and then we are back to winter.

THIEL1

The dealers tend to deal with the big farms—everything is mega-sized so it’s $10,000. I could use a piece of equipment that you can no longer find because of the size of it—something small like a new manure spreader something that I want to spend $2,000-$3,000 on. I’m not very fond of confinement with a lot of animals altogether. If you have a disease outbreak, which it could happen, it goes through real fast just because the numbers. There’s a lot of people that say they’re not family farms but, most farms in this area and even the large dairies, there’s families there—three, four, five different families plus all the employees they hire.

Everything comes down to the dollar when you can buy commodities, different feeds and stuff like that by the semi-load. You’re just saving hundreds of dollars a ton probably for every load and when you can ship volume it makes a big difference. You get a better price for it if they’ll have to make one stop to fill a semi tanker instead of two or three or four or more. The economics there are just a necessary evil in our economy.

We’re licensed to sell off the farm, which the county comes out once a year and inspects. When we were doing quarters and halves we were sometimes taking in six or eight head in at a time to get processed. We have to take it to state inspection plants and they have it labeled that’s how we take care the processing of the beef. Then you pick it up a couple weeks later cut, wrapper, labeled, frozen, and ready to go. It’s (the price] been close to the local markets just because of the fact when it comes to selling individual cuts and stuff like that we’re about probably 30 minutes away from the bigger city, out in the country from Green Bay, Appleton, Shawano areas.

We’ve had customers who’ve come out, but for the most part most people want convenience. They want to drive five minutes and pick up their meat. We sold the majority of it in quarters and halves and ground beef. For the most part we push it and promote quite a bit. We will send out newsletters two-three times a year to customers and we had a mailing list at the time. The last ones we sent out was probably to one hundred plus people. It’s not like we didn’t promote it, we just found out that people want it simple. When it comes to driving—stuff like that—a lot of people say they want this meat, “I want it,” but when it comes down to it they wont drive that 30 minutes to come get it.

We did sell individual cuts at one point and had some processed, snack sticks, hot sticks jalapeno sticks, summer sausage, jerky, brats, chuck roast, rump roast, and all the different steak cuts, liver, tongue, heart, and soup bones, everything. It’s the best beef there is. Longhorn is a very lean beef. It’s just the breeding and the people tell me “oh it’s tough” and stuff like that. When you put a longhorn steak on you don’t just throw it on and walk away. You cook it at a lower heat, You turn it more, probably more than a normal steak, and if you cook it right it’ll be as tender as any beef you have ever had.

THIEL2

I like cattle, I’ve been around cattle for 50 years. I don’t know if you want to say you have a bond with them, but you respect your cattle. I really enjoy the nature part of it. In the summer when you’re moving them from pasture to pasture in the grass… Even if I’m out in the middle of the snowstorm in the middle of winter moving bails, moving the feeder to feed them, and it’s 20 below zero I enjoy it. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with a couple friends that do a lot of traveling to Longhorn events, to sales, and to some shows. Usually three or four times a year I’m on road trips with these guys. We have a good time. We’ve been to Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and went to Las Vegas to a fancy sale. We just have a good time together and I probably wouldn’t have been off the farm much if it wasn’t for those guys.

Everyday is a happy day [chuckles] it’s just the day-to-day, living in it. People say they’re living the dream, well I love what I’m doing and when you like what you’re doing it’s not a job. Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned with my Christian faith, I believe everything comes from my God whether it’s the rain that makes the grass grow and keeps the cattle healthy, I have to trust a higher power than myself to make this, to run this operation. It’s not me it’s the God that I serve.

— Eric Spranger

SCOTT LAESER, ECO-FRIENDLY FARM OWNER AND PRODUCER

Scott Laeser, Kenosha, Wisconsin native, and co-owner of Plowshares and Prairie Farm, blends his passions for land conservation, policy, and sustainable farming. He produces and sells food directly to consumers through the FairShare CSA Coalition, all the while consciously preserving the ecosystems of their farm.

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The name of our farm, Plowshares and Prairie, reflects both the food side of our farm, but also the land management and conservation side. We are fortunate to be on a large piece of farmland and only farm a small portion of it. We do a lot of work with invasive species, wildlife habitat, and managing the landscape so it stays healthy. We want people to understand it isn’t just about growing good food, it’s about growing good food on a healthy landscape, and really sort of improving both by having them work together.

My family grew up camping, fishing, hunting, and doing a lot of stuff outdoors. I had a big forest outside growing up. I started hunting when I was twelve; it’s when you could officially hunt with a gun. The Wisconsin deer hunt is traditionally nine days. It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving and the week through Thanksgiving. It was only when I got to be nine or ten that I got to go on opening weekend, and that was a really big deal. I remember the first deer that was shot when I was along—I could take you back to the exact spot that it was. I remember when we were butchering it; it was actually a really difficult experience. I think I actually cried, I was like nine or ten at the time and it was the first time I had really seen the whole food process through. Hunting definitely gave me more appreciation and in hindsight, at least introduced the idea that not all food comes from a grocery store.

My grandparents had a big garden. I definitely grew up around the idea of growing your own food. We had some fruit trees, rhubarb, raspberries, potatoes, strawberries… I can’t say that I remember the farmers market well that I went to as a kid. It wasn’t something that I really locked in my brain. I think it was pretty similar to now, a smattering of people backed up into a parking lot selling produce. My perception now is that people have a little bit more of an understanding and appreciation for organic produce.

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I wanted to be a scientist in various degrees at various times growing up. I had my dinosaur phase like I think most kids do. My dad was a science teacher, so that defiantly contributed. I ended up going to college and majoring in biology, did some research, which in turn led me to do environmental policy work. My undergrad education—having an understanding of ecology and biology and an appreciation of land management—along with growing up with a garden, gave me the basics of what would be needed to start and work on a farm. I did do a work share on a farm in Seattle in 2011. That was a really good learning experience, and it was really the first time that I got some hands on experience on a farm that was similar to what we have now.

Land is one of the biggest challenges when getting into farming, and we are fortunate to be on property that is owned by my family. I think rural Wisconsin and a lot of rural parts of the country right now are experiencing transition or even upheaval as farms become bigger in many cases, and require fewer employees. There is a lot of change going on. This part of the state has a decent amount of retirees like my parents who didn’t grow up here, but appreciate the landscape, small town feel, and our movement here. There is a lot going on here demographically in places like this. There’s a lot of farms and farmers. There aren’t very many that do what we do, sell and produce on a commercial scale. We are part of that.

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We decided that we were gonna start our farm. Garlic is something that you actually need to plant the fall before you harvest it the following summer. So I came back for Thanksgiving in 2012 and planted 1000 heads of garlic or so. Then it was over that winter that we moved here, and the following spring was when things got started on our farm. We didn’t have a lot of help the first year. My parents would help out a little bit and they still do on occasion. They have a tractor so we really haven’t had to make a substantial capital expenditure. The second year we did hire a little bit of help. We have an Amish family next door, and some of their kids came over and worked a couple of hours two or three times a week for the past couple of seasons.

There was a lot going through our heads when we started. There was a lot of uncertainty. I think one of the important things about doing something like this is that you have to be willing to learn and try things and go with the flow, while creatively problem solving. It helped a lot that we are fully capable of doing this and it helped a lot that we had the right mindset.

laemis

Planting tends to happen when we start seeds indoors in early to mid March, and continue to plant and grow a lot of transplants indoors through April. We start planting in the field in April, direct seed. Some things like broccoli and tomatoes, we grow the plants inside before we move them into the field. Other things like radishes, beats, carrots and corn, we plant the seeds directly outside. By the time we get into May, a little bit of harvesting starts. In May and June its peak weeding time, that’s when [weeding] starts to take up more of our time.

June is when the CSA [Community Supported Agriculture) starts, so we are full on planting, weeding, and harvesting. All three of the main things that we do are going on in June, which makes it very chaotic. By the time July rolls around, most to all of the planting is done, the weeds are still fairly aggressive, but they do start to back off especially towards the end of July, but we are really in full harvest mode., We do the last of the planting in early August and the weeds seem to be a little better as we move through August and September.

Our trajectory through the first two seasons has been good. You get a chance to look back and try to appreciate what you did well and how to do it again. It’s also a time to understand what you did wrong and what you are going to do differently. I like that part of it, and the challenges of things constantly evolving. There [are] always new things to figure out and even when you have something figured out, it could fail the next year and you have to go back to the drawing board and figure out why.

We are doing a lot of cover plants this year; this is the first time that we have engaged in them a lot. Those basically help improve and maintain soil health, they help reduce erosion, run off, and they can help suppress weeds for the future. All of the cover crops we are growing right now are sort of a pre-growing, so that next year if things go well, it will help put nutrients in the soil, reduce weed pressure, and in some cases help break up cycles of insects. That is something that can take up a lot of time in the fall, but will be very much be worthwhile in the future.

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We really like the model of marketing that we are most focused on [CSA] because of the interaction it allows with customers. Getting comments or compliments at the market, or when we do on farm events, pot lucks and things like that, knowing that we must be doing something right, because people are enjoying eating the stuff we’re growing, is great.

We have had absolutely spectacular cauliflower this year. When you get a really beautiful crop—we had some three-pound heads of broccoli this week, which were the biggest ones we ever had—it feels great. You know that maybe some of it was beyond your control, but at least you did something right. It also depends on the time of year. Sweet corn is great, I don’t know if there is anything I would love to have all the time, all season, the transition is nice. When you get your first zucchini of the year it’s kind of nice, but when you get your fifteenth, you’re kind of done with them. The same goes for greens—you’re always excited to get the first spring batch, but by the time June comes around, I have no desire to see another salad for months.

Being able to be outside so much is also really great. When I find myself sitting in an office or sitting somewhere for two or three days, I go a little stir crazy. I realize that it’s something we don’t appreciate enough. A good number of people spend their entire working week inside, sitting down. I think that would be hard to go back to now. That isn’t as I said something we always appreciate in the moment, but it is something that especially during calmer times of year we can really look back on and appreciate. We’ve still got a lot to learn and a lot to figure out, but it really has brought together different parts of different professions in my life, and that’s been enjoyable.

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— Jonathon Rodriguez

LOGAN SCHMIDT, DAIRY FARMER AND BUSINESS STUDENT

Logan Schmidt is a full time business student at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison and part time worker and manager on his family’s dairy farm.

My family owns a large dairy farm in Richland Center about an hour north of the city of Madison. Schmidt Farm holds about fourteen-hundred cows and is taken care of solely by my family and the twenty migrant workers that live on the farm just down the road from our house. Our farm was not always this large—in fact not long ago it was merely a three hundred-cow farm that was run by my mother and father. Through hard work, perseverance, and many long workdays my father, Randy, has evolved Schmidt Farm into the largest dairy farm in our county. Now that our farm has become so large it is my responsibility to take care of quite a few daily tasks. I am the youngest of four siblings; I have two older brothers and a sister. Only my twenty-seven year old brother, Ryan, and I still work on the farm. I am third in command on the farm behind my dad and brother Ryan. Not only do I have a large responsibility to my family and the farm, but I am also a full time business student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Balancing school and the farm is quite a circus act at times, but is something that I am committed to, and owe to my family.

The experiences I have growing up on the farm have turned me into the hardworking man that I am today. Growing up on a dairy farm does not come with the ordinary childhood you may imagine. At a young age, I was given a healthy nudge by my father to start working on the farm. I used the word “nudge” seeing that I really had no choice. My father believed that if you were a member of the Schmidt family you were going to contribute to the farm in some way, unless you were my sister who didn’t have to work a day on the farm. The farm instilled many lessons in me … that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. But there were times as a child where I wanted to experience a different childhood. Instead of waking up every day at six in the morning to work on the farm, it would have been nice to sleep in or participate in a youth baseball league—something I wasn’t able to do seeing that I was working the majority of the time.

On the other hand, when I look back on my childhood the farm has given me many memories that I may have not had if I grew up in the city. One of my favorite memories on the farm was being able to have my very own cow. For some reason, out of my four siblings I was the only one who wanted to have my own cow. Not that I would actually own the cow, but just name it and visit it down on the pasture on a weekly basis. I begged my dad every day for quite a while to name a cow and call it my own until he finally gave in. He was hesitant to let me name a cow and become emotionally attached to it because he knew that one day the cow might get sick or pass away, possibly sending me into a deep depression—something that I did not realize at a young age. When my father finally gave in to letting me own a cow I named it Brett after Brett Favre, the Green Bay Packers star quarterback at the time and my favorite football player. Brett the cow is pretty old now, and is still roaming the pasture where I visit him every once in a while. Childhood experiences like the one I just told are priceless and will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Seeing that I am now twenty-two years old and a full grown man in my father’s eyes I have a lot of work to do on the farm even though he knows I am a full time business student. I am in charge of several workers, and delegating tasks amongst them. Also, I am in charge of working much of the large machinery on the farm seeing that I am one of only three people on the farm who knows how to run all of the equipment. On a weekly basis I travel back and forth from Madison to the farm where I complete tasks around the farm my father has assigned me. Balancing my studies and the farm has been very difficult thus far, but it’s a way of life that I am accustomed to and will continue to live until my schooling is complete. One day I will have to choose between the farm and a different career path. My brother and I have talked about taking over the farm together when my dad retires. I am not sure that is the path I want to take since I’ve been on the farm my whole life, and may want to get out and experience the world in a different way with the business degree I will acquire at UW-Madison. I know that my dad and brother will support any decision I make whether that be staying on the farm or pursuing a different career path. My oldest brother Reagan is a high school music teacher and my family fully supports everything that he accomplishes with music. I chose to get into business because it is something that I have always been interested in. Farming is a lot of business, and is something I’ve done my whole life. The topics I’ve learned in the business school are items I can apply to the farm if I do choose to go back or apply to a possible new career path I may choose after I graduate. It is great to know that whatever I do I will have the support of my family, as well as the knowledge to excel in the field of work I go into.

All the milk we get here on the farm goes to Grassland Dairy Company where they make cheese and butter out of our milk. We are Grassland’s largest supplier of milk. Ever since I can remember we have been using our milk to make cheese and butter only. As children my brother Ryan and I always asked our dad if we could use the milk from our cows to make ice cream. Since Grasslands always sends us an abundant amount of cheese and butter that was created with our milk—which we call Schmidty cheese and Schmidty butter—we thought that Grassland would send our family an everlasting amount of ice cream that my brother and I could pig out on. Now that I am older, and not as obsessed with ice cream like I was as a child, I see using our milk for ice cream and other possible dairy products as business proposals. As a business student I would be able to apply my knowledge in sales and marketing to create possible partnerships with local creameries, and businesses that make dairy products. I’ve talked to my father and brother about creating more business partners across the state and especially with Babcock Dairy, one of Wisconsin’s most notorious brand names when it comes to ice cream. This is one of the many topics on the farm in which I will be able to apply my business knowledge in order to better the status of Schmidt Farm.

When I think of Schmidt Farm and everything my family has been through to reach the point of success we are at, it makes me very proud. That is why it irks me when big businesses and even some of my fellow students here on campus do not appreciate the hard work that farmers do. That is one thing that I wish I could change. If only these people could see all the hard work my family puts in to the farm on a daily basis. Appreciation for farmers is something that is lacking in our country and in my opinion needs to change immediately. Not only are farmers underappreciated, but they are living in debt most of the time. Besides the top five percent of farmers who are flourishing in the best conditions and can afford the best equipment possible, the other ninety-five percent are living in some type of debt.

My family lives a pretty good life. We are not struggling at the moment, but that is not always the case. Due to poor weather conditions, cost of feeding cows, and in general keeping a dairy farm of fourteen hundred cows up and running is pretty darn expensive. Not to mention that my parents have to pay for me and my three siblings to attend college. Farmers are truly the heart of Wisconsin, and it’s time they get the appreciation and benefits that we hard working folk deserve.

The future of Schmidt Farm is very bright. There is no doubt that it will be in great hands for decades to come. Whether that be my father running it for the time being, or my brother and I; the farm will continue to prosper. Being a full time business student and owning my responsibilities back on the farm can be very tough at times. I know that the hard work I’ve put in over the course of my lifetime, and especially now while I’m in school will pay off. Everything I do has a purpose. That purpose being to brighten my future and the future of my family’s farm.

ED BREUER, SMALL TOWN FARMER

Ed Breuer is a small town man, following in the footsteps of his dad. He co-owns and operates a farm (the “home farm”) with his brother, Ken, in rural southwest Wisconsin where he grows livestock and crops. Every day he takes pride in his work, his land, and his family.

I am Ed Breuer. I am 54 years old. I’ve been a farmer all my life. The farm that what we call the home farm is where I grew up at and is where I’ve been all my life. When I was born, that was where I went and that was home.

My brother, Ken, and I purchased the farm from my dad in 1979. We really didn’t have much, but we didn’t need much at that time. I got married and then we moved only 2 miles away and that is where I still live now. We bought the home farm and then the second farm here. That was about, uh four, five years after we bought the home farm. We’re both co-owners and operators. We each can do whatever needs to be done. I guess we’ve made it a profitable…good doin’ business out of it. We’ve succeeded, at this point. Our operation consists of mainly the two farms. The home farm and then the farm that I live near now approximately 440 acres altogether- crops and livestock. I think we could probably say we almost average a 12-hour day 365 days a year. I don’t know how accurate that is but quite often I’m gone out of the house by six in the morning and it’s not very often I get back in by six at night.

My dad, he grew up and was raised on a farm that was right next to the home farm, within a quarter mile—that was his “home farm.” As the opportunities arose, then, um my dad and his brothers bought farms in the area. That’s how he got that farm where he began his own career in farming. It was nearby, and the person that had it was selling for one reason or the other and he was able to buy it. The home farm, where dad started on, was the same size it is now: a hundred and thirty acres. He bought it in, uh, I believe it was just before the great depression or right in the great depression, anywhere from like two, three, four hundred dollars an acre probably at that time… he had a pretty tough goin’ in the beginning, but he made it work. He told me once, “I don’t think dad woulda let me go under.” I don’t think his dad would have let him go bankrupt or whatever you wanna call it at the time, but um, no, I don’t think he considered backing out. Deep down, no, I don’t think he ever decided or he ever wanted to back out or quit. People at that time weren’t quitters too much.

 

An overview of the “home farm” where Ed grew up and has worked all his life.
An overview of the “home farm” where Ed grew up and has worked all his life.

When we were kids…like my brothers and everyone, we all had chores to do. Responsibilities. There were 7 of us boys. All boys. Mom didn’t have any girls. The four older boys were from her first marriage. Her first husband passed away and then she married my dad and between the two of them, they had the three of us. Three more boys. We had, you know, hogs to feed and calves to feed and cattle to feed. I usually had to feed the weaned calves but I did take care of some of the pigs too. We all kinda did. You know, somebody got done with what they were doin’ then they went and did what else needed doin’. But my chores were usually feeding the cattle, I guess, if I remember right. You know, everybody had their own set of chores… we all had our own thing and sometimes we’d kinda switch off depending on who had to do what or who wanted to do what but, uh, feeding the cattle and the hogs was the daily everyday thing.

Out of the 7 boys, the 3 of us [younger boys] were the only ones that were into the farming. The other—the older guys—they had all had their own separate careers that they were on and they weren’t part of the farming operation. I wasn’t really terribly interested in going to college… I wanted to learn a skill. I mainly went through high school and then just one year of vocational school where I took up welding. It was a one school year course: 9 months. I really did not have an interest in goin’ on to college at the time. I really did not. Well… Farming wasn’t my first choice at the time either. I don’t know what I was gonna do exactly, but I really didn’t wanna farm. You know I could of gotten into machining or any number of things that I had an interest in as long as it’s something that was workin with my hands. But like I said, a four year degree didn’t appeal to me much.

My brother Ken and I bought the farm during the time I was in welding school. I think my dad would have been very, very disappointed if we hadn’t wanted the farm. It was very important to him that we take over the farm because he had bought that farm and he worked extremely hard to pay for that farm. He would not have wanted to sell it somewhere else. He wanted us to have that and in fact he even, um, he even was kinda going into little bit of a depression because he was thinking that we weren’t interested in the farm there for a while. It was really weighing on him. He was 52 years old when he married my mom. He was very, what you would say these days, “pretty old,” when he got married. So yeah, by the time we got to bein’ 18 years old, he was getting up there pretty good in age and there was no way he could handle all that stuff anymore because at that time it was more labor intense. It was kinda that we were sorta pushed somewhat I guess, or very much encouraged. I don’t know if I could say I got coerced into it, but, uh, it kinda sealed the deal that I was gonna be a farmer.

Maybe the most underappreciated part about being on the farm is to be outside in nature and the fresh air. Sometimes I step back and, and I think, for instance, when you’re working outside in the evening and the moon comes up full and bright or you’re outside in the morning and the sun comes up bright and this beautiful day—you know, nature’s all around us. A lot of times, you take things for granted like that but, you know… more and more in these last few years here I’ve been thinking, “you know, what a great place to work.” I can be outside and out in the fresh air and have nature all around and watch the sun rise or the sun set, or the moon and the stars so bright.

My dad told me once, when my oldest daughter was just a baby, “This is a real good place for you to grow up too.” And I have to totally agree with that. Raising a family on a farm, I think, is probably the best place you can raise a family. Of course, I’m biased, I suppose, because that’s all I’ve ever known. But yeah, i’m very glad I was able to do that. Raise my family on a farm. My personal family now is four girls and one boy. And my wife, ‘Mom’. She’s in the background buckin’ for that. I love my wife dearly [Mom interjects: “That a boy”] and I tell her so every day. We had 5 kids and they were all within, what are ya? About 5 in six years. This day and age, not too many people have 5 kids anymore. Yea, its’ a, it’s quite a little, but yea you know, I’m not gonna look back and say I’d do it any different. That’s the way we did it and…we made it work.

As far as the future of the farm, sure that’s something that I’ve been giving a considerable amount of thought to lately. We worked pretty hard for a good number of years to make it what it is and I would hope the family would be able to hang onto it. I would [pause] I would hope it could stay in the family. I really do. I guess I’m kinda like my dad that way. I don’t know exactly how that would work yet. We’ll keep operating. Retirement. Yea I thought about that many times too. Ya see a lot of people retire and they got hobbies or whatnot to keep themselves busy. Well, why can’t this be my hobby? You know? I could see myself picking up a number of other little hobbies besides having a farming hobby. But at this point, I can’t see myself just quitting. Not doing anything. It’s good for the mind and good for the body to be doin’ something. So, uh, I’ll be doin’ somethin’.

Ed at work on the farm
Ed at work on the farm

 

SUSAN OLSON, MANAGER OF UW-MADISON DINING HALL

Susan Olson is a Newell’s Unit and Dining Manager at UW-Madison. Originally from West Allis, WI, she came to school in Madison in 1981 and has lived there ever since.

When I was in high school, my senior year I took a health careers class and so I went and saw all the different health careers and when I saw the dietetics one I thought it was really interesting and something I might wanna do.

Most of my career was at Gordon’s. I started working for dining at Gordon Commons right away in January of ‘82 after my second semester freshman year. I did leave for two years, when I was a food service director for McFarland School district, but then I came back here and have been here the rest of the time.

I actually came home the first night of my orientation and told my roommate that I would be running Gordon’s some day [laughs]. She was like “oh yeah sure, whatever!” I was the unit manager, so I did end up running Gordon’s at one point.

When I got hired here our director was a woman and her associate director was a woman as well. So, I mean, I would say almost all the administrative staff at that time were women. Food service and dietetics is more women. In my dietetics class in college it was all women. There are a lot more men interested in dietetics—I know now because of who we hire.

The main changes I have witnessed would be going from the straight-line service to the market places. That’s probably the biggest change. When I first started it used to be more cafeteria like. Where everybody would get in a line and we would open at mealtime. So we would open at lunch and at dinner and you weren’t open in between the meals. Now we are open all day long. We have gone through so many different reorganizations [laughs]. We had a big reorganization when I came over here, so about five years ago, and we eliminated a lot of the different levels so that you would report directly to your head supervisor. We have changed—probably—titles of things—I don’t know how many times.

I am pretty good with changes. There are always some changes every year. I just think, “Oh well!” I see these cyclical changes since I have been here through it all. I used to say something, but now I just kinda go with it. I have seen things change and then change back.

Now everything is computerized, which is probably the biggest change. We did not have computers until the early ‘90s I would say. We do all our ordering and recipes online, where we actually had recipe cards and we would call-in orders before. We have gotten better equipment too. A lot of the things are digital displays now. There’s always some little thing that seems like it is new.

Local is big. I am responsible for ordering the food, but we have an executive chef and purchasing manager that actually pick the food we serve. We try to do local as much as we can. But we also pick the best products, usually, quality-wise. It is hard ‘cause we are such a big place when it comes to local. We are always looking for more ways to get local products. It is the whole brand thing that we struggle with. We try to do a lot, but we always look for ways we can do more.

When I was a student a lot of the food products were similar, but I think there was more comfort-type food. I can remember every Tuesday we served roast turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy and vegetables. Whereas now you have a lot of deli sandwiches and market places, a lot of the “Que Rico” and things like that are more popular now. There are more and more convenience products. We did not have those convenience stores at all when I was a student.

I had a lot of food science classes and nutrition classes when I was in school. But then I took a lot of the science classes. One thing I know I was kind of interested in was sports nutrition. But at the time when I was back in school that really wasn’t a thing as much as it is now. I was really interested in that too because I had a coaching minor and so I was thinking I might do something like that, but there really weren’t many jobs for that like there is now.

Once I graduated I was hired as a manager and worked at all the different units. I worked for Rita’s, Newell’s and Gordon’s. They ended up putting me here, which I was a little upset about at first [laughs]. But they knew I did not have a lot of the culinary skills and that I really did like doing everything. I have never really supervised the culinary end of things. I was never really strong in the culinary part. Mainly what I have done here is the administrative part of it—the food ordering and you know the HR type of stuff. Not so much now, at Newell’s, but I did a lot of the hiring and orientations before. I do more of the ordering, menus, pretty much here I do everything [Laughs], because there is only me here. So at first I was a little upset, but they said this was gonna be a good fit for me. I really do like it, although I was not too happy at first [laughs].

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At Newell’s, I open in the morning so that I can check-in all the deliveries and do my orders because a lot of them are due before nine o’clock in the morning. I start early, usually by six o’clock. So a typical day, come in, open up, turn on equipment, then orders start coming in right away. I am usually putting away things and then helping them get breakfast out. I help them cook breakfast and then work the breakfast bar. Some days are busier than others with orders. On the slower delivery days I usually do a little bit more on the line, so you know I will be cooking a little bit more on those days. I like being really hands on. It keeps a tighter control of the food so that we are not wasting and throwing away much.

Once a week I have to do my order schedule and every Tuesday I use our menu management system to create menus for the next few weeks. I will be doing that in between, when I am not helping, when we are not short on the floor, which a lot of times lately and in the beginning of the year we will be. But when I have time, I will run into my office and get those things done ahead. Some days I get out by three or four in the afternoon, but a lot of days I am here later than that [laughs]. It is a lot of hours, but its okay [laughs].

Then special events we do once a week. So I plan something fun. Then once a month we have that big special event and those take a little more time with decorations, special food, special recipes and different food coming in.

I am also on the SOAR committee, recipe review committee—meet with the unit chefs since we don’t have a unit chef and in the summers I am on the allergen committee. Now I handle student discipline, manage Krohno’s (our scheduling system) and do inventory and make sure that is kept up to date.

In the summer we have two interns that come. We have done this the last three years. They are here for 8 weeks. They get to live in the halls and they get to eat here. That is part of their package. We plan their whole program. They go to all the units. They start in the dish room and work their way to manager in 8 weeks. I meet with them once a week to see how things are going. They have a couple projects they do. Usually people that apply are interested in food service or dietetics or some type of nutrition.

Sometimes I get tired [laughs], but I have a lot of energy. I am okay with it! I mean some weeks I feel it cuts into my personal life, but otherwise really I don’t think it has affected my outside life too much. Luckily I have a husband that is very understanding. Even when the kids were at home he was always really understanding. There were some times when my kids were younger that they would give me more flack than my husband [laugh].

I am not a person that likes to just sit. I find it difficult sitting in here [her office]. I like to spend more of my time making sure things are good for the customers, making sure the food is good for the customers and that things look good for the customers. I wish I had more time to spend talking to the customers, but I just don’t have the time with all things I have to get done. I wish I knew them a little bit better.

Being able to prioritize I think is really important. Just not getting too tied down. I can get really tied down doing things and not delegating and not realizing what has to get done in here [her office]. I wish I had more time in my office. I wish there was an assistant manager. Sometimes I think we should have a half-manager here. I would love to see that at nights. I always feel bad when I leave students alone at night. You kinda have to weigh that all out.

They have told me I am really patient with my children [laughs]. Maybe that is a skill I have learned because of food service. With employees and customers it’s a skill you’ve really gotta have! In all the years I have been at Newell’s I have been so amazed by how good the college students work with the customers. I think their customer service skills are better than mine {laughs}!

I think you know when you hear good customer feedback, where customers can write in and they say they think the food is really good here, when you hear stuff like that it feels good. We get between seven and eight hundred customers a week. But I am guessing because of the way it is going this semester we are going to be getting closer to 900. There are 50 more people living in Smith this year and more freshman than last year. It is busy already, so it is even going to be busier as the year goes on.

SUSAN2

 I kinda like it here {laughs}. I am hoping I get to stay here. I am only going to stay for two more school years after this one. It’ll be 34 years total that I have been here.

— Jessie Faye Perez

ANNEMARIE MAITRI, OWNER OF BLOOM BAKE SHOP

Annemarie Maitri is the founder and owner of Bloom Bake Shop, a local, organic bakery in Middleton, WI, that offers both traditional and vegan/gluten-free desserts. Daughter of a pilot, she was born in Japan and lived around the world. Louisiana is where she called home and where her love of food began.

I definitely have a lot of fond childhood food memories. What probably stands out to me most is growing up in the South. My parents had a carport and they would set up this table that had troughs all the way around it. I just remember family sitting around the table peeling shrimp and crawfish and crab and boiling potatoes and corn. I remember all of our hands would be on fire from the crab boil seasoning. My parents were always bustling around the kitchen. I don’t think I remember a time when someone wasn’t in the kitchen.

Both my parents were more savory cooks, so I was really self-taught in terms of baking. After dinner, I always craved something sweet so I would just make random experiments with dessert and my dad would coach me from his chair at the dinner table. They gave us a lot of freedom in the kitchen, and I remember making beignets for my family and friends using a little hot fryer at eight years old—unsupervised! My dad always enjoyed my experiments and I think that kind of fueled my confidence. Since then, I’ve always been a dessert girl.

Moving to Madison was definitely a turning point for me. My good friend Katie handed me “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” and between reading that book and all of the farmers markets in Madison, it just completely changed the way I thought about food. The interesting thing is that growing up and spending part of my childhood in Louisiana, that is actually how we lived, but it didn’t have a name. We had our milk delivered to the door with a big fat thing of cream on top, our eggs were fresh—it didn’t have a name like “local” or “sustainable.” That’s just how it was.

The decision to create Bloom was definitely driven by friends and family. I started out in sales, and when we moved to Madison, I had the opportunity to stay home with my children, but I knew I wanted to do something in addition to being a mom. All I did was cook and bake. Eventually, I kind of self-evaluated and realized, all I do is make dessert, and I really like it! Choosing Middleton as Bloom’s home was based on pretty pragmatic demographic research and I definitely have my Middleton supporters, but to be honest, Madison, as a leader in the local food-scene, is really our audience.

In the beginning, I was kind of everything. Staff structure has changed a lot. I have more people now, but I don’t know if I’m sleeping any more, because new things happen when you grow. I used to be one of the main bakers and now I’m more of a fill-in person. There’s a big administrative piece that’s a part of my job now in addition to the wedding piece of Bloom. We’re still teeny, but we now have two morning bakers, Eric and Mark, Nicole, who works administratively with me, as well as outreach to corporate accounts, two part-time staff members and four fill-in staff members.

Being in our fifth year now, knowing “OK we’re here,” is great. The first year we just wanted to stay open, but now we’re at this real growth point and I have people who have been with me for four, five years. For me, being good to my employees is everything. Right now, I’m at a place where I have four full time people working with me. So, I’m the owner. Some owners make a certain percentage over what other people make. Well, I don’t believe that I should make any more than the people working the same amount as me, which is a really unique approach. And I feel really good about it because, if I’m choosing ingredients that are fair-trade or organic, how could I not treat my employees with that same respect? 

A lot of people say they purchase locally and its like two ingredients. We did it rather boldly—I broke down my entire cupcake and looked at every single ingredient. I had to look at where we were going to get flour, and at that time, we didn’t have any access, but now we have Lonesome Stone Midwest flour. Then I looked at sourcing our chocolate, which took me a while to find a good source. Then I had to think about how much it was all going to cost, because our eggs are four dollars a dozen and our butter was getting close to six bucks a pound last summer. It was scary because, you can’t really push the threshold of a cupcake past $3.25-$3.50 without people being shocked by the price. So, it was bold and, truthfully, I was scared, but I knew that if I had to close my doors at the end of the year, at least I was doing it in, what I think, is the right way. We actually broke even our first year – barely. But that’s pretty amazing considering what we were selling and how we were purchasing. So, I just wasn’t going to do it any other way and now, I hope it’s making other people realize that it really is possible.

You know how sometimes you negotiate a better price for things? That is never a conversation that I feel is okay to have when buying local. How are you going to ask someone that has been working the fields to give you a better deal on something? If anything, it’s the opposite, when they come in after being up at three in the morning with their cows making butter and they apologize for being a case short. You really feel what you’re getting from these people. The case of butter just has a completely different feel; you see those people when you’re making what you’re crafting.  It’s not faceless — which, to me, is awesome.

Our new breakfast sandwich is super cool, because the biscuit is Organic Valley buttermilk, Murphy Farms butter, Pecatonica eggs and bacon, and Cedar Grove cheese. And then with the vegan/gluten-free sandwich, we are able to work seasonally with whatever vegetables are in season at the time. It’s such a way for it to be completely our little local baby.

We have a very intimate relationship with our customers. We have some people that we’ve made every single one of their family’s holiday cakes, pies, desserts. I love that they give us feedback—good and constructive—it only helps us grow. I need that really synergistic relationship because… you’re feeding people.

When we first started getting weddings, it was very grassroots. It was mostly people looking to support local, organic businesses. What I think we’ve done a great job with is our taste and our presentation to where we’re just as competitive as the bakeries that are known for weddings but not local ingredients, which is pretty amazing. Sometimes, we get people that don’t care about our philosophy, which is fine, but what’s really cool is when you get someone who may not have cared, but the experience changed the way they think about things.

I feel like we educate quietly every day because of the choices we make. When people ask us about our ingredients, it opens that conversation. I think its going to be interesting to see how the future of the food movement plays out in education, and that’s where I feel a passion of mine lies, is how can we get to underserved communities and create some education, because food is not a complicated thing to have people come together around – it’s universal.

I would love to see our strong little bakery in Middleton thrive – it really is thriving. From there, I don’t know, I really love what’s happening. I don’t see myself with a ton of different locations. I think maintaining slow growth is the best way to grow, at least to me. The relationships we have at Bloom are everywhere. The relationships we have with our purveyors, the trust and the belief we have from our customers, the reward our staff feels – those relationships are everything.

— Morgan Menke

NICOLE O’MALLEY, MANAGER AT THE BADGER MARKET

By day, Nicole O’Malley is a manager at the Badger Market- Medical Sciences, part of a chain of Badger Market stores that pepper the streets of Madison’s UW campus. By night, Nicole is a single mother, looking to find the right combination of work and home life.

I heard out about the Badger Market through my father. Been coming up on a year here, next month actually. My dad has been at the Union for two years now, so we’re both pretty new. We both came from jobs that we had been in for over a decade, so it’s a new job for both of us. He told me about it, so I tried applying here, went through a pretty lengthy interview process to get here, but when it was all done and over with. That’s how I started working here at Badger Market.

I worked at Einstein Bagels for 12 years before coming here. (Sighs) I would say the biggest difference is Einstein’s was actually a… corporation, so you had to make sure that you were following the same procedures everywhere across the nation. So even…even labor laws, we were following the same labor laws in California as, ya know, here in Wisconsin. So, corporations are very different because you have to be on the same page as everybody else. You have people higher up from you telling you what to do, ya know, people that aren’t in your units, really knowing what things are, So that can be challenging. Versus here: We’re just right here on the campus. We do our own thing, we try to keep it so that the units are similar here on campus, but I’m not really worried what they’re doing on the campus halfway across the state.

Einstein’s gave me a lot of skills—without that, I probably would’ve never got this job. Multitasking is a huge thing, ya know, that you have to be actually in the business doing it to learn. It’s not something you can read a book and go to a class and learn. So, I learned a lot watching trends: when sales go up, when sales go down, what are popular items. And training and developing people I learned at my previous job. And then there’s a lot of experience I have with ordering, and running the registers and things like that. It helped me, ya know, get the job that I already have that experience.

The hours here make a huge difference. I’m not working eighty hours a week. I’m not working 28 days a month, getting a day or two off a month, ya know? Here I like the Monday through Friday. I can kind of predict where and how much I’m gonna work. I don’t work more than an hour past my shift anymore. So, it’s a huge difference, it’s a difference that had to be made, and, yeah, I don’t regret leaving the 80 hour workweeks.

An ideal day [at Badger Market], it’s really hard to describe ‘cause things always change. Food business, anything like that, you can’t really predict what’s gonna happen. So ideal day would be a day where nothing surprises me. Everyone shows up on time, all the food shows up on time, is probably a big one, yeah, no big surprises thrown ‘atcha. A normal day, there is no such thing. A normal day, things are gonna go wrong, things you can’t predict are gonna happen. Typically I get here an hour and a half before open. I start getting things ready for the day an hour before anyone else shows up here. Mornings usually are slower, and then as we get closer to lunch we pick up. Typically, I have my back office work I work on when it’s slower, hop out front and help guys out when it’s busier. Lunch is obviously our busiest time, and then after lunch we start dying down, and then it’s just time to clean up from the all the fun we had (laughs) and then start all over again tomorrow.

Prior to here I worked on State Street, so I met a lot of interesting people there. It always fascinates me how simply just ringing someone up on a daily basis you learn so much. You’re not even trying hard to get to know these people, and if you have a regular that comes in three times a week, then a couple months, you know their kids’ names and their dog’s name, what they went school for, all that kind of stuff. So, I always find that kind of fascinating.

There are some people that are more difficult to make happy than others—definitely one of the more challenging parts of the industry. You feel like you’re doing everything that you can to make their experience pleasant, but you’re obviously not. I think some of the most challenging interactions I ‘ve had have been with customers that have been rude to other customers—customers who have been rude to my staff—but you still have to serve ‘em just like anyone else. Customers who have been straight up stealing, but there is the fine line where you can call them out on it or not, so it’s challenging when you get put in those situations as, to how to handle it. I think a lot of companies don’t have a standard procedure.

The best days to work? It really depends on who ya ask because weekends in typical places are so easy, but the day just flies. You’re busy the whole time. Some people don’t like the stress of being busy the whole time. They’d rather be, ya know, on a slower day…I like to have a little bit of both. Have the slower days, I can get everything caught up, do my paper work, get extra cleaning done. But I like the busy days, where I see business doing well. Staying busy makes the day go faster, so it’s really hard to say what is better. I like the variety, I don’t like to do the same thing every day. It’s probably why I’ve been in the business for so long.

With the students who work for me, it’s challenging, because I know this job isn’t their first priority. I know that they’re going to school to go on to other things, and I accept that. My feelings aren’t hurt, ya know, when 2 years after they started they’re going on to an internship, or they’re graduating, but it is a challenge because turnover is so much quicker. You know people aren’t going to be around forever, but other than that it’s a great group of people to work with. No complaints there. You just know that their life at Badger Market will be a short run.

I’ve seen a lot of people that almost call their stores their “babies.” I think anyone in this sort of service industry really does take pride in their store. It really is difficult, sometimes, to walk away, at the end of the day, and not think about [it]. You get home and you’re home for an hour, and you’re like, “did I remember to do this? did that get done in time after I left?” kinda thing. So it’s definitely one of those jobs that you don’t just clock out and forget. And it is always good, to see the unit progressing, to see sales go up, seeing your employees develop into better employees that are able to handle more, that are learning more, developing more skills. So, I definitely take pride in all of those things. I really like the whole idea of the students. We are able to provide a job to students that has a good starting rate. They can work right here on campus where they have classes. They don’t have to take half of their day to work out their shift, to go back and try to get to class and get stuff done. Most places off campus, if you apply and you show them your availability, they throw it right in the trash. I really like that there is this opportunity I can provide to students right here on campus.

Streek pic 1 Streek pic 2

I was always pretty motivated prior to having my son, but it just gives you so much more motivation. He’s the reason to go into work every day, you’re not just taking care of yourself; you’re taking care of someone else also. When you’re done with work and after having a bad day, you look at him, he smiles at you, you forget about everything. Patience, multitasking, it’s not ‘til you become a mother that you realize how many things you can do one-handed. The work definitely also made me prepared for motherhood. I definitely have had days here that I’m walkin’ through the dining room hands-full and then I’ve got a customer that needs something else and then I’m juggling.

Separating work from home life can be very challenging. That’s also why I don’t regret leaving Einstein’s, because literally my phone was next to me 24/7, and on my days off I would get at least a half dozen phone calls. So… I had to almost… like I said, it was time for me to leave Einstein’s, because I couldn’t balance the two. Here, it’s Monday through Friday, from 6 to 2 so I have more of a routine. It makes it easier to keep my routine at home. So I kinda know what to expect. I can keep things on track at home with my son. It’s still that fine line—to separate the two, you have to put down the phone. You have to walk away and forget about the place—one of the things that makes that really easy is that we’re not open on the weekends. So I can forget. We’re not open past five, so I can forget about it past five. In other situations like Einstein’s, that wasn’t very easy to do because we were open all the time. Definitely the most challenging thing in this industry is kinda separating the two and balancing the two.

I still wouldn’t change it. Overall, this job—just being in the industry—I was able to buy a house at 25. And even right now, as a single mother, I can still afford to be in a home with my son, and my dog and my two cats, and to make ends meet. You know, my son gives me the motivation to keep working as hard to be able to provide all of those things for the two of us. Overall, I am pleased with the experiences I’ve had. When I was in high school did I ever think I would still be working in a food service industry? No. But I don’t see that changing anytime soon, so I’m obviously not too upset with my decisions, otherwise I’d be doing more to change that.

— Sam Streeck

JAMES CHRISTOPHER MADDEN, REGIONAL VICE PRESIDENT OF TAHER INC.

Jim Madden is a man known to live his life more on the traditional side – sans Instagram or even Facebook. His idea of connecting with his family means inviting everyone over to his house to enjoy a feast cooked by himself and his wife (both chefs). Jim speaks passionately about cooking—clearly believing that food facilitates a special connection between people, their health, and their overall success. He brings these beliefs to his work with Taher Inc., a food service management company that serves approximately 65,000 kids in Wisconsin every school day.

When I was 14, I started working at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour. A lot of my friends had gotten jobs there, and I was looking for a job, and they said it was really a fun place to work. I was there five years all together – from freshman year until the year after I graduated. I decided to go into a career in restaurants because I enjoyed the food business and my dad encouraged me…he said, “People are always going to eat, so no matter what you’ll be able to find something to keep you busy”. So, that’s what I did.

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Some of the best memories I have in the food industry are being able to change what kids eat at school in a positive way…having a skeptical lunch lady at the beginning come back and say, “Boy, this is really good and the kids love it…I was wrong, and it’s really great you guys are here,” when you started off with them thinking this was going to be too much work and impossible to do. So, it’s fun to see you get results and have kids be happier with the lunch program Taher has created.

Taher is a food service management company. It’s privately held—owned by Bruce Taher—and has been in business since 1982. We provide food service management for schools, business and industry, a little bit of healthcare, some senior dining, Meals-on-Wheels programs and also do some vending business up in Minnesota. Bruce Taher also owns two restaurants.

I’m thinking it was 10-11 years ago, Bruce Taher started to recognize the problem with child obesity that was growing. We started by hiring a Director of Nutritional Wellness who had worked in a school district and had made some good changes on his own. He brought him and said, “We are going to embark on a goal, on a way of thinking to change and get ahead of the curve. We want to be on the cutting edge and change childhood obesity before it becomes a hot topic,” and it was really before it did. We broke into groups and decided “Food for Life” was the name. It has several meanings, but it is about the fact that we serve kids from schools to colleges to businesses and industries as adults to seniors after they are retired, so we are serving them for all of their stages in life. But it was also about the four main food groups. We came up with the idea behind it and the mission statement, which is to try to change people’s eating habits over time by starting to identify things that are bad.

The first thing we did was to set out to try to get rid of trans fats. We set a goal for a year. We were one of the first food service management companies to say we were trying to get trans fat free before it really became an issue. Now, it is a requirement. You cannot serve trans fats in the schools, but we did it probably 9 years ago.

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 It has evolved to other things. There are other standards such as how many processed foods can be on a menu. It was about the fruit and vegetable bars. Well, the middle schoolers would walk right by it for sure. What was rewarding to see was that when we started it, and we put a fruit and vegetable bar in, and it was self-service, the elementary school kids didn’t know how to use tongs or scoops. They still don’t—I mean when they are in kindergarten or first grade—but they learned to do it. You could see that we were making a difference. You will never get middle school kids to take fruits and vegetables. Over the course of time though, the elementary school kids who we were starting to serve it more grew up, they were used to the fruit and vegetable bar. Now, they go to middle school and they started eating fruits and vegetables. To watch them take the stuff they like and put it on their tray and to eat it makes you feel good.

Really, that was what it was about. We were educating kids from when they were first exposed to school lunch and kind of bringing them up and getting them to eat healthier. We saw that happen. That was exciting that we did that. It is still evolving. We have identified dyes that we are going to try to start eliminating. The local is a part of it as well. And real food—even more than local—it’s about real food . Less processed and fewer additives.

We try to do as much farm to school as we can. Where there are schools that we operate close to—whether it be a farm or a manufacturing plant that produces something that is local to that area—we try to utilize it wherever we can. If it is a cheese, and we are close to a cheese company, then we would try to bring that local cheese in from local sources. We use a local produce company where we can. We use purveyors for a lot of the ingredients except for bread, milk and produce which would be from separate companies that do that. We use a distributor that carries the products we need. If they do not, we ask them to bring it in for us. Most of the time, we can ask them to do that because we are big enough and we buy enough from them.

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Twenty-one years I have been with Taher Inc. I started as a District Manager, and now my title is Regional Vice President of Operations, which means I oversee our accounts here in Wisconsin. There is another District Manager, two regional chefs and a few food service directors that operate each of the schools. I manage those food service directors and those operations to make sure we deliver what the customer is looking for. There are about 75 school districts that we serve, so we are feeding about 65,000 kids a day during the school year in Wisconsin.

The USDA provides money to the school lunch programs in order to offer kids the food. It has gotten much more complicated than it used to be, much more complex in terms of regulations…and in the last three years more than the first 19 that I worked there. The regulations are something that schools are trying to adapt to across the country. It is basically trying to get kids to eat healthier by concentrating on what they eat at school, which I think, in a lot of cases, has improved things, and in a lot of ways has made it more complicated and taken it the wrong way.

The guidelines are specific in terms of what nutrients the kids have to have in a week. You have to prove that you are following the guidelines. You have to be under a certain number of calories and sodium, and these subgroups of fruits and vegetables have to be met and so forth. So, it has to be all documented on production records to be able to prove, during an administrative review every three years, that we are in compliance with government regulations. That makes it difficult to prove if you make things from scratch.

We’ve done fruit and vegetables bars for 15 years, so it wasn’t new to us. What was new to us was the requirements that they have to take at least a half of a cup on their tray. One of the problems is that they take it—they don’t want it and they throw it away…so, there is more food wasted and our costs go up. So, districts are struggling with that and end up cutting corners in other ways to offset the waste. So, sometimes, they shoot themselves in the foot and find themselves going back to fewer choices so they don’t have as much waste because they (the kids) have to have it on their tray whether they are going to eat it or not. So, that is one of the things that we have seen that has changed.

When I started, we got more things that were made from scratch because our commodities that came from the government were whole turkeys and we would cook the whole turkeys, chill them down, pull off the meat, then turn it into chicken gravy… and make mashed potatoes from scratch. I mean all the kitchens had potato peelers. You’d put the potatoes in there and it would spin around and peel them for you and then you could turn it into mashed potatoes. Even at Ferrell’s, we used to make hamburgers from ground beef and pound them out every day and make them from scratch and so things evolved over time—even in school lunch in the past 21 years. So, we went from getting whole turkeys to getting chicken nuggets and mini corndogs that are already made-up, as far as the government subsidies go.

Over time, because of the availability of more processed food, because schools were trying to cut labor—the fact that people were getting used to eating more processed things—they started switching from whole turkeys to processed food. Food service directors were saying, you know, “We don’t have the time to make the turkeys. The kids don’t like them. They don’t eat them at home. They want chicken nuggets and chicken patties”. Now it’s really gone much more to processed food and less to making scratch food but it’s really about, what I think anyway, is what people eat at home and how everyone’s busy and how there’s more processed food available. I think fast food is what changed all of that. So in the last, I’d say 15 years, there’s been that switch to now more than half the commodities we get are processed and although I would hope that maybe it would start to switch back, it doesn’t seem like that’s happening because companies are coming up with more and more ways to do processed food.

Unfortunately, in this day and age…if they look at the menu, and there is not something on there that they are comfortable with, they are just going to say, “I don’t want to eat,” and that’s going to drive down participation and the revenue. Then it will be harder for us to balance the budget for the district and give the kids good food, because there will be less money there. So, we have to keep participation up. So, it is balance between offering what the kids want to eat, what the USDA says we can feed them, what is affordable, and then there are the parents who want to see enough healthy food. It really goes across the spectrum from “All I want is something my kids will eat,” to “I want all 100% organic healthy food made from scratch every day” – and everything in between. It sometimes is difficult to balance that. Different districts have more one way or the other, so we can steer in one direction or another. Waunakee is a district that is much more open to unique food and made-from-scratch foods at the middle and high school level for sure. I would say 50 percent of what we do as a company is made from scratch still because we try really hard to do that. At the elementary school though, kids still like chicken nuggets. They are still going to eat pizza. So, we still have to offer them or they won’t like the program as much.

JIM4
I think USDA, the idea behind what the regulations tried to do and are trying to do are good intentions. So, I think just some adjustments in the USDA guidelines would help get things more on track and accomplish more than what we are doing over the last three years. They are listening, but slow to make changes at least at this point. They are trying to make some changes – one of them was that they drew a standard for age groups: 9-12 is a standard. 6-8 is a standard. K-6 is a standard. So, when you talk about 9-12, and you talk about a high school student, who is a football player and a senior getting the same amount of food as a gymnast freshman girl — that is difficult because you can’t give more to the senior football player. The freshman girl probably says, “this is plenty,” or “this is too much.” By putting that in a box like that, it makes it more difficult to please everybody because I think kids are different and they have different needs, more so than just that block of grades. So, if they would just change some of the requirements a little bit, it would make it a little less complicated.

I think for the most part, we have customers who are happy. I guess that after 21 years, they are happy with us or they wouldn’t stick around—they wouldn’t continue to hire us. I mean, 21 years ago, we had 8 school districts, and now we have over 70 in Wisconsin. So, that certainly says that a lot of school districts appreciate what we do. What it does for them is take the worry out of the food service program.

The thing about schools that people don’t realize is that, in most cases, the school feeds more kids than any restaurant in town. When you look at the amount of meals we serve a day in a school, we are the number one restaurant in town in terms of volume. But, it is usually part of their job—usually given to a business manager or a superintendent—who may or may not have any food service background at all, but yet they are trying to oversee a department that feeds the kids. So, they enjoy not having to worry about it, and if the kids are happy and their phone is not ringing with complaints and parents are content with what we are doing, all of that is good. I’ve heard school nurses say, “since you guys have been here, I see fewer and fewer kids that come to the nurse’s office because they are hungry, because you’ve been serving breakfast. Before, they would come to school without any food, and they would have a headache by the time they got to third hour.” You definitely see things that change. So, I think if we are successful, everybody is happy with what is going on and no one thinks too much about food service for the most part. That means we are taking care of things.

— Allison Sanders

SHAWNA RAE ANSCHUTZ, KITCHEN MANAGER

Shawna Rae was born and raised in Door County in a family with strong roots in the service industry.. Shawna grew up in the family’s home kitchen and takes pride in her work both there and in her kitchen at work. For Shawna it’s not just a job, but a way of life.

For me and my family members it’s a career choice. It’s not just a waitressing job or just working in the kitchen. It’s in our blood, it’s something we love to do. Part of my family owns Sister Bay Bowl in Sister Bay. So, there’s five cousins that work over there, two aunts and then my mom and myself and a couple of other cousins that work in other restaurants. For one of my cousins it’s just a “college, get me through” kind of job. That’s where she gets all her cash. But it is definitely, for over half of us, a solid career choice.

My first job was working in a kitchen as a prep cook. I guess the real term would be “pantry cook,” which involves prepping and then doing all of the salads and some cold appetizers and desserts. Like, plating desserts—I didn’t make them, but I would plate them. I had one other job at another fine dining restaurant in Door County. . That was one of my bigger jobs: grille cook, prep cook, helped with catering. I was at that job through college. And graduating college I was still at that job.

Scrambled eggs: The first thing I cooked successfully.by myself! It made me feel grown up for sure, independent, but confident. I’ve always wanted to work in the kitchen and just being able to handle something like that—eggs is a tough thing. Food has been a huge part with me and my family. We have all our traditional foods that we pass down from generation to generation and I think it’s doing meals like that and cooking, you know, lets say for holidays, the same dishes that we do. Those are the biggest memories that stand out for me. There were the ages I wasn’t old enough, things were too hot to touch and then I got to actually help out, use the stove, use different tools and then, now, it’s me owning my own dish and making my own dish to bring to the family.

My current job is Kitchen Manager at Wild Tomato in Door County. I am a pizza cook, prep cook, grille cook. Everything but frontof house. My previous job was not going so well and the owner of Wild Tomato was looking for a new cook slash pizza cook slash everything. It was kind of like the universe knocking. I called him, we did the interview and I got the job on the spot and I’ve been there for the past, going on four years now.

Some days I go in at 9 in the morning and work til 6. Some days I go in from 2 until close, which is 10 or 11. On my morning shifts that would be me going in, checking in with the other people there who are prepping, making sure the list is done. Putting away orders and then, if there are no orders, cleaning and organizing the coolers and then putting in an order—so doing inventory. And then calling in my order and then, depending on what time that is, I jump in and help prep—try to cut down labor costs and get other employees out—finish up the prep list. And then, by then, it’s go down to the restaurant, send people on break. And then I run the pizza oven and the grill line. By 5:30 I do the prep list for the next day. 6 o’clock I leave. On a day when I go in at 2, I go in, suit up and I am straight on the oven. I go and make pizzas right away. I do that from 2 until probably 8 or 8:30 and then once it dies down I go up and do the prep list and inventory for the next day. Then I shut down everything, wipe down, sweep, mop and hopefully get out of there by 10. Sometimes it’s 11 though.

I try not to focus on the money aspect as much. It’s more of helping the community, helping people, Things like that. I think it’s, I don’t know how to say it… That’s just how I was raised. You start something and it needs to be finished and done right. It’s just having good work ethic, my entire family has it. There’s some people that don’t have it and I don’t think they would make it as long as I have. I’m a very loyal person, I hold jobs for 5 years plus. I feel that the more good I put in—generally that’s what I want to do—I want to help people and I want to help business owners and my team that I work with. In the end I hope that all the good I put in I get back somehow.

There is one other person at my same level [at Wild Tomato]. It’s not exactly the same at all. Everything is based off of the same, but my roles include things such as hiring, doing interviews, going through orientation, the handbook, employee manual, getting new employees set up. I’ve gone through firings now. I execute all of the prep, all of the inventory, all of the ordering. That’s aside from cooking and running different lines during service, whereas the other kitchen manager is, I would say more on the creative side, which is fine. He runs different specials that we have. We have two different specials, the monthly one and one that changes every two to three days and I would say he’s the one that takes the lead on that and runs that on his own. When it comes to the background of the business—not dealing with service, not dealing with specials— that would be all on my end. I mean, that’s generally what it is day-to-day.

With the commitment I’ve shown and the leadership roles I’ve take, I would love to make more, but who wouldn’t. I personally believe it’s not a fair role for both of us, just having the same position title and the same salary even though they’re not equal or balanced whatsoever. For now I feel like it’s okay. I set up a meeting this spring with my boss, that’s when I thought I was getting a raise. I did, but not knowing that the other kitchen manager was getting that same raise.

We were definitely understaffed in the kitchen, which would explain the extreme amount of hours I’ve had. If we had more staff, that would have been a lifesaver. When it comes to a certain employee or situation or standard I don’t agree with or anything like that I am able to go sit in the office with him [my boss] and he will listen, I’ll walk him through it. Sometimes he agrees, sometimes he doesn’t, but he always listens. It is open door policy. It’s just when it comes down to issues that deal with me… I just need to learn to talk about issues that deal with me to him.

One of my cousins who’s closer in my age, we have vent sessions. Either I would go over to her house or she would come over to mine and we would vent, we would ask advice: how to deal with certain employees, or how am I supposed to bring this up to a boss? Anything like that. We do share very similar stories, especially when it comes to dealing with labor and trying to keep that lower and also with customers that are a bit rude or certain experiences like that where it’s just, is this real is this really happening. We both equally reach out for each other in moments. Working in such high extremes, the hours worked, the amount of people that we service, the amount of food and product we put out, the weather that I have to work in, kitchens are hot but I’m still standing in front of a 630 degree oven and other compressors from coolers. It’s very hot. It becomes overwhelming sometimes.

There have definitely been solid moments where I have wanted to walk away. I made the decision to go on salary at a young age and am now realizing the cons of that. It’s kind of a vicious cycle and it’s hard to know when to jump out of it. I could not find a job that could even start me where at I’m at right now. Where I’m at right now barely pays the bills. I think it all goes back to that being cursed with good work ethic, and just not wanting to leave, not wanting to leave my team. The people that I work with, that’s number one. It’s not just a restaurant. It’s not just a pizza place.

SHAWNA1

I don’t really plan on making a career change, as long as I’m working with food and people in some kind of service industry. I’m not crazy enough to start my own business. It has crossed my mind, but right now: no. I have definitely looked into food trucks. Its a lot of volume pumped out at once, but at the end of the day when you run out of food you’re done. There’s no way I would want an actual restaurant. With what I’ve seen for owners of restaurants, families, kids who have parents as owners… I want to make my own family, it’s too hard to balance the two. There’s just not enough hours in a day to run a business and still be able to hang out with your family or your children.

— Samantha Behnke

SCOTT RICHTER, GROCERY STORE MANAGER

In 1947, Scott Richter’s grandfather, George started a grocery store in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. Today, Scott’s father, Larry, and uncle Norm own and operate that store as well as another in Burlington, Wisconsin. This legacy continues, with Scott being the store manager in Burlington, his sister Sue the assistant manager there, and his brother Joel the grocery manager in Twin Lakes.

I helped out in the store when I was 14, started out as a bagger, which is where most people start out in the grocery business. Being a bagger I would say was good, but everybody wants to be a stocker. Obviously, you need to be older; you need to have more training, and that kind of stuff. But overall, I enjoyed my job and what I did. As I got older, [I] went to another location in Delavan—as they had a Sentry—started bagging there when I was in high school. I got promoted to stocker there, and then when I graduated, I started working back at our Twin Lakes location on a full-time basis, in the produce department.

My favorite memory is when my grandpa would help me bag groceries. I mean at the time, I was probably more embarrassed than anything else, but that’s definitely one of the memories that always sticks with me. I was very lucky that I got to work with him and he was a very hands-on type of person, so that I did like.

I really enjoyed working in a grocery store because it’s in my blood. It’s something that I found out I was good at and that I knew I could excel at, so that’s why I decided to keep up with it and see it all the way through. Saw a chance for me to grow in the business and hopefully grow up the ranks and become manager. I was assistant manager and grocery manager and moved up along the way and enjoyed all facets of the business.

Everything’s harder when you’re an owner’s child. People think it’s given to you. I take pride in the fact that I’ve earned everything I’ve gotten and there’s nothing in the store I can’t do. I started as a bagger, so I know every part of the business. I did learn a lot from my grandpa, from my father, from my uncle. I paid attention and learned everything I possibly could from them. They were good people to learn stuff from as far as what to do and what not to do. I took it and made it my own and worked my way to where I am now.

When I heard that Burlington was for sale, I approached my dad and uncle and told them that it would be a good investment. It was a growing community and there was place for expansion for our family and it would be a nice addition. In 2003, we purchased Burlington—we decided to grow our business.

There’s a lot of competition, it’s one of the more challenging parts of being in the business in the Burlington area that we’re in. In our community of 10,000, we’re sitting with five grocery stores, including us. There’s Menards that has a full set of groceries, two Kwik Trips on both sides of town, they actually came from a grocery background and they know the ins and outs of groceries. It sounds silly, but people will go there for milk—anything they get there is one less thing they’ll get with us. Our location is in the crossroads of Burlington so I mean everybody’s always driving past, whether it be to get to the high school or grade school—we’re in a good location. We have had a Super Wal-Mart in our town for 10 years now, and we’re still here. In a lot of towns, you’re lucky if you’ll last 6 months.

We look at their ads on a constant basis; we look at what everyone else in the industry is doing. The best ideas are usually stolen, which is what we do. We’ll take a look at somebody’s ad or their social media and try to outdo them that way. From our supplier, Affiliated Food Midwest, we have people that come in and talk to us about things we can do to stay relevant in the current grocery world.

As far as big box relevancy, we more so pride ourselves on quality, value, and service. You’re never going to beat them by price; it’s just not going to happen, unfortunately. They have more buying power than we do. We take great pride in our perishables: meat, deli, bakery, produce, and we feel like that’s where we can go up against the big box store and actually compete against them.

We do a lot of charity work. We have Funds for Friends, which donates 1% of the customer’s purchases back into the community. Between our two stores, in the last year we’ve donated $27,000 back to nonprofit organizations—a lot of churches, nonprofits in town, and schools. We do a food drive every year for the local food pantry, last year we raised $10,000. Anything we can do to get involved and get our name out there in the community and help anybody we can, we do.

I mean we all live in our communities, we do shop with local businesses and they shop with us. It’s something good where like I said, in the chain stores maybe you don’t get that independently owned and operated aspect of it. We can put a face and name on our business and everybody knows who we are and what we do for the community.

Social media definitely does play a big role nowadays. We text our customers, we have a Facebook page, we have a Twitter page, we also have email blasts. It’s been a huge change. I think we’re right on with what we’re doing. The most difficult part is how you get them to pay attention to what you’re doing social media wise. Trying to stay relevant as far as Facebook and in all of that, I mean it’s a full time job in itself.

My typical day would be: I usually start at 9am. I get in the store, make a round, look at everything, stop and see most of my department heads and you know, see if there’s anything that needs to be done for the day. My job has a lot to do with advertising. We do a custom ad that we build ourselves, and that’s pretty much my job, which has changed for me in the last two years. But, it’s also helped me grow and look at my business in a way that I’ve never looked at it before. So yeah, I mean I usually start my day—you know—building or proofing ads. I’m always working on about three different ads at a time and emailing people or talking to them on the phone for deals and pricing, that kind of stuff. Then obviously, there’s the running the business side where if we’re busy on the front end, maybe I’m checking, maybe I’m helping stock stuff, putting loads away, or putting displays out. I mean each day varies, but my main purpose and goal is advertising and that’s what I try to stick to the most.

Favorite part about my day is—honestly would be interacting with the people. I do spend a lot of time in the office, but I do enjoy getting out of the office and seeing—whether it’s customers, workers—talking to them and seeing where I can help them as far as employees but also anything I can do to help a customer. I would never turn the other way and not help them.

One of my most challenging parts of the job is being independent and trying to watch wherever you can save money. We do a lot of things ourselves. I am the resident electrician—there has been plenty of times where I have been, maybe sparks have been flying and I’ve been electrocuted a bit. So that’s always different and challenging, but fun. I’m a very hands-on person and if I can fix something myself without having to spend money, we’re definitely going to do that ourselves—anyway we can cut costs.

Retail theft is another very challenging part. It’s a big problem in our industry: the number one shrinkage. The more people steal, the more money we lose, the more our prices go up and so on and so forth to cover that cost. Stopping the shoplifter can always be—you never know what you’re gonna get. Every single person I’ve ever met in the grocery industry has had a swing taken at them and that’s part of the dangerous side of the business. I’ve had to do some running, I’ve had to do some tackling, some holding people down—there’s been plenty of that kind of stuff.

Obviously there’s never enough time in the day as far as getting everything done. I know I’m a little bit of a control freak when it comes to some stuff but learning to give responsibility to other people has really helped, and surrounding yourself with good people. I can’t do my job by myself, so luckily I have people around me that help me with that, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get it done.

There’s some people that probably see me as their boss, which I am. Just trying to get them to understand that not only am I—my mantra has always been my door’s always open. If someone needs to come in my office and they want to talk or need a favor, they can always come in and talk to me. They also know that I would never ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do. If anybody needs something: if I need to help them put stuff on the shelf, if I need to cut stuff up, if I need to package cookies, whatever it might be, they know that I would jump in and help them in a heartbeat.

My sister is my assistant, so we see each other everyday. We get along—it’s great—we work well with each other. Obviously there’s time where there’s disagreements and there’s been plenty of shouting/screaming matches in our office. At the end of the day, we love each other and it’s a good thing to get it out and talk about it rather than keep it inside. My dad and uncle are taking less of a role, I don’t see them as often but they’ll come around every once in a while. They still are technically the owners, so we do have to bounce things off of them and talk to them about things we’re trying to accomplish.

I’ve definitely enjoyed working with my daughters at the grocery store. They are all good workers and pitch in where they can. They’ve all worked in different aspects of the grocery business and it’s nice to know that they have that, some people wouldn’t. When they come in there I get to see them and spend more time with them, it’s definitely a plus. Going on lunch with your daughters is probably one of the highlights of your day. Getting that one-on-one time with them that you probably don’t get with them anywhere else.

For myself, I would enjoy to someday takeover the family business. I would like to grow the family business, would like to get more stores and operate and grow our business the best I can. I know we’ll grow, I know we’ll only get better moving forward. It’s something I’m very passionate about: I do love my work, I do love my job, I love the people I work with, I love every aspect of it. I would never trade it for anything.

Richter’s Marketplace in Burlington, Wisconsin
Richter’s Marketplace in Burlington, Wisconsin

 

–Hayley Richter

ROSEMARIE WAGNER, FORMER EMPLOYEE IN FAMILY-OWNED BAKERY

Wagner’s Lakeside Bakery was the product of deeply rooted tradition and whole-hearted passion. Rosie Wagner, the owner/baker’s daughter, worked in the family bakery. This experience greatly impacted her life and work in the food industry. Family values, traditions, and passion were the foundation of the business, baked into every pastry, bread, and cake in the case.

ROSIE1

We go way back as bakers. My grandfather was also a baker as well as my great grandfather. My father was a baker’s apprentice in Europe. He came here and worked for a bakery for quite a few years and then he chose to open his own bakery. He brought a lot of European products into this particular bakery, lots of European tortes and coffee cakes. It was in South Milwaukee, 1100 East Oakland Avenue. Me and my sister went and helped him. I was twenty.

It was for sure a big family ordeal to keep the bakery running, and I wish that I had gotten more involved with the actual baking and preparing so that we could still have the business. It was great because we got to spend a lot of time together, and we were close. I think the bakery brought us closer together. We were all there every day. My sister started to have kids early, and were able to bring both of our children to the bakery. There was an apartment upstairs and my mom would watch the kids, both mine and my sister’s, and so as a result I think my kids grew closer, lifelong relationships with my sister’s kids. My mother was the backbone of the bakery, she pushed us all, reminded us all of everything that needed to be done. She was the caretaker—took care of us, took care of the kids, made sure that my dad ate and slept, made sure that everyone did their job to her satisfaction.

We’d have a good 25-30 people on payroll, anything from sales clerks to bakers to donut fryers to donut icers, to cake decorators and then of course the cleanup staff, delivery drivers (me). Who did the hiring depended on the position. If it was for a baker, then my father definitely took care of it. If it was cleaning staff then my sister or I would take care of it, but by and large my dad did anything that had to do with producing the bakery.

My typical day was to get up at 2:30 A.M., drive to the bakery, load up the delivery van, go and deliver to customers all over downtown Milwaukee and Oak Creek for 3-4 hours. Then I would go back to the bakery and unload anything that needed to be unloaded, then we would help in the store anywhere else that was needed—help with the tortes and pies and customer service, get any supplies that my father needed. We would do some paperwork and head out.

Bakers work third shift. [My dad] would stay on premise. He had an apartment upstairs in the building—slept during the day while my sister and I took care of things that needed to be done. He would get up at 6 or 7 at night—start with the donuts, made every day fresh in one of the two big donut fires. Then the other bakers would start on breads, coffee cakes, cookies, and someone later would come and ice the donuts once they’d cooled, pack the orders for deliveries. My dad would also do sheet cakes, specialty decorated cakes for customers, and then tortes or anything else that needed taking care of. We used to make a coffee cake that we called a pizza coffee cake. It was round, just like a pizza, and it had four different sections to it – cheese, strawberry, blueberry and cherry. That was a big favorite. Also had German Chocolate Cake, that was a favorite, carrot cake, cream pie, banana cream was a favorite, lots of breads—sourdough bread, seven grain bread, wheat, rye, we carried all kinds of bread. He had a couple of recipes that were in German weights instead of American; he had to buy a German scale just to produce some of his recipes.

There were for sure repeat customers, our “Sunday morning regulars.” The thing that is probably the most challenging is the customers, because you get the ones that are satisfied. The ones that aren’t – they are the most challenging. What I liked the most about the food industry is the joy in someone’s face when they have something that you prepared that they really really like, or when they come back because of the food you made. It is always nice to get to know customers [on] a familiar basis—you knew what people liked, what they didn’t like. It was always harder when you don’t know a person to get them to be receptive. I think that working at a small bakery changed the way I treated people, I learned to treat people as friends, not just customers. Always do your best. Always greet the customer. Be friendly. Treat someone like you would want to be treated and always make sure that you are giving the best quality you can give.

We advertised very much through word of mouth. I wish we had known how big Starbucks would be because coffee and donuts… we would have been good together. Working with food is the same wherever, everything must be cooked and cooled properly. The larger corporations everything is mass produced, whereas the smaller ones are more personalized because you don’t have to make big volumes. I preferred working in the family-owned, mom and pop place. Supposedly Walmart is family owned, but something that is really family oriented is more enjoyable than something so corporate. When you work for a small company you get to know everyone involved, whereas in a big company you don’t know everyone. The smaller atmosphere is much more personal.

It was nice to see each other every day, talk to each other every day, spend time together, see each other’s glories, I guess you could say, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. We worked with local schools, programs with the school where they would go to school half the day and come work the other half of the day, we were very involved in the community with raising money, donations, we tried to stick mostly with the local Oak Creek chapters, local police department and fire department, community events, etc.

My favorite memory would be the wedding cakes, dealing with brides and grooms—actually delivering the cakes and setting them up was awesome. My father was famous for his wedding cakes. People would come in and order cakes for an occasion at work, all different reasons, baby showers, etc. My sister and I, once a year, would go to A Wonderful World of Weddings and give samples and display our product. That brought a lot of people to our wedding cakes. Christmas Cookie season was great too. We had assembly lines and my dad would make hundreds and hundreds. The whole family would get together and make cookies and box them all up.

The bakery isn’t open because my father became ill. We were going to relocate. My sister and I knew so much about the store, but unfortunately because of our other various responsibilities, we didn’t learn the trade as well as we should have. As a result, once my father no longer could do it, well we couldn’t do it without him. Both me and my sister wish that we had taken the time to learn the trade better. We absolutely regret closing the bakery. We realized that if we had hired people to do the administrative work that we were doing instead of hiring them to do the baking that we should have been learning, then we’d still have that tradition in our family. The bakery did make good money but if we still had it, my kids could learn how to make donuts instead of just eating them, they could have had that work ethic instilled in them too.

The bakery is still open, but not run by our family and it isn’t nearly as recognized. My father was a passionate man. The bakery to him was like a portrait. He had a vision and he made it happen. You could see the glow that when he made something that not just looked good but tasted good – it was art. To see the passion in him—he just loved it.
— Katelyn Pecha

SHELLY CROSS, CO-OWNER OF HUMBLE PIE

Pie is much more than just a type of pastry one can choose to eat. For Shelly Cross, co-owner of Humble Pies in Madison, WI, pie symbolizes childhood memories, family traditions, and an emotional experience. Along with fellow co-owner and sister Jill, they continually put the costumer first by recreating the Southern style pastries they grew up on.. With each story she tells her smile glows that much brighter.

My sister and I use to travel with our father, to visit our relatives—out kinda in the country from where we lived in the city of Little Rock, Arkansas. We would always stop out there, to try pie at different places. Sometimes we would even go an hour out of the way so we could eat pie at a place we heard was good. That is my earliest memory of really being interested in pie. I was probably around ten or eleven years old.

I have been helping my grandmother for so long I can’t remember the first time I baked. My mother on the other hand would not keep sweets in the house. So if we wanted something as a sweet we would have to bake it while she was out of the house. So when she worked we would come home after school and we would sneak and bake. Probably cake was the first thing: chocolate cake. And we realized after a few times that she wouldn’t be mad for very long. We weren’t suppose to be cooking when she wasn’t home, but she wouldn’t stay mad for very long if it was good.

I had never thought about opening a bakery. I have had my own businesses before. I had done some stuff with antiques and linens and things like that. I had just gotten a divorce and my sister and I were looking at something we could do together. Neither one of us have culinary experience, but we were talking about it over the phone while I was still in Georgia. Whatever I ended up doing for a living I wanted to be by my sister. Baking is something that we enjoy so much we thought it would be a great idea if we could make it work. Once I moved here that’s when it really became more real. So we started going around to other bakeries and restaurants trying their pies. I think that’s when we first felt—after we had gone to every place we could find—it was like our pies are really different than anything we have had here. We just thought people would really like it. It was thrilling to realize you know we are not just talking about this–we can actually do it.

We’ve been here for almost three years. But before that we baked to order. We worked out of other kitchens. We rented space from other bakeries. At one point we were baking, my sister and I, just on one table and we would stand across from one another and we would just pile stuff in stacks in order to do everything. But it was fun—I mean I can’t really complain about it. When we moved into this building, we were actually overwhelmed by how much business we got. We still have people come in three times a week just to support us. I don’t think they really need that much pie, but people come in and get stuff for their office or to send gifts just so people know about us. The neighborhood has been really supportive of us. I don’t know if we would have started somewhere else we would have been successful. They’ve been great to us. We love it here.

Since we have opened the retail bakery, we have continued to grow steadily with time. It’s a child. You feel like you have to come in and take care of it. It’s your thing. People are counting on you. It’s the sense of responsibility to the business and to your costumers. Even if I am tired once I get here, its really fun. It’s fun to bake. I love working with the other employees.

SHEL1
Storefront of Humble Pies located at 10 S Allen Street

One thing that I try to do is let our employees express themselves through their baking. So if they want to do a different kind of… [looks off and points at the case] I mean those pumpkin pies may have a different topping every day of the week. But if someone is inspired to do something different, then that is what this is all about. We are baking more than just a pumpkin pie. We also don’t like to hire people who have done a lot of baking in another commercial bakery because a lot of what we do is not the way they would do it in a commercial bakery. It’s the way you would do it in your home. We think that’s what gives us a better product. Our main criteria is someone who loves to bake—and that they be enthusiastic about giving someone a great product.

Baking is relaxing in a way, but it’s also the idea that someone is going to be really pleased with what you make. Its going to bring someone happiness that’s what I think about a lot when I am baking. That is really important to us. A wedding that we did early on, probably about our third wedding—the bride kept ordering more and more pies and she was all ready doing all different kinds of pies all different shapes, sizes, and different flavors. And the order just kept getting bigger and bigger so we were talking to her and her fiancé and were like, “wow you must be getting a lot of RSVPs that you were not expecting because you have a lot more pies.” Her fiancé looked at us and said, “no she keeps ordering more pies because she is afraid that there aren’t going to be any left overs!” [Shelly falls back into her chair with a bright smile laughing.] If someone is that excited about your pie that is a great feeling.

Really we do everything ourselves so as it comes up we learn how to do it. Anything that we try that’s new I love. The Pasty have been something I never expected to make. We do a traditional one, but we do a lot things that are pretty far off the tradition. I enjoy putting together those Pasties. They are challenging. None of our pies are a straight traditional recipe. We try to make changes that modernize the flavors and we bake very seasonally so that changes frequently. What we’re seeing from farmers plays a role too. For example, we just got a bunch of pears and we didn’t know what we were going to do with them. But once we got them, tasted them, talked about it with other employees, people started to get ideas and then you add onto those ideas. Sometimes its just you know “I am really craving this, how can we do a pie like that.” It seems like I am always thinking about how something could be a pie. It’s not a chore, its just how your brain works when you are so involved with pie.

I do think our crust is our claim to fame. It’s flakey and buttery. Just the flakiness of the crust is the biggest thing. We do get very busy around Thanksgiving and then of course π Day [Pi day, March 14] everyone gets pies. And that’s actually our busiest day of the year I would say. It is exhausting. We have to do huge quantities. We just do what we can. Pecan pie is pretty popular. Pumpkin around this time of year [September]. In the summer, we do a lot of blueberry. That is very popular. Cherry gallet, which is just a flat crust that we fold over the edges and then we use a sour cherry filling that we make with Door Country Cherries.

Winter we do cream pies that incorporate local dairy and continue to do root vegetables throughout the year in the pasties and quiches. We had some opportunities with the Milk Marketing Board to make pies incorporating some hard cheeses. We did a cheddar almond cream pie that we did not think was going to work. But that is a delicious pie. It does not taste anything like its ingredients. It kinda transforms into something tangy but also creamy. That was very challenging, but the result is we have several really good recipes that we can pull out during the winter that incorporate different kinds of cheeses.

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Mini Alabama Pecan Pie

The most rewarding experience is having people come in and say how much they love pie or how much they thought they didn’t like pie and now they realize they do. It was just the pie they had before that wasn’t very good.

We had one costumer, her mother died and for the funeral her mother-in-law sent her one of our pies. We delivered it to her and now she’s become a great regular customer and friend. Just hearing the way that had affected her at a time when she was really having a rough time… The pie had reminded her of her mother and was comforting. It meant a lot to her. You never expect starting a bakery that your pie could mean something so much to somebody.

— Racheal Knoke

LEE ECKSTROM, OWNER OF LIL’ BUDDY’S POPCORN

Lee Ekstrom started Lil’ Buddy’s Popcorn three years ago in downtown Oregon, Wisconsin. He founded a landscape company twenty years ago and has since been inspired to pursue a fun, side business selling gourmet popcorn and Chicago style hot dogs. The atmosphere is fun, stress-free, and happy. The customer always comes first. Whether customers or delivery drivers, Lee makes an effort to talk to each person who comes in as if they are old friends. 

You have to go in 110%, you cannot go in half way and a lot of people do and those people fail. And in my mind I never fail. And I’ve talked to other business owners and you don’t know how many times people have come up to me and go, “oh my gosh business is just horrible, I don’t know what to do,” and all this. And I, I would never say that. Even if business was slow, I would never walk up to anybody and say, “oh man, I’m hurtin’, I’m hurtin’!” No, things are great! Always great—it’s all about positive attitude. Never let ‘em see you sweat, ever! I like to walk into a room and be a ray of sunshine to everybody. Even if I’m not in that great of a mood; it doesn’t matter. That’s how I go through my day.

So, my typical day starts leavin’ the house about 7am. I take my daughter to school. I stop by the shop. I look over everything from the night before, ‘bout a quick ten minute walk around just to make sure I don’t need anything—everything looks good no water lines are busted. I mean there are the little things no one ever thinks about, you know I’m always just lookin’ for potential problems. Everything looks good, I lock up the shop and I leave, I go to my landscaping business. I work there ‘til about 9am and then I come back to this shop and then I spend about the next half hour getting everything prepared for the day. That’s turning on all the slushie machines, getting tomatoes, onions cut, loading the cash register, making sure I have change for the paper, whatever it takes for that day to happen. And then I leave.

The store is opened by my first employee that works the day shift and she arrives about 10:30. I usually then check in about noon, at the start of the lunch hour to make sure she doesn’t need anything. Did she run out of money? If everything is good I leave again for the rest of the day in the landscaping business, come back about maybe four o’clock. Check. That’s the start of the second shift. Make sure everything is still good. Everything is good. We can usually then call it a day after that. And the girls that run this place are amazing. I train everybody to be a manager and I find that helps a lot. Or we would be here nonstop. You can’t be here nonstop. It just, you’ll go crazy you know. You gotta trust your people to do quality work for you and if you’re hovering over them, they won’t do it. They have to learn how to do it. And it makes them nervous you know.

But that’s your typical day. Now, Fridays and Saturdays are my popcorn making days and I will be here all day all night making popcorn for the week. I’ve been in business so long I don’t notice—doesn’t bother me. Twelve, fourteen hour day is nothin’ you know. I can take maybe a Monday afternoon off. I just take whenever I can, it doesn’t matter. I don’t think of things in, “oh man, Monday through Friday, weekends off,” it doesn’t mean nothing to me you know. And the beauty is that I have the flexibility to be able to do things for the family. I can go to my daughter’s concerts and this and that. And coming with flexibility, sure you gotta pay the price. You always have to answer to somebody. So, if I take a Friday afternoon off I may have to work Saturday, but, big deal, I just saw my kid sing in a chorus concert. There’re a lot of parents that miss stuff like that.

I had the education of hard knocks. You know I started my [landscaping] business when I was twenty-seven and I thought I knew everything…nothing really scared me. Like most people assume it’s just super super hard, you know… and it is! Don’t get me wrong, but you know it’s all just time and effort of what you put into it. I mean the school of hard knocks is very very humbling.

When we started Lil’ Buddy’s three years ago, what we didn’t know—I mean the school of hard knocks is very, very humbling. The first day we opened we literally were so swamped we looked at each other… we didn’t know what to do. And luckily her [my wife’s] cousin, Kim—they own a shop in Oregon and they’ve been doin’ this for years in the food service industry. And she actually literally came down here and told us just to step back and took over. And we watched her and went, “oh, okay this is how you do it.” Just take a deep breath. Cuz I run pretty hard and I go, “waaaah!!” going all crazy, you know and she was the calming force that said, “this is how you handle it.” And like I teach every employee here, don’t let the customer see you sweat. You know, you’re always cool and collected. Even if you make mistakes, it doesn’t matter. Smile. They don’t know anything. We learned a lot from her and after our first day we had to shut down for two days cuz we sold out of everything (laughs) and we thought we had a lot.

I have no competition. No one does gourmet popcorn well around here and no one sells a true authentic Chicago style hot dog. We will always just keep doing what we do and we will just expand what we are here…I figured if I can do popcorn and Chicago dogs I’ve got a little bit of greatness right there. You can’t remain stagnant. Too many businesses, they come up with a model and they stick with it. I think you should always constantly evolve and change. I describe it as an interesting place we’re interesting people and we have interesting stuff to sell. That small town feel…you don’t want to lose sight of that.

Oregon for about the past 15 years has been a pretty dead bedroom community. And since I started this place I work real close with the chamber president who came aboard about the same time and we made a pact together that we gotta bring life back down to this town. It’s a great little town and we do whatever it takes to bring people down here.

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You can always come in here and find somethin’ totally different. Most of these other popcorn places have five or six flavors they market. That’s it. I can go through my folders right now of my popcorn I make and I bet you I’m over sixty right now. I’d rather produce that. Like my wife said, people want different stuff: change. But I understand that from a business point of view when you get large like that, they have to do that. I’d rather not do that right now. It’s good to be king. I know that sounds so cliché, but that’s literally what I tell myself every morning. And the least favorite part about it is being up at two in the morning going, “oh my gosh, I’m the king.” There’s a lot of pressure. People rely on you for paychecks and business and you know there’s a lot of bills involved in this.

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You know…our store is very visual. We keep it clean. Spotless. Neat lookin’. We don’t have trash layin’ around. And we’re always welcoming to other businesses downtown. Promoting ourselves, promoting downtown business is huge. We get to know these people. Make ‘em feel very welcome. In today’s society—oh my gosh—hospitality management is a dying art. Nobody knows how to treat people with kindness and respect anymore. We do. We get a lot of regular folks that come in and actually I think they like comin’ in here because of the people that work here. I mean the product is wonderful but we give them such an… overwelcoming is not the term, but we are so hospitable to people I think they get a kick out of it. Very rarely do you have an unhappy person in here.

My dad taught me years ago, “right or wrong, let the customer always be right,” and we do. We take advice from almost everybody. We love suggestions. You’d be amazed by the flavors that customers come up with. We do special orders. You know, I don’t sweat if I lose a couple dollars here and there. It’s not worth it cuz they usually walk away happy and they’ll be back. We’re a small company but, in all my suppliers eyes, we’re a big deal. Name recognition is huge. About twenty years ago also when I went into business, I vowed to be on everybody’s A-list. I feel by doing that I get special treatment. When I need somethin’, they will do whatever it takes to get that product to me. So with that said, I always pay them immediately, I’m polite to ‘em. I strike up friendships with people. I don’t just show up and go, “okay I need this, send it to me.” No, I get to know these people. And these people know my family. They know my employees. They know our name. You don’t have to be the wealthiest to be famous.

— Ruby Carpenter

TROY PEPER, OLD WORLD MEAT PROCESSOR

Troy was raised in a family that grew its own food. Growing up in central Wisconsin, he worked with his father and grandfather in the family dairy machinery business and took after their values. He later worked on the floor in a small specialty cheese operation, as the plant manager of an international egg processing facility, and almost every position in between. He has since decided to return to the simple values that were planted in him as a kid: the value of wholesome food. He and his wife, Stephanie, now operate a small, old world meat shop.

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On every homestead that I grew up on there was a family garden. It was part of our food supply. That was expected. That was just normal for us. If you wanted a tomato, you went to the garden and got a tomato. You didn’t go to the local grocery store—never. If you grew it, you had it, and what you grew, you ate. Nothing went to waste. That was instilled in us at a very early age.

Once I graduated from college, my wife and I wanted to get back to Midwest values. So we moved to Sun Prairie, WI, and I got involved in a cheese operation. It was more making small batch niche market cheeses. What I really enjoyed about that—you felt like you had a hand in the process. Many mornings we had to be there at the crack of dawn ‘cause you wore many hats. What I liked about it is: you got to meet the farmers. You understood their story. You got to know their family, their history. You felt that you were a part of the impacts of good stewardship.

Later in life, I went to a much larger cheese operation—an international organization. More mechanical, more mechanization, a lot of additives, very little hands on interaction. The quality was good, but I don’t think the quality was as good as a specialty. It was more designed around high output, value stream, and line efficiency. To me—I understood why—but it never felt like you really had a connection to the product, and that has always bothered me.

I’ve seen the progression. At this point in my career I really want to get back to basics, the fundamentals of quality, and knowing your supply chain.

 I take it all the way back to my grandparents—first generation Americans. They had to generate their own food supply. They raised their own beef and chickens; grew their own gardens. I watched my grandfather take what we would deem today as “scrap meats” and turn them into a soup or stew. I see a lot of value, a lot of pride in that. Then I take that to my father’s generation. I remember handshake deals with my father—taking me as a young adult, driving to north Texas, meeting with the farmer at 4 o’clock, shaking his hand on a deal, no written contracts, no legal documents. That resonated with me. That said that, wow, you can be in business and you can be a good environmental steward, be sustainable, and honor values. So what’s motivated my wife and I, is making that into a business model—living that, walking the talk.

What we are looking to do is to get back to simplicity. The notion is to get back to, you know, operate like your grandparents did: simple ingredients, wholesome supply, wholesome food. And make a product that is not only of high quality, but also tell the story of that piece of food. I want to know where that product came from. I want to build a relationship with that farmer. We are working with families that know where their hogs come from—they know their feed inputs. They’re feeding them things of natural substance like acorns and apples, and they are doing it in the old fashioned way, because it’s the right way.

We are doing this one supplier at a time, it’s not just an interaction and a contract that we sign. We are going out to the farm, having dinner with these families, and getting to build relationships long before we sign any contracts. We are trying to understand histories. We are also taking the knowledge of those farmers, telling their stories, and bringing them into our family of business. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of work to understand them and meet with them. I think that’s a key word: partnership. We want to from partners in business versus just having a supply chain.

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Is it harder? Yes. Is it more expensive? Absolutely. But when I sit down with a consumer and hand him a piece of meat, I can honestly tell that consumer where that ingredient came from, the history and origin, and feel good about it. It’s an honest transaction. That’s something that I cherish and I think there is a market demand for that.

Products are made in small batches. Troy describes the smoked Polish kielbasa as one of his favorites.

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Our goal is to bring some of these old world trades and commodities and foods to every individual— doesn’t matter what your economic background, doesn’t matter what your generational differences are, we can educate people of some of these craft artisanal meats. Lead by example in the marketplace, educate consumers, bring them into our store and do workshops. Have transparency of what’s behind the curtain, show them, and bring them into the supply chain: what we use and how and why we do it. Verses behind closed doors, where you just have to trust the business.

These are niche products, small batch, were not putting stabilizers or enhancers in our products. Their shelf lives are less, that’s why we do small batches. They are not meant to be mass-produced.

We’ve gone right back to the core, we’ve trained ourselves in southern Italy, working with old world farmers that have been doing this for generations with no nitrates and no preservatives. That has opened out eyes as to how it can be done from its origin and traditional artisan preservation without all the chemicals.

I think consumer demands and preferences are changing before our very eyes. We are right at the tipping point of an evolution in food culture in the United States. I think it is going to take time to educate people, but do I think there is a consumer need and a want for it? Absolutely.

There has been a lot of trust lost in the food industry. People don’t trust food labels. People don’t trust big business. In the age of food transparency, we are holding companies more accountable. We are raising the bar of food safety.

What my time in large industry processing has taught me is that you have to be good stewards of your community and your environment. Our philosophy is to be heavily involved—not just be involved the community as a business, but be present, be active. Not only my wife and I, but also our employees and our partners in the supply chain. It’s a part of being in a community, not just a part of a community. I think that’s the right thing to do.

Today, our initial product offerings are going to be in a deli-charcuterie operation, minimal distribution. And we did that by design, we want to bring our clientele and our consumers with us through the process, really getting our consumer base comfortable with what we are doing. We gotta walk before we run. We want to educate our consumer base of who we are as a brand. We need people to understand who we are, earn trust, then evolve our brand into the marketplace.

We wanted to find a name that really ties it back to our vision statement, getting back to basics. What norcino means, in Italian, is butcher. The norcino was actually the father of charcuterie. In early renaissance Italy, there had to be a delineation of roles for food safety. You would separate the raw from the ready to eat. The norcino would come into the side of ready-to-eat products: you would take all the leftovers or primal cuts and transition every component of the animal into a wholesome, food safe product. That embodies who we are, what our values are. So we named our business [after] that transformation.

When people hear the words organic or artisanal, I think it intimidates some people. We want to bring it back to good, wholesome quality products, and not get caught up in some of the hype of whether it is GMO free or if it’s this or that, and really get back to fundamentals: just good, wholesome, sustainable food.

— Hannah Peper

 

MELINDA TUMA, FORMER CONSULTANT FOR THE PAMPERED CHEF

Speckled green counters, shiny sharp knives—everything perfectly aligned in preparation for the event. She waits and they arrive, one by one, until the door closes shut. What comes next is more than just a plate of food. She masterfully moves around the kitchen shouting facts and anecdotes, captivating those in her presence. Her personality fills the room. The audience stares out of curiosity and chuckles with amusement. When it’s time to leave, they filter out with a head full of knowledge, a soul full of values, and a belly full of food—thankful that she was able to give them an evening to remember.

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I was invited to a Pampered Chef event—at the time they called them kitchen shows—by a friend from church. Pampered Chef sells various cooking tools, implements that you would use in your kitchen. From pots and pans, to knives, to what some people would call gadgets, but Pampered Chef would prefer to call tools because they make something easier, like graters or zesters. Lots and lots of different shapes of stoneware, all the baking implements. I went to her show and thought it was fun. I enjoyed it and bought one of the round baking stones. But I didn’t actually start as a consultant then, it was a year and a half or maybe even longer before I became a consultant.

I really liked to bake. That was something I enjoyed from the time I was a little girl and that was something that interested me in doing Pampered Chef: the really nice baking tools that they sold. But the real purpose behind Pampered Chef was to be bringing something of great value to clients and customers—an opportunity for those people to learn how to cook and prepare meals easily and efficiently so that family meal time could be part of their lives. It’s about bringing people and families around the table.

At the time I started, I was working part time. I had five kids so we didn’t go out to eat a lot. We didn’t do a lot of fast food or anything like that. It was a lot of money to do that. I liked to cook. I wouldn’t say I loved to cook but as I had my family, cooking just became something that I had to do on a more routine and regular basis. I think I just organically grew into being someone who cooked a lot. I was thinking it was probably extra money, and an opportunity for me to maybe think about not working part time out of the house and just working that business.

It was hard, although at the time, it worked. Bob was very supportive. We had three hockey players, which is very demanding, but he did a lot of the running back and forth because I would work in the evenings. I would typically work maybe two to three times a week, so it wasn’t a ton of hours out of the house. I would say 15 hours a week, but it was at that critical time in the evening when kid’s activities were going on. And then I had the benefit of having my daytimes to be able to volunteer at school—be able to take care of all the other tasks of running a household, like cleaning, grocery shopping. I could also still do the other part of my Pampered Chef work that required me not to be out of the house, like follow up calls and paper work and those types of things. So it was actually something that I could balance and still bring in a nice part-time income and only be away from my family a small amount of time per week.

Practicing was something I did all the time. I would often practice on my family. I would make exactly whatever I was going to make at the show and it might be our dinner that night. I would sometimes even talk my way through it as if I were doing my cooking show and figure out where it was bumpy, where I was gonna make a mess, where something didn’t seem to work very well. I would also do it with my team of consultants. We would have routine meetings where they would come over and practice a recipe or two, and learn about different techniques or how the food performed when we prepared it. Pampered Chef started to realize that cooking was becoming very popular and we needed to up our anti on our cooking techniques as consultants. They actually taught us things from a chef’s perspective. Terminology and how you would actually use the terminology elevated our expertise as cooks.

But we were always cooks. Almost never was anyone a professional chef. If you’re just a regular home cook, experiment and play around with food. Experimenting, trying different combinations is very, very important. The worst thing that’s gonna happen is that it’s not gonna be the most edible thing in the world, and you know, that’s not a bad thing. You can just start over again. Reading cookbooks and informing yourself of basic food concepts is important. Don’t fear food, you know? There’s nothing to be afraid of.

In advance of the event, the host and I would figure out how many people were coming, and what I was going to prepare. We would decide on the recipe and she would be responsible for picking up the groceries, but I would send her with a list. I would need to pack up a container of supplies—of products—that I would need to prepare whatever dish we decided I was making, and I would bring everything for that. I would basically have my kitchen in my car. Oftentimes there was a bucket of cooking tools in my car for weeks on end that never left.

I would show up at her house about a half an hour early. Sometimes I would have to talk to myself in the car. I might have had a fight with one of the kids, or whatever, but I needed to get it together because the people that were going to the show wanted to have fun and they wanted to learn things from me. I could wear really whatever I wanted—the company didn’t have very specific things about that. They just wanted us to look neat and clean and professional. Her guests would show up, I would meet everybody, and we’d have a little introduction about what we were going to do that day. Then I would start the cooking. I didn’t sell the food. The food was a vehicle for the cooking tools to implement what I used. They would eat the food that we prepared, I would take their orders, clean up my dishes, pack everything up, and go back home again. Sometimes, I would just leave the box of cooking tools in my car and do the same recipe over and over again at different people’s houses so that it would make it easier for me to not have to repack my vehicle every day.

There were products in the line that I didn’t particularly like or that I just didn’t think worked very well but I was never forced to or asked to promote a product that I didn’t like. If there was a product that I didn’t like [pause] well for one thing, I would have to understand that just because I didn’t like it didn’t mean that other people didn’t find value in it. Sometimes it required me to think differently. If I had other consultants that said: “Oh my gosh, I use it all the time for x, y and z,” I would have to re-think, maybe I’m just not having an open enough mind about this product?

There was never any requirement for me to promote anything if I didn’t like the product. Often, if a guest would ask me about a product that just didn’t perform well, I would say to them, I don’t recommend that you get this product. If they have a product that doesn’t work well, they’re going to call me and be unhappy with me and I’m the salesperson. That’s my business. That’s my integrity on the line, so there’s a personal stake in it as well. Fortunately, Pampered Chef had a really excellent return policy, so almost always I could get that product exchanged for them, get a refund, get a new one if the product was defective and just replace it. I would say a very high percentage of time I was able to satisfy the customers’ needs in a pretty short time frame. It’s a mundane task as a consultant because it requires follow up and other things, but that’s part of the job and I had the company backing me on it. Once in a while, you’d get a customer who’d be very hot under the collar about something, and needlessly, because like I said there was a great return policy, you’d sort of have to calm them down and say, “You know, we’re going to take care of this don’t worry about it.” At some point you are somewhat limited in what you can do, so I would just write the customer a check and replace it myself because I couldn’t resolve it with the company.

A typical set sold by Pampered Chef
A typical set sold by Pampered Chef

Over the course of my 18 years, I did over twenty-five hundred cooking shows and I would guess probably over two thousand of those people were at one time a stranger to me. Some of them became friends as a result of having shows with me multiple times. Some of them I only did one show with and never saw again. You know, it’s interesting. Sometimes the people stuck in my mind and I remember really enjoying them and enjoying their company and enjoying the evening. And other times it was sorta more just like a job. I did my job, I left, I don’t wanna do the job again and they didn’t want me to do the job again. Kinda like, I suppose, dating in some ways. Sometimes you go on a date and you’re like, ah, that was fine, I don’t really want to see you again. Other times you date someone and you really enjoy them and you continue to date them. Kinda like that.

I’m not doing much Pampered Chef at all anymore. I loved it, I just think I’m done. I did it for 18 years, and I think I’m done. It’s not because anything was wrong about it, I’ve just moved on to different things. I learned a lot about food, a lot about cooking, and a ton of sales skills, ideas and techniques. I think that there is value, enormous value, in a family coming around the table for dinner—and even if it’s not the most fancy meal—cooking together, having dinner together and having whole, healthy food. It’s second to none.

When it starts to get cold out, I love the thought of soups and stews and you know, heartwarming kinda food. I like the thought of it, it just brings memories to me about, I don’t know, I guess it’s maybe fall time or anything around the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s just very highly attached to family and that goes beyond the food and what it tastes like. It’s the relationships around eating that food, it’s more than just the physical satisfaction of eating. It’s the nourishment of the heart and the soul and the mind, different than just the belly. It’s the people who you bring around the table when you’re having that food that bring the best memories. The food is the glue that brings people together, but the real important stuff is the conversation and the relationships that are going on.

— Mari Verbeten

RYAN ERISMAN, MARINE VETERAN AND ORGANIC FARMER

Ryan Erisman grew up on an organic grain and livestock farm in Illinois. He served ten years in the U.S. Marine Corps and is currently writing a book about this experience. He is recreating his childhood and establishing a local organic livestock farm here in Madison, Wisconsin. His father impacted his life as a farmer, but military service was his true inspiration to become a career organic farmer supplying healthy, local food to his community.

My dad went organic in 1990 and people think “oh organic,” they think they are these hippy vegetable farmers, but no it’s a 2,300 acre grain and livestock operation. He started before there was a market for organic grains. By the 80s, he was using very few chemicals, very few synthetic fertilizers. We had a product that there was not much interest in it, but just the amount of money he was saving by not using chemicals and fertilizers, he was still making a net profit. Then we started seeing the demand go up significantly. And it has gone up and down. Just like any market, it goes up and down each year.

He used anhydrous one year in the early 60s, and was like “this isn’t right.” He noticed that the same application the following year did not give the same yield. And he thought well I’m just going to have to keep using more and more to get the same thing. It’s literally like using drugs. And he knew then, being a former construction engineer in the army before Vietnam,. To build an air field they put anhydrous in the soil to kill all the biological activity, so it packs more easily, to become an air field. That’s been known since WW2—all across the Pacific, we put anhydrous in the soil to be able to pack it down. So we are using the same product in our soils on an annual basis, and have for decades, and we’re destroying the soil and essentially creating more compaction issues.

It takes a lot more thought, it takes a lot more effort, and that’s probably the reason most people wouldn’t want to mess with it. It’s too hard. I mean we use all the same big equipment that all our neighbors use. We just don’t use any chemicals. So is it sustainable…? It’s a better net per acre for us that’s for sure. But we burn a lot of diesel fuel, so long term, maybe not. We had people visiting the farm all the time, people like Fred Kirschenmann, who eventually ran the Leopold Center at Iowa. Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, now famous for [Michael Pollan’s] Omnivore’s Dilemma, stayed at our house for free for a couple nights and interviewed my dad. Before Salatin was even farming—when he was still a Lobbyist in Washington.

What I did learn, and what is still true, a lot of farms that are you know “organic and sustainable” look like that from an environmental perspective, and financially, they are not. What they are doing is they are going out and selling their farming ideas as “look how successful this is,” and what they are making their money on is selling the idea and not the actual farming. I had someone tell me that point blank. He was very well known in sustainability, in this area, and he was producing biochar, and I asked “Can you explain to me, how there is a net gain for this for all of the labor inputs? You can’t tell me this comes out,” and he’s like “dude you don’t get it, the point is to develop the idea and make the money selling the idea.”

 

When I grew up, all summer we bailed hay, and bailed, and bailed, and bailed. We still fed cattle in barns—a combination of grain and hay. And by the time my age group was in high school, my dad used to hire the football—I mean he would literally get half the guys off the football team every year— and that was the hay crew. He had a system, we pushed this many bails through an hour…..we bailed 250,000 square bails a year. And then we realized once we were organic for a few years, you can’t afford to put grain in a beef animal and get your money back. So we really cut back on the hay bailing and went to a rotational grazing system and stopped feeding animals in barns and let them spread their own manure.

It’s interesting what’s becoming more important and more in demand is local. [It] has superseded organic. And I don’t have a problem with that, I think we need to revive local economy—a village system—where you know your neighbors and purchase stuff from your neighbors and we can feed ourselves. You know the whole idea of the American farmer feeding the world is one of the biggest crocks of shit ever fed to anyone. You know we’re “producing food.” No. You’re producing a raw ingredient commodity that has to go through an industrial process or an animal before it’s “food.” You can’t open a grain bin, pour that in a bowl, put milk on it, and eat that crap. So, I think local is much more important.

It’s [Growing up on a farm] always been there in the background, it was not what I intended to do. You know I spent a decade in the Marine Corps. Eventually got out after my second deployment in Iraq and oddly enough the first impetus of raising my own food and farming came from working rural villages in Iraq, between Fallujah and Ramadi. Living that way, marines didn’t have access to hot food, they were either eating the packages “MREs” and then the supplemental food was essentially gas station snacks: Honeybuns, Otis Spunkmyre muffins. Just nasty stuff, soda, Gatorade. Just for being around and protecting their villages, people would, you know, they would come and they would feed us. So marines very quickly figured out, the best way to eat was to go on patrol. And we ate the food right out of the gardens. When we’d have a big meeting, you’d see an older woman and two boys escort a couple sheep across the yard and would be like “well I know what lunch is gonna be.” And you would have these huge bowls of rice where you could maybe get four of them on this five foot diameter table. Hunks of undefinable cuts of sort of yellow fatted, meat, and mutton, and you’d just sort of sit there and pick at it and eat it. And watch them bake their bread in the morning. But it was really seeing that, that made me start thinking about subsistence, and sustainable farming and you know, how you support yourself, by watching the Iraqis. And eating VERY well off of their economy that was flat on its ass, because the arsenal of democracy couldn’t feed us anything worth eating.

I had always been around it, but somehow coming out of Iraq, there was this sense of “wow, I think I want a farm.” And I’m here because my wife works for University, and this is a good compromise. There’s no tractor. I have a 20 year old pick up. I have a walk behind tractor, so essentially a tiller on steroids with a diesel engine and several attachments. It’s my tiller, it’s my lawn mower, it’s my brush mower, it’s my pasture mower, it’s my snow blower. I’m not really a vegetable guy on the production level—my joy, my expertise, is really with livestock—but a crop you can store long-term, like I would do potatoes, squash, garlic, things that you can harvest and then hold on to for a little while. And then certainly the meat with pigs, meat birds, chickens – I wouldn’t even bother with selling eggs – and I’ll look into sheep. I didn’t grow up around sheep, but with the scale of this place sheep makes sense. Cuz I don’t have a truck big enough to hull cattle. So it will take me a few years to get this where I want it to be, but I want it to be financially sustainable within very few years. I think there is a pretty good demand for not just pastured pork, but if I can do the nut finish, the apple finish, permaculture pork, yeah I think there will be a demand. Because last time I raised those hogs, I don’t know if it’s the best pork I’ve tasted, but I’m trying to remember a time when I’ve had something better.

They [The Farmers Veteran Coalition] gave me the title of Midwest Regional Ambassador. Most of what I do and it depends on when I have time, and when you can link up with vets, is basically, networking with veterans in Wisconsin, Illinois, and sometimes Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, and getting them educational opportunities. Primarily, we sponsor, for the last four years, I’m the guy who called the director of the office in California and said look if you’re interested in establishing FVC in the Midwest, there’s a great farming conference that we should bring people to. And I’ve been going to MOSES [Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service’s annual conference] in Lacrosse in February with my dad for a couple years. I convinced farmer coalition to come out and now I staff a booth there and have for the last 4 years. So we sponsor—it’s been 13 to 15 veterans for the last four years—and that’s a great event to do workshops and education and see what vendors have out there. And they meet other veterans and they meet other farmers. So that’s probably the biggest thing I do—getting new people into there every year.

Today Ryan spends his days as a stay at home dad/writer/farmer. He is in the process of building his newly bought land into the perfect spot to continue raising his family. When not outside he is either getting the kids ready for school or writing a book about his experience in Iraq.

–Brandon Andreasen

FRANCISCO CONTRERAS, AGRICULTURE OUTREACH SPECIALIST

Born in Mexico City and raised in Chavez, Mexico, Francisco Contreras initially entered higher education with the inspiration to work as veterinarian. He excelled in agriculture and later earned a degree in agriculture with an emphasis on dairy animals.

I grew up in Mexico, the Northern part of Mexico, which is bordered by Texas. The closest border I would say is Eagle Pass Texas. Before I came here I was working in Mexico at a research institution. Like the ARS here—the agricultural service here—the equivalent in Mexico. I was working for fifteen years there, doing research there, basically working with dairy cows too, and goats. Yeah, that’s what got me interested. And working with crops. 

My first interest was to be a veterinarian. When I finished high school, the condition of the university was at a point where I couldn’t go into the vet school, so I choose agricultural. But at some point agricultural with emphasis on animal sciences.

The official name of my is position is outreach specialist. I’m working in the, what we call, the “feed efficiency project.” This is a multi-estate project that was granted by the USDA and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, for five years. So basically this includes seven universities, like Wisconsin is one of those, Iowa, Michigan, Florida, uh, North Carolina, Netherlands. Part of the goals of this project  is to create a database with the information about genotype and phenotype in 8,000 cows, lactating cows. So basically my position is to collect those data and give it to the scientists. Then they are gonna put all this—in addition to  collecting this data we are taking—also, blood samples for DNA. So these scientists, or faculty, they’re gonna put together the phenotype and the genotype and data and try to identify genes correlated with the feed efficiency of lactating cows. And that’s a part of the research. This grant also has a extension component and education component, so I’m working also in the extension component. Trying to distribute…um… keep telling people more about the importance of feed efficiency of lactating cows.

Dairy cows have been bred to produce more milk. So in the course of twenty years cows are producing more milk, but also they are getting taller and weighing more. So probably twenty years ago, where the average cow would weigh probably 1400 pounds, right now some cows are weighing, at the farm like 2,000 pounds. So in addition to producing more milk, cows are eating more, but also growing more–taller and weighing. So what we try to do in this project, with this database, is try to select cows that are more efficient. Produce equal or more milk , without eating more. So they are more efficient in the feed that they are eating. See we don’t need to have monster cows to produce more milk. We can have our regular medium size cows, producing a lot of milk, with less feed. If we give less feed to the cow, also we have less wasting of nutrients to the soil to the environment.

Some days it’s working just in the office. I get data from the other trials and then just organizing this data, put it in the spreadsheet and then at some point when they have all the complete data, I send it to the person in Michigan State where they collect all this data and analyze it, do some kind of statistical analysis. But on regular days, I work in this data, organizing this data, putting it in the… ( hand motion referring to repetition). I do some calculations, like if the information is in pounds I pass it to kilograms, because we need it in kilograms. If meat production is in pounds, I pass kilograms. At some point, this information–we submit it to the meetings for presentations and posters. So I need to start working on that or write manuscripts for publication. That’s part of my daily job.

It’s different activities during the week. Some days I need to go to the farm. There are two places here in Wisconsin: one is Arlington, one is in Prairie Du Sac. We collect feed samples from the farm. When  I’m not in the office, for example, let’s say Thursdays, I go to my office  around seven in the morning. I stay there checking my email, doing some computer work. And then around 8 AM, I go  to the farm, Arlington, about forty five minutes. Then we weigh the cows. It takes about an hour. Take some milk samples, go with those milk samples to the lab to drop the samples there for analysis, and then come back to my office.

I usually try to work with a purpose. So I try to have my calendar so I can say, “I can do this, this day, and this, this day.” And, “why do I need to do that?” So I try to keep track of what I’m doing every day. I usually try to be responsible at my job. The main point is that the more precise the information the information that we get from these cows, at some point in the future it’s gonna be more important for people, for producers.

The main goal of these databases that we are creating with the university–all of us are creating this to try to select these cows that are more efficient. So at some point, the more precise information, the better  it’s gonna be in the future for the farmers to select cows that can produce more with about the same amount of feed. And that’s very important, to keep doing that. So my motivation is: keep the dairy industry in business, and try  to be more efficient  in producing milk, without polluting the  environment. So we can feed the cows, with less pollution to the environment. That’s one of my interests and goals.

I’m not directly tied to producers, not with me, but with faculty from the university, yes. In fact, in February we gave some seminars around the state, here in Wisconsin. We went to different counties to give talks about the efficiency of dairy cows, how to improve the efficiency of dairy cows, and to present some results that we got from a survey. We were three speakers in that seminar. I was talking about a survey that we sent, three years ago, to all the farmers. Most of the  producers in Wisconsin, I mean it’s not much, about 900 producers in Wisconsin, and also some producers in Michigan. So I was a part of getting those results and then there was another professor talking about nutrition, and another professor talking about the different tools to be more efficient.

The information I gave to the farmers was to say, “We send the surveys to you, you send us the results, this is what you are doing! This is what you are doing in terms of the nutrition, of grouping cows, and how you are feeding your cows.” So basically we gave them the picture of what some of the farmers are doing and what we think they should improve. The other two professors were talking more about a specific point of how they can improve managing the cows, and nutrition of the cows. These more “efficient cows” are producing more methane, and other nitrates into the soil. So at some point you select cows that are more efficient you are gonna have more methane production, which is gonna have an impact on the environment with all these greenhouse emissions. 

There were farmers very interested to try to do better. So definitely the farmers, at least in Wisconsin, and I think in other states also. They are interested in how they can do better. So this information, at some point, is gonna give them some kind of  decisions to use as tools to work better on the farm. Usually it is recommended that dairy farmers group cows based on the nutritional needs of the cows. And based on the results we got back from the survey, not all the farmers are grouping in that way. They are grouping in another aspect or some of the farmers are not grouping for any specific reason.

The long term of this project is gonna be for all the dairy industry. At some point all this information is gonna be available for all farmers and companies to select bulls for more efficient cows. The benefit is not just gonna be Wisconsin, it’s gonna be all the dairy industry, in all of the U.S., and probably, at some point, the world. Its when you bring the information to them when they say, “oh my God! What’s gonna happen? What can I do better?” But at some point they keep doing there routine of their regular day. We have some farmers stuck in their traditional ways and some farmers that are progressive.

With just going one day to give this seminar, it’s not enough to keep in touch with the farmers. I think that, at some point, is important. I would try to be more in touch with the farmers. Try to do more, one by one, with the information. Visit the farmers, learn what they are doing, learn what they are thinking, and then try to keep…planting a seed in  the farmers mind, and try to keep in touch with them so we  get more data. Just keep doing it and bring it to them. I think that’s a way I would modify it a little bit, if I keep doing this work.

Since I finished my bachelors degree, I wanted to be a scientist. So I have been blessed to keep working in science for a long time. Trying to transfer this science to the farmers is my goal. I feel at some point blessed that I keep doing what I want to do in my life. Probably not too much money, at some point, I’m not rich, but I keep doing what I want to do. So I am at the point where I wake up and I still don’t say “ooh, I gotta go to work,” as if it was a burden. I wake  up in the morning and say, “Let’s go to work!” My philosophy is, if you can move, retirement for what? Keep doing what you want to do, that’s the retirement.

Working with science you realize how important small details are, and you learn a lot from specific issues. So I think at some point, it gives you a different perspective of things that happen in the world. For example, how the cow produces milk. Probably you never think about how the cow produce milk. You don’t see all the work that is behind that glass of milk. You just go to the fridge here, and get the milk and drink the milk, and say oh it’s good. But when you go to the farm and see the science in dealing with trying to improve the efficiency of the cow—because it is a very complicated system inside the cow—you can realize that when you drink the milk. So to me, you appreciate more  of the effort of the farmers and all with what they are  doing. This is why I’m doing research, so they can do better.

I try to mention this, as much as I can, to the people; all the work, for example, behind a glass of milk, so being a farmer everyday, and feeding the cows and trying to do good management, to produce the milk or cheese, or product that is in our food. You don’t realize the hard work, in the winter, when everything freezes.There are no breaks, like Christmas breaks, for farmers.

— Monisha Freeman

LARRY KAPP, APPLE PICKER & BREAD BAKER

Larry picked apples for twenty years before going to Tech school. He used to pick 140 bushels of apples in a day, that’s how quick he was. His fingernails tell the world that he’s known physical labor, and his sourdough bread says he knows what he’s doing in the kitchen.

Larry picked apples for twenty years before going to Tech school. He used to pick 180 bushels of apples in a day, that’s how quick he was. His fingernails tell the world that he’s known physical labor, and his sourdough bread says he knows what he’s doing in the kitchen.

I got my start in the food industry from an ad in Mother Earth News. There was a section called “Position and Situations,” and after high school, I saw this ad for apple picking in southwest Wisconsin, in Gays Mills. When I was in high school in a suburb of Chicago, I learned how to garden from my neighbor. He was into growing things organically. I like nature, and I wanted to get away from the city, be in more natural surroundings. So I wound up picking apples.

Oh, apple picking was really fun. When I first started, they put me in the old-timer crew, and those guys worked by the hour. All the others, they worked by the bushel, but these guys got paid by the hour. So they weren’t in any hurry. So they’d tell stories about the old days, and it was fun to listen to them.

It wasn’t this menial job. It was one of the biggest employers around, and for a while it was one of the few jobs you could get, so almost everyone had experience with it. So people knew how important it was to the economy, and they understood what you were doing. You started in late summer, and worked through October. The last two or three weeks the company offered a 10 cent a bushel bonus. When it was 32 degrees and freezing rain, and you were mostly doing clean up, who would’ve stayed around if there hadn’t have been a bonus? Those extra few hundred dollars were a good incentive to stick around until the end. They “got you by the bonus,” we used to say. 

Before, they would plunk you down between four trees and give you these big bins. And you could be there for a long time just in that area. So the skill was putting your ladder in the right place to pick the most bushels and make good ladder sets without having to move it. That was the difference between a really efficient picker and someone who was new to picking.

There weren’t a whole lot of women pickers when I started. I think because it was so hard physically; the ladders we carried were 16 feet tall and really heavy. But that changed some when the trees got smaller. Now you only need an 8-foot ladder to pick, and they plant so close together everyone picks rows and rows. Before you had your own tree, and it was more mellow out there. It was pretty quiet until you called the tractor over to replace your picking bins or something. But now it’s noisy, and there’s tractor fumes because you have to move from different trees so much. Sure, you can pick more fruit because there’s not as much ladder work, but it’s harder on your back too. Having 40-50 pounds of apples around your waist gets pretty heavy, especially when you’re bending down more because fruit is lower down.

I picked apples for 20 years. My minimum was 60 bushels a day. But back when I was a super picker, I could do 60 bushels in my sleep. I could 120, 140 bushels a day when there was a good crop. My best year I picked 7,500 apples. I would pick through lunch, and I worked really hard. There was some competition between us workers.

Calendar from Sept 1993 showing how many bushels Larry picked
Calendar from Sept 1993 showing how many bushels Larry picked

You would pace yourself against somebody else, and that made the day go by quicker. The company was lucky they had a dedicated, experienced crew to come back every year.

Sometimes I would look at my social security deposits, and I would see a year where I made less and I would say, oh yeah, that was when the crop was really bad. I only made $4,000 a year. Sometimes I would get a little unemployment but I lived on four- to six-thousand a year. When you’re poor, like apples pickers are, you could always find somewhere cheap to live. I would live in an abandoned school bus on someone’s land. There was no plumbing or electricity, but I didn’t care about that.

Living like that, you had time to learn skills. I only picked apples for three months of the year. The other nine I would help out on some small vegetable farms and volunteer at the food co-op in town. And I had time to live the good life. I read books, just hung around, traveled.

Someone had started a wholegrain bakery in the back room of the food co-op. So I took it over when the woman was pregnant. She showed me how she did it, but I developed my own recipes. Did I have any formal training? (Scoffs.) I learned on the fly.

It was so efficient, you were in constant motion. I added one thing to my bread that made a huge difference in the quality. Before the bread was kind of crumbly and dry, but I made a small change and it made a huge difference. I’d be doing one batch, and getting the next batch going, and working until the last minute. That was fun.

The building we were in, the heating wasn’t very good. It would never pass codes these days. You’d have to leave the faucet dripping so it wouldn’t freeze over. When I came in in the mornings in the winter, you’d try to put a spoon in the five-gallon bucket of malt, and it would be so stiff.

I had one employee working for me. She worked really hard. She would always try to sneak sugar into the pastries if I was gone. I was pretty much a purist—I didn’t put any sugar in my bread. When I took her bread to market and after she’d say, “Well, how did they sell?” And if I said we sold out, she’d say, “See, that’s what the people want!” But I don’t think you need white flour, white sugar—just whole grain.

I used to go down to the spring and get water right from the source for my sourdough bread, and it was so fresh, so pure. But they wouldn’t let you do that anymore. So I think people do a pretty good job with food, but there’s some things that people do that aren’t sustainable. Some things are over-hyped or that people just don’t realize about food.

After my big bakes on Friday, with 80 or 100 loaves of bread in my Ford Sedan, I would load up to go to the farmer’s market. Back then, you just showed up found a spot; there’s not all these permits and waiting lists like there are now. I would have to get up at three in the morning to drive to Madison. The smell of bread in the car almost made you nauseous. It was too early in the morning for that smell. That was probably not the most fun part of the job. But hey, I was young.

People liked my bread. I would add extra ingredients to the base for different kinds. Sunflower seeds, herbs, millet. One time, I overheard this woman saying, “You know who makes the best bread? Larry Kapp made the best sourdough bread I’ve ever had.” She didn’t know I was in the room. That was pretty nice. (Smiles.) You’re creating something that makes people feel good. I guess that’s pretty rewarding. 

When people eat something I make, I just hope it makes them feel good. That when they eat it, it warms them up and they feel like they just ate something nutritious. This one bakery in Duluth, one of the ingredients on their label is love. And that’s true, if you’re in a bad mood and just slopping everything together, your product wouldn’t be as good. I like to teach people to make sourdough bread. It’s a craft, but it’s so simple too.

My career at Wheatheart Bakery ended after a summer, when the coop burned down. The funny thing was that my next two bakes would have finally paid me back for all my labor for the summer. I always invested my pay in the bread, and I had just bought 500 pounds of flour. And then the coop burned down. Oh well, I just went up to the orchard and asked if I could start working again.

Why did I leave the apple orchard? Well, I traveled around a little, and I went to California and saw a lot of homeless people on the streets. And I realized I was getting older and I thought, what if there was no apple crop and I couldn’t make any money? I could be living on the streets too. So I decided to go to tech school, and I picked out HVAC, which is what I do now. I work for UW-Madison doing heating and air stuff. I’ve always been a handyman; I like to tinker with things.

In a real job, you have to be careful with what you say. Where you could maybe talk freely with the guys picking apples, here you have to watch your language. And it’s more civilized, in a way. You know, there it’s a smaller group of people but here there’s a wide diversity of people. But you get benefits too. So they’re both okay in their own ways. One was hard work, and here, well… When you’ve done that hard physical labor outside and then you come here and think to yourself, I know real hard work.

I might retire soon, and then I was thinking about what would I do. I might get a job picking apples, or working with a truck garden all day, doing their maintenance. That wouldn’t bother me at all.

Do I see myself getting back into the food industry? I don’t feel like I’ve left it! I still garden and bake and I share my food with my coworkers. I shop at food coops, and I have a lot of friends who truck garden. I’m still surrounded by it all the time. I understand all the labor that goes into making food. The people harvesting it, packing it, shipping it, and the cooks preparing it. Food has always been an important part of my life. It’s just not my occupation. It’s not where I get my money.

Larry with his home by the apple orchard
Larry with his home by the apple orchard

–Liz Schnee

WARD FOWLER, CO-FOUNDER OF COLECTIVO COFFEE

Ward Fowler is one of the three founders of Colectivo Coffee, a wholesale coffee roasting company based in Milwaukee. Ward, his brother Lincoln, and his friend Paul Miller opened their first store in 1993. Since then, they have opened twelve locations and three kiosks around Wisconsin.

I grew up drinking coffee. It was much less of a passion though. It was simply a consuming tradition in my household: and it was definitely not good coffee. Things began to change, though, when I went to Scotland and a friend from down the hall, who was into coffee, introduced me to it. That’s when I really started to get into it. I remember getting my first cappuccino and thinking, “Oh my god. I have never tasted anything like this!” Getting introduced to your first well-made cappuccino with enough espresso and perfectly made foam, with a little bit of turbinado sugar over the top, is just oh! So good.

I guess I kind of had step-by-step appreciation for coffee. And I guess that’s kind of what I want to bring to customers now. I want people to notice what they are drinking and say “Oh, that’s really good!” Kind of like I did that first time. I want drinking coffee to go from this background experience to something that forces your attention. Most people don’t brew coffee accurately enough at home to capture what’s special about the origin. And that’s the thing I’m most interested in.

When Link and I were younger, we started this speaker business: building high end, fancy home audio loudspeakers. We were kids just out of college and did this as hobbyists, like geeky little teenagers. It was a failed business basically though. But the one upside was that we met Paul through it ’cause he had a warehouse space in the same building as us. 

Eventually, we started getting together and spent what little money we had on coffee. We would go to Northwestern Coffee Mills, which was this old roasting operation on Broadway. I remember it was about six bucks a pound and Paul would come down to our space, and we’d just hang and listen to our music blaring from our stereos.

We all started noticing that coffee was becoming this trending thing, like in Seattle and the Northwest. This is when Starbucks started opening up and these places were just ripping the cover off the ball. I mean they were so busy and doing such shocking volumes. It was astounding. We knew that there was an opportunity in this.  So we developed a vision for our first coffee shop. We wanted to open a café in the Bayshore shopping center which would be a retail coffee operation, and we would have roasting coffee at the site, maybe make sandwiches, and we even had a newsstand. But we kind of backed ourselves into a corner and it turned into this whole sale roasting operation. It kind of all happened really quickly.

We thought the coffee we were roasting at the beginning was so awesome. (laughs) Total youth. We were so convinced of this. And it was… pretty good. We would bring people in and say, “You gotta see what we’re doing here. You should be buying our coffee. It’s awesome. Come in an you can see this impressive operation and you can taste some of this coffee!” And of course this place was a mess, but we were really proud and we were really excited.

When we first opened on Prospect, some guy wrote us this letter that said “Went into your place and really loved it! Congratulations on opening! I was so pleased to see that you took so much detail seriously.” It was nice to see that it actually paid off. We always want to create an environment that is somewhat theatrical, perhaps, where it was evident that we addressed a lot of detail. Emphasis on design, and environment, and art, and aesthetic were there at the beginning and are still there now.

We want environments with a vibe to them. We don’t want people to feel like they’re in a library. I’ve gone into other cafés and you feel like you have to be quiet and it’s not good. Music in our locations is often too high to concentrate and it’s intentional. I think it’s important to do this, even if we get complaints about it, which we do a lot. We just want that vibe to be right. We want to make it feel good so everybody is comfortable in our spaces. We want to be as inclusive as possible and reflect the neighborhood in which the thing sits.

I think that places like ours are important. Really important. Life was different before Starbucks and companies like us. Because there weren’t environments like that where you could gather—seeing your neighbors and being with them. And there wasn’t a culture like that. I think as a result, the way people live, in general, is different. I love it when I go into one of our stores and there’s old people and young people, and moms with kids and dads with kids, and teenagers with girlfriends, and whatever! That’s when it’s best. It’s like you took the neighborhood and just threw them all in there! You feel like it’s your community that way. Detail and matching it to the environment is really important for that to happen.

We have a ton of community relations, which helps with creating that specific environment that caters to location. We get a lot of inquiries from nonprofits. We have significant connections with these community institutions and they revolve around the arts, the performing arts, cycling, education, and urban ecology centers—a lot of these relationships, we’ve had for years. Sometimes people don’t understand why or what we are doing at these places. One reason is that we get exposure by supporting these organizations. It’s marketing. But it is also a reflection of our values. If you are supporting these institutions that make a community special, you find that they are lots of other people that value these same things. And what we support is not lost on them. It makes their loyalty different and enduring. Once you convince a customer you share values like that, they are never going anywhere else. That’s their lifeblood. We want them to stay with us.

When we were a relatively small company, we began to buy coffee directly from a cooperative of growers in Mexico, all the way in the south. I thought that it would be so exciting to have a direct relationship with coffee growers like that. I’m particularly proud of this deal because it’s still going on, sixteen years later. Having a relationship with anyone or anything for sixteen years is just not easy. Relationships have ups and downs. And what you need to have is commitment to each other.

When I originally went down to Mexico, my wife, Mary Jane, was pregnant with my first son, Henry, and I told the growers that.  So after making a connection with them, years later, they reached out to me and said, “Its been awhile since you’ve visited and were thinking that if you would like to come down, we would have a ten year anniversary celebration!” They then added, “We would be so happy if you would bring your son. It’s the ten-year anniversary of our relationship together so that must mean your son is ten years old. We would love to meet him.”

Henry and I went down there and it was just like the first time I went. We stayed with a family and the natives had a big reception at their bodega where we sat at the table for guests of honor. Everyone was there. They made these proclamations and said things like, “We are welcoming our brother!” I am so proud of this relationship and connection. I think it’s very unique and important.

I think I would still be engaged in my own business if I hadn’t created Colectivo. I really wanted to do my own thing. I just wanted to get on with it after I graduated college. It was luck that Link, Paul, and I got connected. Lincoln and I were coming from a failed business and what we had learned was to limit the downside. I think in our subconscious it was that when a business ultimately fails, it’s better not to lose a ton of money. But you can’t succeed at business when you try to contain the damage. You just cannot. When we were just starting this business, I remember Paul saying, “We are building this thing to kill it. We want to kill it. We aren’t gonna go through all of this trouble and damage to just be a little bit successful.” This was the single most important thing that I have learned from my partner. You have to make the investment. You have to commit.

Paul, Lincoln, and I are all still very actively engaged on a constant basis when a store is being designed and when it’s being built, but our jobs have changed over the years. I kind of administered the business at the beginning, Lincoln dealt with equipment, and Paul was all about the retail and design. Though we all have some specialization, we make all significant decisions as a group. We have a good partnership that way. It’s an easy one. We are really close and no one is extreme.

We’ve gone through all of these stages. There are some things about a small organization that you simply cannot maintain and there are some things that I really liked. There used to be so few people around that you could discuss and make change in any way that was very immediate and simple. Direct! Just raise your voice and everybody heard. And now there are locations and everything is different and we have to be far more deliberate about how we communicate to people. But the single greatest challenge is effective communication. As you get bigger that’s just harder. We are pretty good at it now, but it’s taken learning.

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I have to admit that there are a lot of people that I couldn’t tell you their name.  Everybody here—I know their name and that’s a lot of people. But a lot of people at different locations I don’t know. But this company began as this tiny little thing and now we employ 400 people, so it’s a reality that’s changing and delegating real responsibility is something we have had to learn over the years. The three of us are pretty unified at trying to become as irrelevant as possible. Our coffee department—Rosco runs that. Nathan does all of the coffee buying—spends millions of dollars on coffee. The service department—they don’t call me on Saturday mornings. And there’s no typical day for me. I have a lot of meetings with a lot of people and I circulate the cafés and just see how things are going.  It’s not a sophisticated reflection of a company when you are that critical to its survival.

Somebody who was in business for a long time said that they were trying to figure out ways to have fewer employees and I can appreciate that. I mean people are complicated and they cause problems. But I remember thinking that roasting coffee isn’t curing coffee. Its cool, don’t get me wrong. I love our coffee and I still get psyched for coffee every morning. The coffee changes even though you’re buying from the same place—it’s changing and it’s exciting. And it’s satisfying that we are buying and selling and creating sustainable relationships. But for me, the most meaningful and redeeming part of a business is the employment part. I have to say after twenty-two years, I still feel this way. I’m still interested in and curious about people. And I am proud of how many people are a part of Colectivo.

— Gabi Caron-Schuler

BARB MILLER, CO-FOUNDER OF GREENBUSH BAKERY

Barb, along with her husband, Marv “The Donut Man,” opened the Greenbush Bakery in Madison, WI in 1996.  Although she doesn’t eat the donuts often, her favorite is the double chocolate cake donut.

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Failure was never an option for Marv and I.  Opening the Greenbush Bakery in 1996 represented a complete career change for my husband. In the early years of the bakery, Marv spent nearly every day learning, creating, and perfecting the donuts people now know and love.  During this time, I was still working as a nurse so I helped with the new business on my days off and the weekends.  The early years were not easy and that has been the hardest part about owning our own business.  We have the freedom to succeed or fail and it is up to us to decide which path we want to take. 

Marv and I didn’t come from a long line of bakers.  We would do normal baking with our families but we had never made donuts before owning a donut shop.  Marv got his training on the job from a worker who was a part of the business that was previously in Greenbush’s spot.  The days were long and I can’t tell you how many times Marv fell asleep here with a bag of flour as a pillow.  All the equipment we started with was in need of some repair or complete replacement, neither option being a cheap one. 

Marv has been many different things in the past from a jet mechanic to an insurance salesman and is quite the handy man.  He can fix a lot, but for the more difficult repairs, he’s done his research and we have several manufacturers on file to call if we need to.  Although this was just the beginning of Greenbush, we knew we were heading towards the path to success.

In 1998, we were approached by the Jewish community to become a kosher certified kitchen.  We were excited about this opportunity that came knocking on our door and gladly welcomed the challenge of getting such a prestigious certification.  This process involved the rabbi inspecting and checking over the entire kitchen.  Anything and everything going into the making of our products had to be kosher.  The rolling table was sanded, all the utensils and cookware that touched the donuts had to be boiled for 45 minutes, our ingredients had to be kosher, and all packaging, pan liners, and cleaners had to follow kosher guidelines.  We’ve been recertified every year since and like the Donut Man always says, “Kosher Means Quality.”  The standards are set high to receive this certification and we could not be more proud of it.

Our staff has not changed much throughout the years, however, we do hire the college kids to work the counter and they vary throughout the years.  We have had nursing students, engineers, and teachers all work here and we are flexible enough to work with their schedules.  We absolutely love working with the students, we have even been invited to some weddings!  Despite most of our employees graduating and moving on, some of our full timers have graduated and decided to stick around here at Greenbush.  A goal that we have always had is that we not only have a smiling staff—but no matter what the circumstances are, our customers leave with a smile.  On the bottom of the printed list of duties for the staff it says, “A smile is contagious, have fun!” which helps keeps our goal in all of our minds.

We love the customers.  We have students at all hours of the day.  We have church people, we have families, we have working people.  We see people from all walks of life but I especially enjoy the families with their little kids.  They’ll come in on Sundays in their pajamas because they ask to come get donuts first thing after waking up in the morning.  We’ve had customers during alumni day or homecoming that come in and tell us how our donuts got them through all their finals.  In fact, this morning I ran into a man who was one of our first customers and it was great.  You don’t just forget what opening day felt like and the first customers who come through the door. 

At Greenbush we only sell donuts and the reason for that is said best by the Donut Man, “You can’t be everything to everyone”.  It’s very important that we stick to one item and don’t dilute our margins because if you try to get to big, it gets difficult to please everyone.  With that being said, we still have forty plus different flavors, kinds, and fillings.   We’ve specialized certain recipes to help create the wide variety we have. Marv learned how to make donuts on the job training so he was really just thrown into it.  There is a lot of mixing, fixing and tasting that goes into specializing the recipes. 

As for inspiration for the different flavors?  Well, as Marv would say, “Make things of yesteryear.”  We’ve gotten a lot of suggestions throughout the years, we’ve worked on them, and now that’s what we have.  It’s fun to see what the guys come up with and try out.  When we make the new flavors, we make sure that the recipe is exactly how it should be.  Consistency is not only important for us, but especially to our customers.  That’s one reason we make our whole variety of donuts everyday.  Another reason is that we do wholesale to several different outlets like Willy St. Co-op, Metcalfe’s, and many churches on Sunday mornings. We’ve streamlined our wholesale accounts throughout the years because for us to do business with them, they have to be worth it.  We do deliveries most days and the donuts that we send out are always baked fresh.  We don’t want our product going out, being pushed to the back of a shelf, expiring and then our customers not getting the donuts the way we intended for them to. 

We do a lot with the community.  We donate to many different groups, some examples being the Special Olympics and the Luke House.  Donating to these groups is absolutely awesome.  Some days we bring what donuts we have left over to The Luke House or The Port, a part of the St.Vincent de Paul Society, and you just see people’s eyes light up when you walk into the room.  I have taken my college grandson and nephew during the Christmas vacation to do special deliveries for The Luke House and The Port and people are so appreciative of what we bring.  The happiness that comes from all of that is really what this is all about. 

When we started, we were very small.  Now?  We’re huge.  We have our shop; we do wholesale to several outlets, deliver to many churches on Sunday mornings. Our website just launched a few months ago. We have a new delivery truck and we give back to the community whenever we get the chance.  We even have a few aprons in the time capsule at the Overture Center for people in the future to open in however many years.  It wasn’t easy getting to where we are and we couldn’t be more grateful for the staff and customers we have.  Marv and I do a lot of thanking because we have great people here and we are very proud of them. As far as opening another store goes, it is talked about all the time and thought about constantly.

— Caroline Krolicki

BARB LUEPTOW, RESTAURANT CO-OWNER & EMILY PRITZL, EMPLOYEE

Our story begins with a small local café called Wrap It Up, located in Manitowoc Wisconsin, and co-owned by Barb Lueptow and Randy Lueptow. Wrap It Up is a family oriented restaurant, that emphasizes organically and locally grown products. Barb Lueptow envisioned a restaurant that served high quality food and comfort, which is exactly what she and her employee Emily Pritzl provide. We begin with Barb’s story.

As a co-owner of Wrap It Up, my love for cooking and healthy eating began long before I ever knew I would one day have my own restaurant. My history of cooking developed from my family descendants of Hungary. They have introduced me to so many ingredients that I now use in my restaurant today—ingredients that our customers have been noticing they can’t get anywhere else, like our homemade seasonings or heirloom pepper. These special ingredients—my grandfather has brought over from Hungary—create a unique touch to our wraps and paninis that cannot be created anywhere else.

Growing up, my family had a huge garden in our backyard, where we grew and cultivated our own vegetables. My mother was very passionate about eating homegrown food because it was better for you. She was always cooking our meals with vegetables straight from the garden. Growing up eating fresh foods like this has made me love the taste of natural and fresh ingredients. This reflects through Wrap It Up because my husband and I only purchase products from local venders for fresh and healthy organic ingredients. The quality of our products is very important to me, and I want it to reflect through my business in a positive way. I want our customers to appreciate eating fresh and high quality ingredients just as much as I do.

With Wrap It Up being a local restaurant, my husband and I believe in supporting other local vendors as well. We get all of our bread from Natural Ovens, which is a natural baker in Manitowoc and we sell craft beer from local breweries. Being a small, downtown restaurant we care about our customers and creating a local, friendly atmosphere. Wrap It Up is one of the only restaurants left in downtown Manitowoc so our location promotes our business and has become a destination for our customers. This has helped us to acquire many regular customers who support us and consistently experience our service, building close relationships. I find this another important aspect of being a locally owned restaurant in a smaller community. Building relationships with customers creates a more family feel to the restaurant and causes customers to become more frequent.

My love for cooking has translated into a passion for making Wrap It Up a success. With working in the food industry for three years now, I have completed a new goal with my cooking skills, other than just to feed my family good quality food. I am now feeding an entire community with locally grown and organically made food, which are practices that I emphasize and believe create higher quality meals. The most gratifying part of my job are the customers.  Creating a good dining experience for them makes my job feel that much more successful. I also take pride in the improvements my husband and I have made from Wrap It Up’s previous owners. We have not only expanded the hours of the restaurant, but also the menu. Instead of just wraps we also make paninis, breakfast foods, smoothies, and coffee beverages. This variety has also helped improve customer frequency and satisfaction.

Wrap It Up has become a main destination while visiting Manitowoc’s downtown area. I  am proud that it is due to the original recipes and unique menu items my husband and I have created. Customers want to enjoy our delicious food in the company of our friendly service, which is what I believe has made Wrap It Up such a big success.

Emily Pritzl, an employee at Wrap It Up, wanted to work at this restaurant because she believes in supporting local business and had been a regular customer since it opened. 

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I have been an employee at Wrap It Up for eight months now, but over the past three years I have worked between three different restaurants. Wrap It Up has a unique emphasis on food sustainability and eating organically through local growers. I have never seen any other restaurant produce their beliefs on food quality this vigorously, and I think it’s what makes the restaurant so special to the community. Working at Wrap It Up has made me consider owning a local restaurant just like it someday in the future, because I believe in all the food values practiced here that are highlighted to the rest of the community.

My responsibilities at Wrap It Up consist of running the cash register, making coffee drinks, and taking orders for the kitchen. Since I am constantly working at the front of the restaurant, I am the first face customers see walking in. My customer service helps to create the first overall impression of Wrap It Up’s atmosphere. I try to initiate conversations with customers that reach them on a personal level. I want to make the customer feel appreciated and welcomed back anytime.

I feel like it is my job to promote an inviting environment where each customer feels comfortable and good about their experience eating at Wrap It Up. I believe that working in the food industry an important quality to have is patience and good customer service. As an employee I realize I represent the business and can’t risk losing customers and their support. Making Wrap It Up a success has become just as important to me now as it is for Barb and Randy.

With Wrap It Up being a family owned business, work has become a second home to me. Barb and Randy do a great job of creating close bonds with their customers and employees to help us all feel appreciated and welcome. Working here has made me feel closer to the community thanks to the owners. What I believe makes Wrap It Up unique to the community of Manitowoc are the creative combinations of food, like how we turned a cheeseburger into a wrap.

Our customers like how we put our own special touch on the recipes, and they come back because they realize they can’t get these meals anywhere else. Wrap It Up also creates an atmosphere of comfort and familiarity, which makes eating here more enjoyable. Wrap It up is more than just a place to eat; it has become a place to socialize, build friendships, and support the local community. Their food production and service is unique to the community, which is why no other restaurant can duplicate what Wrap It Up has to offer.

— Haley Feller

FORMER PRISON COOK

He  joined the cook crew—a choice that ended up changing his life.

Being in the kitchen was something I was always interested in.  It was kinda like a plan B for me for whenever I didn’t have funds.

Leading up to my prison sentence and actually working in the kitchen, my cooking was minimal.  Cooking was never something that I stereotyped to just women.  For the simple fact that I had male family members that I seen cooking on the grill. I kinda associated that as there are different styles of cooking. 

Mom constantly cooked. I remember having meals on a regular basis. I would say, every other night was a home cooked meal. I think we had one to two nights when we fended for ourselves. She always tried to make sure, towards the weekend we would have pizza, or she would make a type of nacho. We would always have fun food towards the weekend, but always had well-balanced meals throughout the week. I was always interested in knowing that foods had vitamins and minerals. My favorite foo was fruits and vegetables because that is what we had to have in order to have the sweet treats. My favorite thing that mom cooked was broccoli. The way she steamed them, and buttered them, and salted them was perfect to me.

I actually put in a request with the kitchen hack–as they call it. The kitchen supervisor—I put in a request with him that if a position opens, I would like to be considered for it. Over time, the position opened up and he gave me a chance. I believe that position opened up within like two and a half months, which is really rare. Usually you have to wait a year to two in order for you to earn a position like that. You have several hundred people that would love to have that position. It is one of the better paying jobs on the inside. So, it was just God making a way for me.

The kitchen made everything better. We trained each other. My favorite part was using all the tools in the kitchen. You use industrial potato peelers, mixers, fryers, ovens, pot cleaners. Everything is industrial sized. Then every once in a while you would get extra food or something that we had to use up real fast and it doesn’t matter how you used it. So, that’s when I found out that I had a knack for baking. Towards the very end of it, when all I really was, was like an overseer—that’s when it got fun for me.

The type of cooking that I did, it wasn’t like for me. I’m trying to make sure that every person that came through there enjoyed it. That’s one thing I took notice of on the other side of being in the kitchen: Every once in a while you would get a decent meal and a lot of times you didn’t. When I cooked, I tried to make it delightful, make it a pleasant experience overall.

Christmastime or tax season—a lot of people don’t even come to the kitchen. Everybody’s doing well ‘cause of the gifts. So, they don’t even come to the kitchen, they ballin’ now. They can afford canteen and go to the store. That’s all ours now. They think, “You know we got extra money now, I’m not going to the kitchen.” But they still want the food when we bring it up there. Everybody gets a cut. The dishwasher might get two pieces of chicken to leave with that night and the number one might end up with thirty or forty pieces. 

As the grade number increases, the work load decreases. I think as a dishwasher the least I got was thirteen dollars for a month. As a grade one cook, the most I ever made was a hundred and forty dollars for a month. That’s with a bonus—usually I got paid a hundred dollars a month. I cut my cut in half because I wanna see these guys live a little better. I know there’s guys in there that don’t have anything at all. So, I try to recognize that and even make a special trip to that guy’s dorm, ‘cause it’s obvious when somebody’s doing bad. I think I gained more respect through that because if you can pay, you can pay, and if you can’t, oh well.  You don’t owe me nothing. I’m not that kind of person. I wasn’t raised that way. 

Most people work out constantly.  There are some people that work out three times a day. I was working out two times a day. Protein, protein, protein—it’s all about protein. Food is the number one, if you don’t have cigarettes. Cigarettes is number one. The supervisor gives like a five or ten minute window to get out of the kitchen—he turned his back, but once you get to the number two or the number one position, you can pretty much afford a horse. You can afford someone to take your stuff and even sell it for you. So, you don’t jeopardize your job. 

The same menu is served every two weeks.  It’s usually like two Mexican meals, two Italian, two for the Blacks, and then they might throw a Chinese dish in there. You usually get a vegetable, a meat, a bread and maybe a piece of cake, something like that. They pretty much all taste the same ’cause you all have the same spices. It was rare to do a menu change—if we did it, it’s because there’s a shortage of an ingredient. Try to make the most of what you got to work with. The holiday is when you have the layout like you would at home.  They did do it up pretty big on the holidays.  Everything you would see at home—they went all out.

Regardless of what you use, they never served leftovers. A lot of that food is outdated too, so once you cook it, it’s over with. It’s no re-using. They keep it frozen though, until the last minute. Just enough for that one meal gets thawed out. You pretty much get fresh food around the holidays, but that’s it. In 2008, when I ran into the number two position, that is when I started to pay attention more. My duties were less, to where I could pay attention more. It was like 2008, and the box of ground beef said 2000. That was scary for me at the moment, but as time goes on, you get closer to those kitchen supervisors and they give little bits of information and break it down that it is what it is. You don’t get rewarded with top notch food, you’re doing a prison sentence here. But at the same time, they try to let you know the measures they take to keep it so it’s not degrading to the inmates.

I had a double hernia. They wouldn’t get me checked out and I’m in the kitchen and it’s like mid-afternoon. Nobody will give me attention about this. So, there was a pan of melted butter—there was a four inch pan—so I laid the butter on the floor. I kind of spilled it on the floor myself.  I poured all the butter out, laid the pan down there like it fell, then I just ran my foot through the butter. Then I laid down on the floor and put butter all up my side. I didn’t think the officer cared that much, he was doing his job. You know, responding how he was supposed to, but he hopped on his walkie talkie so fast. Prison guards from where we were at and across the street were there, in like ten seconds, and got me carried out of there. That’s what it took for me to get my double hernia surgery. 

With kitchen work you have to be very assertive, very fast, and you got to let them know that you’re no nonsense. A lot of people—they’ll try you—try to set you up in certain ways. You might have somebody throw a bag of food. Once it leaves the kitchen, it’s considered contaminated. So if you got that in your possession, that’s an automatic termination of your job, or it’s supposed to be.  The competition is between the number one and the number two cook. Just say that I’m number two, but I know that I know how to cook that rice and chicken better than he do. But, he just set on making it that day—you can feel that vibe.  If you can’t function amongst ourselves, then the police get involved.  So it’s pretty much an unspoken kind of law that “hey, you’re here to work—keep your mouth closed and you’ll be taken care of.” 

I think I had barely been the number two cook for a while. The guy, he had been on pots and pans. His name was Light—I’ll never forget.  He saw me—the shift was almost over, I put my chicken in one of the pots. It was already bagged up. So you kinda set it by the door and I was waiting on my chance to leave. I usually waited for it to clear out and helped the number one check everybody’s station. I’m helping him and I come back. I notice he headed towards my thing. He was like, “Man you shorted me out of a few pieces of chicken.” I don’t remember the number. He’s coming from the pots and pans area. I’m coming from like the dining room almost and both of us are headed towards the pot. We didn’t have a messed up relationship, there was a respect that was there. I kinda gave him, a running shoulder, like “don’t touch my stuff.” The next day it was a big laugh, like I almost slipped, the floor was wet and everything. 

The least I had to cook for was 350 and the most I had to cook for was 620.  So you have to make that work. As the number one cook I had to be the one to serve that meal and I better not run out. So you just gotta make it work with what you got. It prepared me because it is my line of work now. That’s one thing I regret–that things weren’t a little more like in a regular kitchen, where more normal-sized tools are used because that’s what I was thrown into when I made it back out.

It teaches you what to expect in the kitchen. Nine times out of ten the way they talk to you on the inside in the kitchen is how they are going to talk to you in the working kitchen in the free world. They embarrass you in front of people to make you stronger. They talk to you like that because they know that you don’t want to be talked to like that. When they take the time to talk crazy to you—which is weird—it means they see something in you. 

A dish prepared by Jeffrey
A dish prepared by the narrator.

— Angelina Morales

NOAH KOHL, BARISTA AT BADGER MARKET

Noah Kohl, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is originally from Milwaukee. He works as a barista at the Badger Market.

You would think being in college would be pretty simple; go to class, do a bit of studying and hang out with your friends all the time. Things change when you’re not a freshmen anymore and your parents stop giving you money and you have to explain to them that everything costs more. Even food costs more. You can’t just swipe a card and have a prepared meal. You have to go to the grocery store, get food and come back home and make it for yourself. Time gets a lot more crunched that way. You have to, like, set aside time in the day to cook. I was used to just grabbing stuff on the run. So of course the first thing they tell you to do is to get a job.

I searched around, and, like most students, just took a Union job. Getting a Union job is easy because they’re only available for students at the University of Wisconsin. I thought about what would be easy and what would fit into my class schedule and saw that the Badger Market needed some new staff. I took a job as a Barista. It’s ok work. It’s not like a 9-5 standard job. You  get different hours depending on the day. Between my classes I work, sometimes I don’t have work. It’s not that tough I guess, ’cause you get used to it, you know, ’cause the work schedule is built around your class schedule.

Usually I get off work and when I do its ’cause I have a class after, so it works out pretty well ’cause they’re pretty helpful with making it convenient for you. It’s somewhat cool because I can leave class, go to work and still have some time at night to do things like hang out with my friends. I think that’s what’s separated the Badger Market from other places that I have worked. Although everything is not ideal or the best, they do care about you as a student and they do understand that, while you do have work, you’re a young college kid at the same time. They don’t take that aspect of life away from you.

Every day is pretty much the same, I come in and there’s usually a list of things already set for me to do. I work with two to three other people generally and also have a supervisor. It’s a pretty laid back environment and as a group we always help each other out, so no one is ever really overwhelmed. The biggest rushes we have are generally around the 2:30 class ending period. Most of the time people come in for coffee and sandwiches that either have to be prepped or are already ready. Most of the time its coffee, however; black coffee at that. I’d say that’s our most popular item.

Sometimes I have to make drinks like cappuccino and lattes, but people usually get the already prepared coffee. Either of the lot isn’t that hard to make; it might have been at first, but you get the hang of it pretty fast. If I do have to make a sandwich or something small, for example, its usually the panini which is mostly the toaster doing the work after you put the cheese and whatever meat item they want inside. Besides that nothing is too, too hard to make, or not already prepared.

When it comes to making the food, like the coffee, nothing is too hard or can’t be learned. I remember when I first started working here and I was pretty shaken because I thought I was behind everyone else and thought they all knew what they were doing already, but they were learning just like I was and had some good and bad training days like I had, so that was a relief for a beginner like me.

We have other items at the market too. You can get cold drinks along with the warm drinks, and we have cookies, donuts and other small, on-the-go snacks. I don’t eat much of the food, mainly ’cause you still have to pay for it. You don’t even get a discount or anything. One good thing we have is a chicken or turkey wrap that’s already prepared. It’s filled with veggies and all types of good stuff—it’s pretty tasty. I don’t want to day anything bad about the food, but from my experiences eating it, more could be offered on the menu, or at least some innovations to the existing items could be made.

Everything about the job is pretty easy but there are some drawbacks. You have to deal with some unpleasant customers in combination with the good customers. A typical customer is usually like….over 40 I’d say. It’s mostly people that work there and students that just have class in the area, and most of them usually just get coffee and stuff. Some of the customers can be really rude, however. If you’re dealing with a bad customer usually they’re rude. They can be annoying or complain about how long you’re taking or just the quality of your service. It’s really annoying to hear that stuff when your just trying to, you know…. it’s a part time job.

Some people treat you as if, at the end of the day, you don’t take off your clothes and go to class just like they are, or go live a regular life just like they do. I don’t walk into their rooms and judge them for how they’re filing papers or judge the students for their handwriting. It just seems that petty. The one person that sticks out to me is this guy who came in one day and complained that his coffee was cold. I watched as he poured it out of the Thermos coffee holder. He didn’t take a sip or anything—he just said it was cold. I believe in customer service, but what am I supposed to do with a rush of people behind him? Put his coffee in the microwave? After he walked away angry, I poured a small amount into a cup. It was hot, but once again I know we’re here to serve people and provide good service, even when the customer is an asshole.

There are some equal good parts to the job as well as the bad parts of course. The best parts: I like the people that work there. It’s not that tough of a job. The worst part: They don’t pay you anything really. Well $8.50 isn’t that great of pay. They try to act like “Oh, it’s not minimum wage,” but you can’t even take tips or anything because you’re part of a Union job. I would say the pay is probably the worst part. At the end of the day me and my supervisors know why I’m there. I’m not going to be a Barista my whole life, nor will I quit my job before I graduate. There’s mutual interest from both parties.

I think the Union can do a much better job at making the job worthwhile for the students. There’s two different approaches. There’s one that would think like, “these kids are dedicating time that they don’t necessarily have—they could be studying but they’re here working, so maybe we can pay them more.” Then there is the approach of, “They’re not going to quit, and even if they do, it won’t be hard to replace them at all.” I think its safe to assume which approach I think they take. The school makes so much money and so does the union, so to hear that pay increases aren’t feasible is a bunch of bull in my opinion. I don’t think that the head office people take a look at what the students really need. Yes they provide a service by working with our schedule, and yes they provide prime locations for us to work, but without us, there would be no Wisconsin Union.

If I could open my own Badger Market I would help out my employees a lot more. Starting pay would be $9.00/hour for people with jobs like mine and $10.00/hour for supervisors. I would then have a “90-day period” of sorts, so after you have showed a three-month dedication, you can get another 50 cent increase. It doesn’t seem that drastic of a difference but that 75 cents an hour goes a long way when you’re living off of your part time job. Another thing I would do is find a prime location. I think the Badger Market connected to Ingraham has the best location on campus—you get a big rush of people, and they’re students, so you wont have customers complaining all the time, like old people do at my location. I think the bottom of Bascom, maybe connected to Humanities, or even a Badger Market food court cart might be kind of cool or at least an ideal location.

I would also allow more freedom. I want the Union to know that we hate the stupid uniforms. I understand we all need to look the same—the hat and the shirt, but we don’t need to wear black pants also. Sometimes my friends who work at Der Rathskeller tell me it can be 80 degrees outside and they still have to wear the black pants, just like I have to wear them. That’s nonsense, especially ’cause they’re not providing the pants and it’s just a rule. We’re students and I would treat my workers like students, as long as they’re not slacking off or anything.

Overall, I like my job at the Union. I work when its good for my schedule. I like the people that I work with and the pay, although it sucks, is more than $0.00/hr. I’d recommend it to my friends just because they hire students at a pretty good rate. You don’t need some impressive resume and a suit and tie during an interview. The Union could do a lot more to help the students, I feel like they’re still possessive of a ’70s way of thinking, as if it’s all of our first jobs or something. They don’t treat us like complete crap, I just wouldn’t go writing any 5-star reviews. I don’t want to rant on and on about the Union. I like my job.

— Tunde Awosika

VIC PRICE, SOIL CONSERVATIONIST & GRASS-FED BEEF FARMER

Vic Price, a retired USDA soil conservationist, and his wife, Mary, are grass-fed beef farmers. Among others, they have a blonde breeder cow named Honey.

I grew up my first 12 years in Terre Haute Indiana. At the age of 12 my father changed jobs and we moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin. Food has changed a lot in the household since then. My family used to sit down at the dinner table and eat a home cooked meal every night. We didn’t eat any processed foods or high fructose corn syrup. To get a soda pop or a hamburger from a fast food restaurant was a real treat. I’m dating myself, but I can remember when the McDonalds arches were young and the sign read, “over 800,000 sold,” instead of however many billion it is now.

After I got out of the Navy, I went to school at UW La Crosse with the intent of focusing on architecture but my math skills didn’t allow me to pursue that. I took some interest test to refocus my 4-year-degree and much to my surprise and the surprise of everybody that knew me, agriculture stood out. After discovering that, I made the arrangements and transferred to UW River Falls. As I was looking at the curriculum, soil science stuck out at me, and as I got going in the major I could see that I had really found my niche. I ended up later adding a major in agronomy to that as well.   

In my junior year, the department head in agricultural sciences called me in and said that he had been notified that Pierce County had a six-month work opportunity for a soil student. They told me that they could make it into a 12-credit internship so I said well let’s do it, and I took a semester off and worked with the soil conservation service. I spent six months working for them out in the rural sector on farms. That’s pretty much where I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. 

A big part of being a soil conservationist is moving around and working in different parts of the state with different soils, different topographical situations, and different cultural and agronomic practices. When I came on full time upon graduation, they started me out in Wisconsin Rapids in Wood County, which is in a high water table with silt loams. It sits on the edge of the golden sands area. I worked there for a year and a half before I was transferred to Kewaunee for two and a half years and worked in heavy clay soils. I went from there to Darlington in the southwest where you are in the high production area—agriculture in the fast lane. At each progressive location you would get different cultural and topographical practices for a well-rounded background. With the USDA I moved my family five times in eleven years. Geographic moves—that doesn’t count the moves we made within a field office community. Resettling the family in each location was a challenge; my wife could chime in on that if she were here.

Early in the career I learned how to be a conservation planner and determine what practices should be used through on the job training. I learned to walk out and assess a problem on the landscape and find the true erosion problem and then, through experience, establish what were viable alternatives. For example, maybe erosion on a hillside: contour strips, contour farming, minimum tillage—later on no till and so on. I could be out surveying and staking practices, I could be out with equipment doing construction checks as practices such as grass waterways, terraces, or diversions are being constructed. It was a real mixed bag. As I gained more experience and was promoted to higher grades I gained more responsibility and my tasks began to change a little bit. Eventually I became a conservation contractor, where I actually made cold contact farm calls to market conservation and wrote cost share agreements.

Being a soil conservationist you have some really good days where you make a really good connection with a producer and you go in there and see some problems and through your experience in marketing he agrees to install these practices and you see it through to the end. Probably the most satisfying feeling I got was watching a contour strip job go from scratch to completion. Contour strips are the most visible conservation there is in the field and we’re losing so many of them because in order for contour strips to be used you need both hay and row crops in rotation. Now we are seeing a lot less hay in rotation because of the change over from dairy to cash grain. 

My interest in grazing began about 5 or 6 years before I retired, as it was an up and growing conservation alternative with using livestock. I learned everything I could and I thought that it was something I would really like to do. Eventually my wife and I got on the same page and we went looking for land. We found a vacant 80 about 15 miles southeast of Eau Claire. We started out seasonally custom grazing for other people’s cattle. That has advantages but after about the third year we took a walk on the wild side and bought in a heard. Neither my wife nor I had livestock backgrounds so it has been a steep learning curve. We didn’t know that having livestock kind of holds you down. We don’t have the flexibility to get up and do this or go there, the most we can get away is 3 days and 2 nights, and that’s a stretch. There are times where I wish I could get away a little bit more to go fishing or on vacation with my wife but overall our short little road trips here and there more than suffice. We find that we are always missing the farm when we’re not there, especially my wife. She just loves the cattle, so we’ve been doing it ever since.

About 60 of our 80 acres are open. It was a little less wooded before, but we dedicated some of the open acreage to wildlife plantings. I think its part of stewardship: leaving the land as good or better than you found it. We’ve certainly seen an improvement in wildlife, especially during the grazing season. We can see Bobolinks, a rare grassland bird all over the farm. That’s just one example. We started from scratch and built up all of the fences and all of the water lines everything. 16.5 acres is dedicated hay field. The rest of the open acreage is pasture.

We’re a cow-calf and a finish operation and everything in between. I guess you could call us a “calf to finish.” We have cows that are designated for raising calves for us, and then once the calves are weaned they are considered a finisher. Heifers finish a little lighter but they still produce a good carcass so we finish them with the steers. Usually about a year or year and a half into a calf’s life we have a better idea if we want to hold any of the heifers back and put them into the breeding line up or if we want to finish them. Each year there may be one or two of the breeder cows that has something not quite right and we decide not to breed her back. Once she weans her present calf she will get moved into the finishing line up and will be scheduled in for processing at the next opportune time.

Vic with one of his breeder cows "Honey"
Vic with one of his breeder cows “Honey”

We grow no row crops. We feed no grain. Like many grazers, we like to call ourselves grass farmers. We produce grass and we manage it with livestock. We really believe in what we’re doing because it’s got to be the healthiest red meat in the world. One hundred percent grass fed beef. We believe that the healthy red meat and the healthy lifestyle contribute to many other farms we network with that are doing the same thing. There is some pretty good research out of the University of Wisconsin, especially on Omega-3s. Its been established through science conducted at many of the land grant schools that the bovine has been an herbivore for centuries and centuries. 

It wasn’t until after World War Two when they started feeding grain to finish cattle. Grain finishing works but it also results in less healthy byproducts in the meat such as Omega-6s. With grass fed beef there are a lot more 3s and a lot fewer 6s. It’s a very healthy imbalanced ratio in favor of the 3s. They’re getting all forage, going back to the basics. It is just a pleasure to watch these animals thrive out on natural pasture instead of being in a feed lot getting loaded with antibiotics to keep them alive until they are ready to be slaughtered. 

We have one commercial account with Festival Foods, a chain grocery store. However, we mainly sell our beef directly to households all over the Midwest. Most of them find us by word of mouth or through our website. We usually deliver to southern Wisconsin and Minnesota twice a year, spring and fall. During the other times, our customers drive here.  At any given time of year it is impossible to fulfill all of our orders because of the high demand for the meat we are producing. More and more people feel good about knowing where their meat comes from and how it’s produced. It’s a wholesome feeling.

The high demand for our meat allows the farm to pay for itself and pay us. We originally looked at it as a way to supplement our retirement income. Now we look at is as something to keep us busy that we like doing. We like working with our cattle, and they know us very well because we are with them a lot. You can walk in amongst our heard and they’re really laid back, they don’t have a flight zone. They’re used to people because we spend so much time with them.  We enjoy the rural lifestyle and being in agriculture and being a part of it.  We’ve accomplished this with nothing but hard work and God’s blessings and there’s just something very rewarding about that.

— Beth Brettingen

TOM TREINEN, FARM BOY TURNED LIFELONG GARDENER

Born and raised on a small Wisconsin farm, Tom Treinen grew up immersed in the culture of farming, but realized it was not a career that interested him. He did, however, become a lifelong home gardener.

Born and raised on a small Wisconsin farm, Tom Treinen grew up immersed in the culture of farming, but realized it was not a career that interested him. He did, however, become a lifelong home gardener.

When my Grandpa came to America from Germany in the late 1800s, he built a house and a barn. That house and barn transformed into the place I called home. I grew up on a farm located outside of Lodi, Wisconsin. Since I left the farm, it has stayed in the family. My sister’s son lives on the farm currently. When I was young, the farm specialized in grain, corn, and alfalfa. All of these crops were successful to feed the dairy cattle, chicken and hogs. The farm does not milk cows anymore; it now has mostly cash crops. The farm is still located where we cleared the original stones. However, I’ve been off the farm since 1957, but have fond memories of the farm and it sparked my current love for gardening.

Growing up, my family got all our food we ate from the farm. The only thing we bought at the store was butter, lard, sugar, flour, and main staples to help make the food. We would can and freeze all of the fresh vegetables, but I enjoyed the canned beef the best. It was canned with good gravy. You would open it up, and poor it over potatoes. We usually canned it every six months. We butchered all our own meat and raised all our own vegetables. I felt that all my meals were healthy and fresh. There were rarely any left overs. 

Although I enjoyed eating all the food my family produced, we did not have any other choice. The children had to keep the garden clean and keep weeds out, otherwise we would get in trouble with our parents because that is where our food came from all winter and year long. My family’s food supply never struggled in the winter; we always had enough. We kept carrots and potatoes under sacks on our dirt basement floor. The dirt preserved the vegetables.  My family would swap produce with the neighbors if a family was in need of a specific food item. My neighbor had a special spring-fed well. We could go down there and get fresh produce from their root cellar that we could not preserve on our own. They were friendly neighbors, and we would swap something extra we had at that time.

I started working on the farm at age five or six. My first job was to be in charge of keeping the wood stalked for our heater and wood stove in our kitchen; every day, every night, summer and winter. I also fed the chickens, picked up eggs, and fought with the hens. My favorite task was to work in the garden. I enjoyed pulling vegetables and eating the raw vegetables. I did not like to milk the cows and feed the hogs. The hogs were sassy. I did not enjoy milking the cows because it was hard labor. I did not have to do this until I was older, because my older brother, father, and grandfather assumed those roles. My older brother was four years older. Our parents gave us specific tasks at a young age. He worked in barns and I worked with chicken and the pigs. The milking machines required heavy buckets, and chickens required smaller, lighter buckets, so it made sense because he was older he worked with the heavy buckets.

Farming required a lot of heavy work. The wintertime was the hardest on the farm. The water tanks and pipes would freeze, and it was hard to keep the animals warm. However, the physical work was harder in the summer because I would itch so much from the chaff of the corn.

Back then people shared workers when needed. If you needed help your neighbor would help you, and if they needed help we would help them. There were 3-4 other farmers near by who would help us. We never hired other help. All the farmer’s work was evenly divided. There was never anyone mad because someone else got more help than him or her. Everyone was willing to help.

My favorite memory of working on this farm was there were always cold beverages in the cow tank at the end of the day. This is the only time we had pop. We belonged to a thrashing ring, which is a group of five farmers who would rotate farms together. There was “thrashing of the grain” and “shredding the corn” once in Spring, once in Fall.  The ladies would cook great big meals and the kids would be there too. There were always good desserts and beverages.

I decided to stop working on the farm when I got out of high school. I realized it was not my cup of tea. I graduated and I went to work at a canning factory. I planted peas and sweet corn, and worked on fields for the canning campy. Although still hard work, I got paid for it. It was probably around 2-2.50 dollars an hour back in 1956. It was not considered a well paying job, but it was money. I quit that job and decided to work in town meat-cutting. Then I went to work for a hospital and then I finally ended up, and retired, at the post office.

I am happy I didn’t decide to become a farmer, but I wish I still had the space to garden. I love to garden and get my hands in the ground. The biggest thing I miss about farming is the openness of the land. A main skill I learned from farming that has transferred into my other careers is knowing how to be prompt in doing a lot of things. On the farm you had to do your job at the right time otherwise the crops would not turn out. I know the value of being told you have a job, and you need to get it done.

I had a garden that was about 1/4 of an acre big. I plant the same crops every year: radishes, lettuce, carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes, sweet corn, asparagus, rhubarb, and tomatoes. The first crop to come out of the garden in the spring is always the best. I used to give a lot of the vegetables to everyone else and we ate them ourselves. The similarity between farming and gardening is that you are growing things for other people and animals to eat. Gardening is much more meticulous, while farming is much more mechanized. I like being in control of what I grow.

My favorite crop to grow is lettuce and tomatoes because I like to eat them both. The most difficult crop to grow are parsnips. They look like a big white carrot because all the seeds don’t germinate. You plant in spring, grow all summer long, in the fall you leave them in the ground, and then you dig them in the spring and eat them. It is a long process, but it is very good.

The basics of gardening I learned as a child on the farm, but every year I learn new things about gardening. Now you can grow things with little dirt and use mulch, which makes it easier so you don’t have to dig up the dirt. There are also new varieties of vegetables such as zucchini squash.

I try to use little pesticides, but sometimes you need to use a little because it gets too bad. With potato bugs, I would take a pail with water and use a stick to knock the bug into the bucket. A lot of plants now are bug resistant; the earlier the plant grows in the season the less pests. That is why I plant most of my crops in the spring. I don’t like using pesticides because I don’t think it is healthy for people, and I don’t want to get sick or give it to someone and have them get sick. If I have to use pesticides, I soak the produce in vinegar water before consuming it. I just don’t like using pesticides.

My garden used to be a reliable source of food for my family, but now I just have a small garden, so it is not very reliable. The farmer’s market is where we get most of our food. I really enjoy buying the fresh produce from the farmer’s market. I gave a lot of my own produce away. People were really happy when we gave them our produce because many did not have the knowledge of how to grow their own.  I never sold what I grew in my garden, I enjoyed giving it away so much.

It seems like a lot of people are going back to gardening because they like more organic crops. People have better control of how their produce is grown. The grocery stores and farmer’s market have really provided people with fresh options, so I don’t believe that this coming generation will fully rely on gardening.

— Jenna York

MAXINE ORTH, DAIRY FARMER

Maxine Orth grew up in a small town on a small family farm. Her husband, Dennis, passed away from a farm accident so she now owns and operates their dairy farm with two of her sons.

Oh, I really enjoy farming. My sisters always said they would never marry a farmer and a lot of them didn’t. I guess my husband, Dennis, and I had a lot in common that way. Growing up I always helped on the farm. I remember getting up and helping with chores before school and worrying that my hair would smell like a barn, maybe it did. I don’t know (laughs). I helped with milking and we didn’t have silo loaders like today so I would climb up the silo and someone would come with a wheel barrow and I’d pitch it out to the wheel barrow and they would say, “Enough!” Then they’d wheel it back around to get situated again and then they’d say, “Ok!” and I would start shoveling again. It was a lot of work. Farming is a lot different nowadays.

My family was very old fashioned and farming back then was very different from now. Very very different. Everything is more mechanized now for sure and there weren’t all these additives for planting, you know. At home it was always whatever would be the most reasonable thing to do and the cheaper way to do things. My dad didn’t believe in borrowing money, for sure. He said if you don’t have it in your hand you just don’t buy it. You just don’t buy something you don’t have money for. I guess in that way our farm never really progressed. It’s probably the same right now (laughs). But the farm kept going and I guess as long as you had help with the work and things it was always okay. My dad had 500 acres of land which was a lot back then but he had the help because there were nine kids at home and everyone helped. We all grew up good and everyone is a hard worker, for sure, everyone learned how to work. We farmed and grew up the old fashioned way and that worked too. You farmed to make money where nowadays it makes your living but you still enjoy doing it so you want to keep up with the times and keep things nice for the animals.

Farming with my husband, Dennis, was very different for me. He was very progressive and loved to try new things that were coming out you know which was very different from my frugal and old fashioned family. When Dennis came up with new ideas for farming it was different for me because it was always like, well why not just do it by hand, you know. There is nothing wrong with doing it that way. It’s kind of like I was protecting how it used to be, you know, a little bit. But you only have one body so making it easier on yourself sure is worthwhile. 

Den and I worked here for a long time before it was ours, we were about in our late 30’s before it became ours 100%. The day we signed papers at the lawyer’s office for his parents’ farm we were kind of already taking things apart and making changes on the farm. It was very exciting. His mom didn’t want to let the farm go and I think it was surprising to them to see the cement get torn out only a day or two after we signed papers (laughs). We were planning on building a milking parlor and then when Dennis and I were picking out a parlor we went to different farms in Wisconsin to look at their parlors a little bit and it was very exciting to kind of pick out what we wanted, you know, together. The most exciting day was when the parlor was done and seeing the cows’ reaction because it took a while for them to get used to going into the parlor so a lot of people had to like push them all in. We started out milking them twice a day but after they got used to the parlor we milked three times a day. Den’s parents were skeptical of the changes and it was a little hard with them questioning things but I guess they could see it’s the only way to go, you know. Things just change. His mom was like, “how big do you have to get?” (laughs). It’s also hard for them to understand why we need the farm to grow when land is so hard to come by right now. Nowadays if you find a little piece of land that’s close by, it’s almost impossible to buy it. But, you know, it’s just how things go.

It was hard for the older farmers to see and understand all of the changes in farming but they had to understand that farms could not survive monetarily if they did not grow or keep up with technology.

What I love most about farming is that you’re always at work. When you are home you are always at work, you know, it’s right out the door. I like that you can raise a family while you are home and don’t have to take the kids to day care. Yeah, I’d say that’s the best part. It is dangerous though to raise a family on a farm. A lot of accidents can happen. Actually, when my son, Nicholas, was one or two he followed a cat under this cow and she started to kick wildly and Nicholas was under her and got his teeth knocked out. I just went in and I don’t even know what happened. I went in to get him and I got knocked out and had to go to the hospital for a couple of days from a concussion (laughs). Yeah, that was a bad night. A very bad and unexpected night (laughs).

My role on our farm has definitely changed over the years. I used to feed calves full time twice a day and before that I milked twice a day until we added the parlor and then it became three times a day. I did a lot of milking years ago. I would take the kids out by the play pen or the big pile of sand out the door of the parlor so they would be playing in the sand pile while we were milking and they’d always stay put. My role is very different now from how it was though, I have it a lot easier now. What am I? I guess I keep everyone’s spirits up (laughs). I cook and I do help wherever they need me outside like if a calf would need an IV or you know I’m always around and I do like to see what’s going on out there and things.

Even though I kind of liked not being out there as much, I kind of felt like I wasn’t as important. You kind of always want to feel important and that you’re an important part of the team but I guess I kind of got over that feeling (laughs).You know, now somebody else is doing the job that I thought I really could only do. But my old job has really changed now too, we have a pasteurizer for the calves which helps it go a lot faster. You can be important in other ways though and I’m still part of the farm, even though I’m not doing certain things every day. Now I take care of the landscaping and lawn because that has gotten to be a really big job too.

I am very thankful for our family and the farm. I always loved the farm and love that it’s doing well, but I guess after Den was gone, I’m proud that we were able to keep things going until the kids were old enough to be partners and old enough to really be involved. I am really proud of that, you know, this is the twelfth year now that Den has been gone, so it’s been a long time. Those years were not money making years either, we just barely got things covered but we kept things going and things have really changed since then. We moved some people out and brought new people in. I’m very proud of the family, that everyone is so close, gets along, and that everyone loves the farm. I know at my home not everyone loved the farm. I’m happy that when the kids think of their home it will be good memories and good thoughts. I’m very lucky and I’m happy. I want everyone involved in the farm to be happy and I think they are.

— Laura Lange

ANGELINE VICK, FARMER & SELF-PROVISIONER

Angeline Vick grew up in Watertown, Wisconsin, where she met her husband, Don. They married in 1952 and bought land close to Don’s parents’ farm. Don and Angeline lived and worked on their farm of 298 acres from 1952-2003. 

I was introduced to farm life when I met my husband, Don. We bought the land that was next to his parents’ farm and we moved out there right after we got married. I believe that was in…1952. We bought Don’s parents’ farm after they retired, so we had about 298 acres. We came to town about eleven years ago, so we lived and worked on that farm for over 50 years.

We did it all. We were mostly dairy farmers, though, because the farm was set up for that, so milk was our main source of income. We had 30 cows, so not like today. It was all manual labor. We milked them for about an hour and a half every morning and night. We used the milk machine and the milk tank and cans, but there was no pipeline. We just filled the buckets and dumped the milk into the milk cans. Sometimes, we would just reach into the milk tank with a cup and drink it right out of there. It was ice cold and so good! We always had a really high test for percentage…about 4%. It had a lot of cream in it, so for me, it tasted just as good as ice cream.

We had pigs; we had steers, ducks, geese, and chickens. The chickens were pretty much my work, though. We would get 300 new baby chicks every spring and when they were old enough they would give us 250, 260, 270 eggs a day. We’d sell the eggs pretty quickly. I’d pack them up, about 30 dozen into a case, and take them into town and the special place that bought eggs would just give you what they wanted to give you for the day.

Angie's chicks
Angie’s chicks

I butchered a lot of the chickens, too. Everybody wanted farm dressed chickens! First, you have to bleed ‘em out. Then you dip them in hot water so the feathers come out easier. I picked out all of the feathers by hand. Then you just take the insides out and put them in a tub of cold water. Don grew up on a farm, so he was the one who showed me how to do it.  The first time was a little hard, but I got good at it after a while. I just did it!

We had a lot of crops, too. We dipped our fingers into everything, really! We had oats, wheat, alfalfa, soy beans. Later on, whatever we needed to feed the cattle, and corn. We got free corn seeds from our seed dealer and oh, was that corn ever good. One year, we had so much sweet corn, so we took a pickup truck load to St. Mark’s, gave it to the cafeteria ladies, and said here you go! They said the kids ate five cobs each! 

I suppose my garden was my favorite work on the farm. I liked planting and harvesting…I didn’t like the weeds though, but those came with it (laughs). I planted lettuce, radishes, onions, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, beans, pumpkins, and the list goes on. We had strawberries and raspberries, apple trees, plum trees, and cherry trees, too. We didn’t use those commercial fertilizers. Everything was all organic. I canned and froze…well at first we didn’t have a freezer, but we canned and eventually froze everything from the garden. I did pickles, pickled beets, and sauerkraut. I canned a lot of apple sauce, too. We had a cellar for storing everything and another cooler area for potatoes and onions. That was a big pile of potatoes, because we ate them pretty much every day and it lasted us the year.

I canned meat too! Every year we’d get a new batch of chickens, so I’d butcher and can them. You just cut the meat into pieces with some salt and pepper, cap it, and cook it in a water bath. We didn’t have pressure cookers then, well they maybe did, but I didn’t really like them. I canned chicken, pork, beef, fish, and salmon from Lake Michigan, too.

We smoked a lot venison and beef sausage; about 100 pounds every year. We cut up the meat and ground it up in the big grinder with the seasonings, usually just salt pepper and some kind of preservative. In the beginning we used sugar and salt, but then we used the preservative. We used intestines for the casings before the artificial ones came out. It was easier with commercial made casings, though.

I made most of the meals until Ruth was old enough—then she helped out. We would usually go to the grocery store once a week for a bag of flour. I cooked what we had on the farm. We had our meat, milk, and eggs and the vegetables that were canned or frozen from the garden. Breakfast wasn’t a big meal and neither was supper, but lunch was the big one. Meat, potatoes, and vegetables every day. I baked a lot of bread and rolls, too. That was the way my husband was brought up.

You know, I would put a beef roast in the oven before we went out to work and when that was almost done, I’d come in and get the potatoes cooked with a jar of vegetables. And we always had to have dessert! Cookies, cakes, pies, you name it. I liked to bake cakes. You just put it in the oven, take it out, and frost it. I made a lot of chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting—Don’s favorite! He loved his cake. In the spring and early summer, there were always lots of strawberries, so I would make strawberry shortcake a lot, too. I’d make baking powder biscuits and we would have fresh whipped cream skimmed off the top of the bulk tank. Oh, that milk from the bulk tank was so good!

We made a lot of wine in the later years. We had so many raspberries and cherries in the freezer, so the kids got us one of those wine-making kits. We would just take whatever berries or fruit we were using, measure them out with the sugar and the yeast and the water and let it ferment in a big five gallon pale for about one to two weeks. You have to stir the wine twice a day, so you say good morning and good night to the wine…that’s how you remember how to do it! When it stops bubbling, that’s when you know the yeast stopped working. You strain it and put it in jugs with a stopper and an air lock. The first time we made it here in town, we kept it in the closet and we could hear it go ‘bloop, bloop, bloop’ at night.

Wine was just a family thing. We just did it for fun. We made raspberry, cherry, elderberry, strawberry, plum, and cranberry. We got a little creative and made a little batch of strawberry rhubarb wine once. We tried apple once, but that was a little bland. We had little wine tasting parties in our country gazebo…I think Ruth and your mother were there when they were teenagers. They would sit in there, taste the wine, and get all smiley! I don’t know off the top of my head how many gallons of wine we made over the years, but if I had my book, I could tell you. We made lots though and gave a lot away.

It was just the family working on the farm and this was just our way of living. It was a lot of work, but we made it. We just did the work and that was that. We never had a sick day because the chickens had to be fed and the cows had to be milked every day. We were just too busy to have much time for fiddling around… but we would get together with our neighbors every once in a while to play cards: Sheepshead or Canasta.

We had to work hard to make everything go, you know, because things were tough back then. We had to do it to make ends meet and it wasn’t for a lot of money. We had our ups and downs, with health and the weather…a farmer depends on good weather, but we made it. I learned a lot of things over the years and I just learned as I went along. Sometimes this didn’t grow or that didn’t grow, but we always had enough to go around.

Her daughter, Ruth, interjects, “Don’t let her kid you. She drops a seed into the ground and it grows and she’ll have ten pounds of something come up!”

We had a house to live in and we were self-sufficient…we were never hungry because we always had food. That was life years ago and we were lucky that we could keep going. We would just look to the sky and pray…that rain has to come…tomorrow, tomorrow!

The Vick Farm
The Vick Farm

— Aly Theder

THERESA BORCHARDT, TEAM LEADER OF A NESTLE WAREHOUSE

Theresa grew up with two sisters and a brother in Askeaton, Wisconsin. Her previous job, working in a cheese factory, was also in the food industry, so going to work for Jack’s Pizza (now called Nestle) was not a big change for her. Currently she is a Team Leader in the warehouse where she helps her team figure out what to do with the pizza ingredients that arrive in the delivery trucks. She has been working for the company for 23 years.

When I was younger, my mom did all of the cooking. My favorite dish had to be the chili. I did not like the liver though, no matter how she made it. My sister, Lauri, and I would help my mom cook because we wanted to learn how. Chicken soup is a popular dish that I make. I currently cook for my husband, Mike. I met Mike at my job at Kasson Cheese, a factory by my hometown, Askeaton.

I did not go to college after high school. I went straight into the work field. I had many jobs—like bartending—but my most previous one was working at the cheese factory. My job at the cheese factory involved me making cheeses, like mozzarella, and packing them. I then went to work for Jack’s Pizza in Little Chute, Wisconsin (now called Nestle) because it was a steady job and that’s what I needed at the time.

When I started working for the company, it was called Jack’s Pizza. I would say there were only 150 to 200 people working there at the time. I started out working in the packaging department because that’s where they started everyone. It involved me labeling and putting the pizzas into cases. It was a very labor-intensive job at the time. However, a year after I started, Kraft bought out Jack’s. Kraft added more lines and hired more people. It grew a lot from when I first started. Then, about five years ago, Nestle bought out Kraft—changes involved more meetings, more teams you have to be a part of, and new varieties of pizza. It wasn’t really about adding on to the company. They did add on a little though. The company as a whole grew with these buy-outs. There are now about 1,200 people working here. We actually just hired 100 people from a job fair. I am not used to any of these changes Nestle brought yet. My least favorite thing about Nestle are the meetings. This is because it takes me away from doing my job. My job is to be a team leader. When I am in the meetings, I’m not on the floor helping my team if something goes wrong. I don’t like that.

THER1THER2

Then & Now 

My current job is a team leader in the warehouse. My job is a lot of manual labor, meetings, and is also desk based. I deal with trucks that bring products in. Like packing materials, meats, cheeses, sauces, vegetables-pretty much anything you can find on a pizza. I manage my accounts about the products by making sure that what they billed us is what we got in the truck that was sent to us. I assist my team members and get directly involved when issues occur. An example is if a product comes in damaged, I would get involved and let the quality people know that a product came in damaged. We will dispose [of] the damaged product. My normal work schedule is two days on, two days off, and every other weekend. I work 12-hour shifts from 4:45am to 5pm. They give us an extra fifteen minutes before and after work.

For my job, I do not need to go [to] schooling, but for some jobs, the company will pay you to take classes. Skills that I need for my team leader job include computer skills, shipping and receiving skills, and I have to be people oriented. I had most of these skills before working for the company. I got some of these skills by working my previous jobs. I did learn better people skills during my team leader job. I believe that at work a good relationship with my team members is important in order to get the job done. However, outside of work, I don’t really converse with my team members.

Working for a large company, like Nestle, taught me that they may care about their workers, but they don’t show it. Like, currently it is all about NCE-which is Nestle’s Commitment to Excellence. All management has is meetings, meetings, meetings. This means they don’t have time to commit to helping us with our issues or problems. Nestle does give their workers discounts on their products. There is a company store where I work and it has some Nestle products, but not all of them. There is a limit on how many products you can get, though. For example, you can only get a certain number of pizzas and a certain amount of juice. I can only go there once a day at certain times. I could go back every day if I wanted, but I do not want to on my days off. I have plans during those days. On my first day off, I do my cleaning, wash, yard work, etc. On my second day off, it’s fun day. I go fishing, golfing, and four-wheeling with my husband.

A normal day for me from when I wake up to when I arrive home starts with me getting up and making my coffee. I then get dressed, pack my lunch, and head off to work. Once I arrive at work, I walk in and go to my locker. At my locker I put on my hairnet, bump cap, jacket, and shoes. I then punch in and head to the office. At the office, I get a hand off from the previous team leader about what my day is going to look like and if there is any issues, check my emails, go to the other side of the building to receiving to unload trucks, do audits, and put things away, and some days I have meetings I have to attend. I do get a break somewhere in between all this. However, everyday is different because there is always something that is going to go wrong.

The products change quarterly with consumers demands—this gives the company time to look at how new products are doing and to come up with a way to change them if the consumers don’t like something. If a customer does not like something about the product, they can go to the company Facebook page or call the 1-800 number that is on the package. An example of this would be, let’s say, when Digiorno Pizza changed the sauce, but ended up having to change it back because the consumers liked the old sauce better. It is sometimes hard for the company to get customers back after complaints, but what we never want is a recall. A recall would hurt us the most. In order to get customers back when something happens, I personally do not do anything, the resource people come up with the ideas.

At my plant we make Jack’s pizza—we are actually the home of Jack’s Pizza—Digiorno pizza, and bundle packs. We do not make any other products besides the pizza. The breadsticks and wings for the bundle packs get shipped to our plant. We do make our crust from scratch, though. The busiest time of year for us is Super Bowl time, and the number one pizza is Digiorno because it is the official pizza of the Green Bay Packers. Digiorno is made to taste just like delivery, that is how we get people to buy it instead. The company is going to make new products soon. We are bringing back the Jack’s 9-inch pizza and we are going to start making our own natural rising pizza. We will change lines to accompany the new products. This is why we just hired the people at the job fair.

I have been working for Nestle for 23 years—so maxed out on my vacation time. I get five weeks of vacation every year. My favorite thing about working at Nestle would be that I get a paycheck. I don’t need to get a promotion, but if I could get any promotion, I would like to get a transportation job. That would entail me scheduling appointments for incoming shipments. I do not know much about this job since it does not exist yet, but they have been talking about it.

Theresa says that she is not going to leave the company to go work somewhere else because she believes it is too late for her to go somewhere else and start over, especially her 410K plan. She plans to stay with the company until she retires.

— Amy Bunnell

BARRY LEVENSON, CURATOR OF THE NATIONAL MUSTARD MUSEUM

Despite having minimal previous experiences in food (outside of eating it), Barry Levenson, former Attorney General of Wisconsin, left his comfortable law career to take a leap of faith and open the National Mustard Museum in 1995. In the twenty years since the original museum opened in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, Levenson has taken the museum further than he ever dreamed he could.

2:30am on October 28th, 1986. I’m wandering aimlessly though the grocery store, devastated by the heartbreaking loss my Red Socks have just suffered. Suddenly, I hear a voice, seeming from on high: “If you collect us, they will come.” I look up, astonished. I’m standing alone in the condiments aisle, looking up at row upon row of mustards. I grab 12 or 15 jars and head to the cashier. Little did I know where those 12 jars would take me.

So let’s back up: How does an assistant attorney general for the state of Wisconsin end up a mustard enthusiast, to put it lightly? Sometimes, I wonder myself. I loved my job and never thought I would leave it as it was the ultimate law job for my interests. It was great: I was arguing cases for the state supreme court, writing briefs, and writing is what I love. It was engaging—it was fascinating, intellectually stimulating work. But for all that, I had no idea what the future had in store for me that night.

I joke about it, but that’s really how it all started. Mourning my Red Socks, I found myself in an all-night grocery in Madison, Wisconsin, at 2:30am on that fateful night. Whether I literally heard that voice or not, I’m not sure, but I do know that was the moment I decided I should start collecting things. Maybe it was just fate that I ended up in front of the mustards. I mean, imagine if I had ended up in front of the feminine hygiene products. 

It’s not as though I had any outstanding experiences with mustard or with food in general that may have influenced this particular path. Growing up, food was something we ate, of course, but beyond that it really wasn’t anything special until my senior year of college. I was interning at the Council of Economic Advisers at the White House at the time. One of the economists invited me to dinner one night and totally blew me away with this chicken bordeux dish. I was just amazed, shocked that she had made this fantastic dish. In response, she pulled out the original New York Times Cookbook and showed it to me. I was just so thrilled with it. The next day, a copy of that ended up on my desk, a gift from Irene Laurie, who really, you could say, turned me on to cooking. I had never done any cooking before, and that’s when I started to experiment.

This experimentation of foods wasn’t enough to make me quit my comfortable job at the Department of Justice of course. About six months after I started collecting mustards, I got my second sign though. I was arguing a case at the US Supreme Court and as I was leaving the hotel, I saw a small, unopened jar of mustard on a room service cart that I didn’t recognize. Thinking maybe it would be good luck, I put it in my pocket and brought it with me to the Supreme Court. Security of course asked why I was bringing mustard. “Oh, I just am.” I did, in fact, win that case 5-4 with the mustard in my pocket and I still have that jar. It’s probably my favorite and most memorable jar in the collection because it has a real story behind it. That was when I started thinking, “What would life be like if I were to open a museum?” It started to morph into a fantasy, and as the years wore on, I finally decided that I could wonder and fantasize about it all I want, but I’ll never know until I do it. So, I just did it. It was probably the craziest thing I ever did, quitting a very secure, well-paying job (with benefits!) to essentially jump off a cliff. But I did it.

I was a frequent guest on a Chicago radio station and one day, I asked if I could taste mustards with Spike O’Dell on WGN Radio. We did it, and during a break, I had an idea. “Spike,” I said, “I know what kind of mustards you like, since we just got finished tasting them. Let me come up with a mustard that’ll have your name and the station’s name on it.” “No,” he said, “I don’t think the station will go for that.” I had other plans. “Oh they’ll go for it, because tell them that for every jar that we sell, the company and I will donate $1 to the WGN Neediest Kids Fund.” I thought we would sell maybe a couple hundred jars, but boy was I wrong. We sold thousands, and ended up donating almost half a million dollars to the Neediest Kids Fund.

Here in Madison, we’ve raised money for a lot of organizations that I think have been very happy to be a part of it. I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to be part of the community, especially during Mustard Day. It’s a great, old-fashioned street fair: Carnival, games, free hotdogs, the Weiner Mobile is here every year. Really, when you bring 7000 people here, it has a huge impact on the community, and we just put on a party for the city of Middleton. It’s an opportunity to give back. 

There have been so many rewarding experiences over the years. I’ve written a children’s book called “Mustard on a Pickle,” and I’ve probably given away as many as we’ve sold, but there have just been times when a little kid comes in and I just can’t resist. There have been so many experiences of just seeing a little boy or a little girl’s eyes just sparkle when they’ve got this book. There was one, just a cute little guy, maybe four or five years old, and his eyes just lit up. He was out the door two minutes later, but then, all of the sudden, he came back in and gave me a big hug. I’ve heard from his mother about how that really affected him and how it’s his favorite book. I’ve heard from a lot of parents about how “Oh we have your Mustard on a Pickle book and it’s his favorite book. We have to read it to him all the time.” So that’s something that makes me feel really good. 

I also remember a woman calling me to order some mustards for her nephew and she was telling me how much she loved the catalog, and she mentioned that her husband had just passed away the week before. She was talking about our catalog, which we try to make as funny as possible. She said that she had brought the catalog into his hospital room and he laughed out loud. That was the last time he had laughed. 

Moments like that make everything worth it. To me that’s biggest joy of all, that people have come here and just had a good time. I can’t say that people came into contact with me as a lawyer and said, “Boy I really had a good time dealing with that lawyer.” I may have been a nice guy—these memorable experiences just didn’t happen lawyering.

So that’s the story of the National Mustard Museum. Would I do it all again if I could? I think I would. I advise people, “Keep your day job, but don’t lose your daydream.” This collection, which has grown to more than 5,800 mustards, has allowed me to reach more people than I ever could have as a lawyer. This job has not made me rich, in money terms, but I think it has made me rich in emotional terms and in ways that nothing else can match. It has brought me in touch with people I would never have met and that’s something that I would gladly do again.

— Nicki Davis

CARMEL JACKSON, OWNER OF MELLY MEL’S SOUL FOOD RESTAURANT

Technically a spring afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin, even though the temperature was below fifty degrees and the wind was in full force. Carmel Jackson and her husband sit in their quaint home watching daytime game shows, surrounded by many pictures of their family and friends. She welcomes us into her home and immediately apologizes for the mess at least three times before we make it to the kitchen. “The mess,” as she likes to call it, is everything that makes up her home, and more importantly, herself. In the living room lay order forms, a computer, and other random pieces of paper that allow her to run her business from her home. In the kitchen are the many pots and pans that have created dishes for her family, friends, and all of her loving customers.

My mother was the first person to introduce me to soul food and was the main cook in our family. My dad was also a cook, but his range wasn’t soul food like my mother. Since my parents were from two different regions of the country, my mother from the north and my father from the south, they had two different styles of cooking soul food. My mother was more traditional with her soul food cooking, while my father chose more bizarre soul food dishes like head hog cheese. Even though my father was not the main cook in our house, growing up I did get his taste and love for black eyed peas.

Ironically, as a child I was a very picky eater and really enjoyed desserts. Some of my favorite meals to eat were my mother’s sweet potato pie, peach cobbler, and dressing. Although I did love my mother’s cooking there were some meals I just couldn’t eat. I remember there was this one time my mother tried to force feed me candied yams, but I refused to swallow any of it. She promised me if I just had one bite I could go outside and play. I held that piece of yam in my mouth for an hour, well to me as a child it was an hour, and ever since that day I have refused to eat candied yams.

Cooking is a very important part of my family and is something that everyone in my family loves to do, especially my mother. I learned how to cook from her by simply watching her cleaning greens and snapping green beans. It was magical to me how she could take peaches, roll out a crust, and make a beautiful peach cobbler I just couldn’t get enough of. My mother was not only more than willing to teach me and my siblings how to cook, but demanded it from us. I moved out and got my own apartment at a pretty young age, but my mother would not let me leave until I could make a full course meal. She told me the meal had to be more than “just hot dogs and fries,” but had to have your standard starch, meat, and vegetable on the side. She wanted us to take that chicken, season it, put it in flour, and put it a frying pan.  She didn’t do this just for me but my siblings as well, including my brother.  Even when my siblings and I did move out and live on our own, we would always call back for help and she would walk us through it. It’s sad now that she is getting Alzheimer’s and not remembering and slowly starting to lose her memory. But now I have everything, so they call me… (laughs)

Soul food is not necessarily a type of cooking or a giant complex three course meal with stuffing, turkey, and mac and cheese.  It is so much more than just greens, mac and cheese, and cornbread. In fact it can be just a few simple ingredients that you can pull from your backyard. Cooking soul food is all about cooking a meal straight from your soul and enjoying it with friends and family. It is not limited to the classic mac and cheese and fried chicken, but can vary in different cultures. It is very international, but we have incorporated it as our own. Soul food was not discovered but introduced to us and dates all the way back to slavery days. Slave masters would give slaves dirty vegetables that they no longer wanted and instead of eating dirty food, slaves simply cleaned off the food and made it into a delicious meal. That is why soul food is such a broad term, because even within the same state, the term ‘soul food’ can mean two very different things. My husband’s family is also from North Carolina, but ate completely different soul food than I grew up with. They had raccoons in the freezer and possums and all that and the first time I saw that I was like “what the what?” I realized that even though a person could live less than 100 miles from me, soul food can means many different things to many different people. 

Melly Mell’s Restaurant was not initially started by me, but instead by my father. He would always complain about how “you can’t get no soul food [in Madison], but you got all the Mexican restaurants and all the Chinese restaurants.”  Even when soul food restaurants did open up in Madison they usually never lasted very long. My dad was retired from the Air Force, as a cook, and wanted to spend his down time doing something he loved. He wanted to open up a place where I could cook my momma’s greens and yams and he could cook his famous BBQ. We searched for a place and found one easily, but unfortunately my dad ended up dying a month before we were supposed to open the restaurant. Instead of backing out of the restaurant I continued on with my dad’s dream.

I started out with a small room in a building and kept the menu simple with sandwiches and quick sides. I realized the menu just wasn’t me and I wanted to do more. I wanted to offer something hot. I wanted to cook with my soul.  I slowly started to take the sandwiches off the menu and added chicken, mac and cheese, and peach cobbler. All the soul food I grew up with slowly started to emerge on my menu. As the menu grew, the demand from my customers grew with it. I moved to a bigger space in the same building and saw that African Americans didn’t just want to eat my food–people from Tennessee, people from Arkansas, we had people from rural Wisconsin livin’ up in the farms out there who wanted some black eyed peas and cornbread. People started coming up to me asking, “Do you make this?” “Do you make that” and I would tell them I could make it and slowly start adding them to the menu as well. People would always come in and be like “Melly Mell, is this going to be like my mom’s?” and I would tell them “no it’s not going to be like your mother’s.” Yes, I am everybody’s mother while they are here, but the only way I could make it taste like their mother’s is if they brought their mother with them (laughs).

Although I loved every second of running Melly Mell’s, sometimes running the restaurant was very difficult. I only had three reliable workers, one of them being my daughter, and the rest were sometimes very difficult to work with. They would come in late, or not at all, steal from me, or I would catch them doing drugs. I am a firm believer in giving people second chances, but after a while I had to start letting people go. Unfortunately the difficulties for the restaurant did not end there. My previous landlord of the building left and was replaced by a new landlord who created more than enough conflict. I decided that working in the building was not worth the hassle, but I also wanted to continue to make my customers happy, so I went into catering while I looked for a new place.

I cater to everyone who needs me; weddings, clubs at UW… UW is always ordering something. People will hunt me down just so I can cater their weddings. All of my catering equipment is taking over my garage and I take orders from my tablet in my little office space in my living room. Even though I enjoy catering, I really want to get back to having my own place. When I first started looking I spent a lot of time trying to find the perfect location, but now I just want to hurry up and find a place and start cooking from my soul again.

— Daria Powell

NANCY ROSS RYAN: FOOD WRITER & RECIPE DEVELOPER

Nancy Ross Ryan, a Chicago based food writer and editor, has written for multiple magazines, cookbooks, and blogs, and has also worked in the field of recipe development and testing. 

Well, I am 81 years old now, so when I went to college it was not really assumed that you would have a career.  Your destiny was to get married and have children and be a housewife (laughs).  I had been writing since a very young age and that was what I liked to do. I believe that skill is something you are really born with, and it saved me.  After I had three children, I got a divorce and refused alimony—which was an insane thing to do—and had to find a way to support my kids and myself.

I got a job at Cuisine Magazine.  I was a copy editor, then promoted to feature editor. The way I feel about food and relate to food worked for me as an editor because I was never short on ideas. That is something that is very valuable in a magazine, because it comes like taxes with a frightening regularity. Every month you have to repackage ideas or think of new ideas. You know, New Year’s comes around and what are you going to do for dinner, again, for the thirtieth time? I stayed there until the magazine was sold, then moved to another magazine. Cuisine Magazine was a consumer magazine, aimed at the home cook, but my next job—I took any job I could get—was a trade magazine. Trade magazines are aimed at businesses and chefs. I was truly a fish out of water. My education, my culture, my interests—were all in the arts.

My first job at a trade magazine was with Restaurants and Institutions. I had two female bosses who absolutely despised me because I was so offbeat (laughs). I was not of the trade mentality. But the material I was writing kept winning awards, so they couldn’t fire me. I was there for 15 years, and when I finally retired, somebody asked me to write some articles for them, so I ended up at Chicago Social. Then one day somebody asked me about a cookbook. This was the first big cookbook I wrote. From then on, I have done cookbooks and blogs for chefs.

It is very important to have a skill that is not yet replaceable by a computer, and writing is something like that. Something I have faced as a woman was always being paid less than a man, and I think it is still an issue, but gender in food writing is not a huge issue. One of the things that I learned when I worked for a big corporation, like a magazine, is that management tolerated almost any behavior.  You could lie about your expenses, have inappropriate sexual relations with members of the staff, drink to excess, be absentee, but the one thing you could not do is speak the truth as you saw it. You could not be critical of your overlords.That has been a very hard lesson for me to learn. I think one of my biggest challenges was keeping my mouth shut. 

When you write a cookbook, well, when you develop a recipe, it’s very precise work. You have to have level teaspoons, the weight, well not necessarily weight. The American cooking public has never been happy with metrics, so you translate into volume.  I think that when people know that you’ve written a cookbook, they have absolutely no idea what is involved in writing a cookbook, the research, accuracy, recipe testing, production.  In food writing you absolutely need command of English language, spelling and grammar, that’s just bottom line, essential, and you also have to know how to research, and fact checking is part of researching and you also need to write about something that you care about.  A lot of people come to me and say, “I want to write a cookbook.”  In their minds they think, “If so and so did it, why can’t I do it?”  That’s a really bad false assumption: cookbooks are easy.

One of the jobs that I had that I absolutely hated was doing restaurant reviews. Having worked in restaurants, I really understand what a horribly difficult job it really is, and how fickle the public is, so one bad review, and you are taking money away from the restaurant. But one of the false assumptions people make about restaurant critics is that they are experts, some are, some aren’t. Some are just exercising their ego at the expense of the restaurant.

My family members were foodies before the word existed. I grew up eating raw oysters, roast suckling pig, and curry. My mother and father competed in the kitchen with a ferocity that was pretty scary. I didn’t really get into the kitchen until I was 12 years old. One night they were both out, so I fixed dinner all by myself. I made fried chicken, vegetables and biscuits; the only thing that really failed were the biscuits.

People who have inspired me are chefs themselves like Jacques Pépin and Julia Child, but there are food writers whom I admire so, so much because they have taught me things–about technique, about ratios. If you’re making bread, cookies–whatever you’re making–they tell you the ratio and why. For recipe development that is enormously helpful. And books that tell you all about a cuisine; you could not find that information on your own when you are researching, not even on the Internet.

I actually witnessed the birth of the celebrity chef. When I first started working at the magazines, they began giving awards to these celebrity chefs. I interviewed Julia Child and Jacques Pépin and a lot of famous chefs. Well, interviewing Jacques Pépin, who is the quintessential French chef, classically trained, the first celebrity chef, he was amazingly nice. And Julia Child—I actually went to her home in Cambridge and she fixed lunch for me, the same thing I fixed for you today (laughs), tuna fish salad sandwiches. She was very straightforward, honest, not pretentious, not full of herself.  I really learned a lot of what I know about cooking from her cookbooks. I went through—almost like that movie—and learned to cook. At that time, in the ‘80s when I interviewed her, there was a division in the foodservice industry between chefs and dietitians. People thought that chefs were making wonderful food and dietitians were making perfectly awful dreadful food. If it was healthy it had to be dreadful. I asked her, wasn’t it a shame the two had never met? She said absolutely—she wished she could tell dietitians that cooking was fun and eating was fun.

This brings me to two issues in the food system that are very real.  One is sustainability, the second is nutrition.  Let’s start with nutrition.  Over the years we have all watched the government change its food pyramid. First sugar was the demon, then fat, then carbohydrates.  Gradually we have seen that the things your body has to work to digest, like protein and fiber and fat, these things are not villains. The villains are the highly refined fat and carbohydrates.  I still don’t think the pyramid is where it should be, and you have several digestive diseases like Crohn’s and Celiac, and food allergies that have thrown the whole industry into a tizzy. What do you do if you are a restaurateur and you have a kitchen that does not cater to Celiac?  But with the popularization of Celiac disease, the weight industry has suffered tremendously because people don’t eat wheat because they think it is a bad thing, but it is just highly refined wheat that is a bad thing.

Tomorrow I am going to have a typical day. I have to develop a recipe that I find absolutely disgusting, and it has to be gluten free. So here is the recipe that my friend sent me—it’s disgusting. But the issue is the crescent rolls because they have wheat. So I have to develop that gluten free, and then photograph it, and then write the blog. And so that’s what I have to do every week.  So there you go.  That’s one of the blogs I write.

Sustainability probably cannot be isolated from what we are doing to the planet.  There are still lawmakers who insist that greenhouse gases are not an issue and there is no such thing as global warming, but there really is and we are contributing to it. And anything that destroys the sustainability of our planet affects our food sources. In this country we are meat eaters. We raise animals in some very inhumane conditions so that we can have lots of protein. We don’t see how they are killed, we don’t see the suffering, we don’t understand the impact. A move toward a less meat-centered diet would do us a lot of good and our planet a lot of good. 

Another issue with food sustainability relates to our whole behavior as human beings. We still have not figured out how to distribute basic things to everybody. A very small percent of us have most of the money. You know, we are drinking coffee that I have put through a filter, and there are people in Africa who do not have decent water to drink. There’s one more thing I want to say about technology. There is really bad technology out there in terms of sustainability. The guy that invented the Keurig—you know the Keurig—he was just quoted as saying he’s sorry he invented it because what he’s doing to the landfill is absolutely atrocious.

When I was in Brazil several years ago, on the tourist bus, on one side of the hill was this luxury hotel, and on the other are people living in pieces of cardboard and plastic and tin. I was face to face with hunger and I have never quite been able to forget it. What troubles me is that most Americans do not understand that hunger exists.  It exists in Chicago, and you know March Madness has started. There’s a guy on TV, and he took on an amateur basketball issue—how they get paid nothing, and he interviewed some players. Two of the guys said that we don’t have enough to eat and we still have to play and our coach screams at us. You have poverty level black kids who don’t get paid, practice ungodly hours, have to maintain good grade point averages, and get abused by coaches—and play without enough food in their stomach. Hunger and our indifference to hunger has always disturbed me.

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So, I was not really directed to a career. I was just surviving financially and fortunately kept falling into jobs that were agreeable. I’m still very fortunate because people come to me and I don’t go looking for the jobs that I have. So that tells you how I did not choose this profession. I fell into it, and I am very grateful for that.

— Brenna O’Dea

DIANE HOPPE, FAMILY & CONSUMER EDUCATION TEACHER

In small-town Brodhead, WI, Diane spent her childhood helping her grandmother pick vegetables from the garden, complete farm chores, and deliver home-cooked meals to her grandfather working in the fields.  Growing up around food production eventually helped her discover her love of teaching about the importance of food and family.

I loved living on a farm because there were so many different animals.  We had dairy cows, beef cows, hogs for a time, and chickens. I also got to help with the calves.  This would’ve been, well, way back, 1963, so my grandpa, and grandma actually milked, too, and my dad. They’d carry the milk to the bulk tank. I grew up with milk straight from the bulk tank, not pasteurized. We didn’t have the fancy pipeline and all the stuff that they have today, so, I think back to it being more traditional. The milk from the bulk tank went to a dairy, so we did have a milkman come and pick that up once a day.

I loved the chickens.  My grandma raised chickens, and I would gather eggs with her. I can’t really remember how many chickens we had.  We would go to Rockford every spring and buy new baby chicks. One of my memories is if it was too cold out to put them in the hen house, we’d keep them in the kitchen.  I loved that because I got to play with them, but then, we’d take them out to the hen house, and by August or September, grandma would slaughter them and we would freeze them so that we would have chickens for the whole year. 

She had a big four-by-four block, this is a vivid memory of mine, and I know some people think it’s gross, but I just thought my grandma was such a strong woman and could do this. So she’d put the chicken’s neck between the two nails and she had bailing twine, and her ax, and “whack!” off would go their head. Sometimes they’d dance around without their head and I would giggle. But I wasn’t too keen on opening up and degutting them. I could watch it, but I didn’t want to do that.  We had a big freezer to keep them in, and grandma made great fried chicken.  I would say we had chicken at least once a week.

We had a big garden for growing our own vegetables.  It seemed like by July and August mornings we would be in the garden picking things. We’d eat lunch, shell the beans, watch soap operas while we did that, and then by afternoon, we were canning things. I loved the sweet corn. She always grew enough that there would be enough for my family, and my two aunts’ families.  And then peas, oh my gosh. We had lots of beans; green beans, yellow beans, and then we did red kidney beans, and, I think we called them black-eyed beans. Oh and pickles. My grandma made every kind of pickle. Oh, I loved making pickles with her. 

Because my mom worked and was a single parent, grandma was my babysitter. Grandpa and the other man that he farmed with, when there was fieldwork to do, we would always take them lunch so that they didn’t have to drive a half-hour back. So, grandma’s standard thing was meat loaf, mashed potatoes, baked beans, and chocolate chip bars, and always homemade iced tea.  I can picture her and I driving in fields all over Rock County and Green County when I was a little girl, and we had these little TV trays, and grandpa would get in the back seat and have his lunch.

My mom and my grandma and my aunt were excellent cooks. That’s one thing that’s different about my family today; we rarely ate out when I was a child. It just wasn’t that big of a deal. I mean we would have a boxed cake mix or something like that.  But yes, everything was from scratch. I just think that’s the way it should be.

To me, it was just fun to be together as a family and to be in the kitchen and just making good food.  My grandma was a farm wife, but she was just smart.  She knew how to do things, she was easy to get along with, she didn’t mind little kids in the way–I mean, if you wanted to help stir or cut or shell beans.  I guess that’s one thing, we were always welcome in the kitchen. And I’ve done that with my own children, because I think that’s how you pass it on and how you teach people to love cooking and food. I think it’s extremely important, not just for the nutrition and good eating, but to create that sense of family.

Diane knew she wanted to be a teacher and initially wanted to major in special education, but after taking many Home Economics classes in high school and being exposed to food production her whole life, she became more interested in teaching Family and Consumer Education.  She graduated from the University of Stout in 1985 and began teaching at Platteville High School in 1986.

I came here in August of ’86. When I got to Platteville, I had kids that knew what they were doing.  Today, thirty years later… Oh, good heavens. There are kids that know nothing. They don’t know how to crack an egg. They don’t know how to mix pancake batter. When we made them, a girl was like, “We aren’t making them from a box?” And I’m like, “No, it’s just a few simple ingredients, you really shouldn’t have to buy the box.”  Kids get excited about food and cooking, because they’re like, “(gasp) I can do this now!” and I’m like, “Yes! You can make pancakes yourself!”

I have my TA’s go grocery shopping for me. When we went to do the beef stew, I said I needed two bags of carrots, and they came back with baby carrots.  And I’m like, haven’t you ever bought carrots? They just looked at me like, “What are you talking about?” And I go, like the carrots that you pull from the ground…  They had no idea.

It’s not just about the eating. They want to know how to make the pancakes, to cut the beef stew all from scratch. The “how-to” of things. I do think that’s just as important as English and math. We call ourselves “applied” academics, because you have to read the recipe. You have to comprehend the steps and do the math. So you’re applying the academics in the other areas and making a product that hopefully you’re proud of.

The students do take the class pretty seriously.  I mean obviously they like eating, but for any student, you know, cooking is a life skill. You eat everyday, and once you figure out, “I can do this, I can read a recipe,” I think they get excited that they can do it. Kids will come back and bring me a little sample from home, like, “Look what I made last night, Mrs. Hoppe,” and that makes me feel proud that it is carrying on to what they’re doing on their own. I hope whatever it is I’m teaching is something they can use in their daily life. What I do is really going to affect them, like making a good meal for your family so you can have family time together.  I don’t want to say it’s all ordinary, but it’s real life.

I’m very tired. I’m 51, and I’m finding as I age that I’m more tired. I had a major surgery last year, a total knee replacement in my right knee. I’m not going to blame it on school, but, even though I try to buy good shoes, anything with food, you’re on your feet. My knee is good, but I can’t do this for another ten years. Not that I’m going to fall apart, but any kind of food work is physically demanding. I couldn’t do it for free.  I love what I do. I think it’s really important and I know that I have a good effect on kids that they’re going to take with them. But to do it for free… Teaching is working. I just don’t see how it can be a volunteer thing. I wish that people looked at it as a profession. It’s supposed to be a profession. 

A year ago, I walked into the grocery store and there was one of my former students from probably 15-20 years ago, and he hugged me, and he goes, “This is my wife!” And to his wife, he said, “This is the lady who taught me how to cook!” And I mean, that’s just, aw, that meant so much to me that after all this time, to get a hug, to be recognized, and that, you know, I made a difference. That means a lot to me.

— Alaina Reeves

ELIYAHU FINK, GREW UP ON A KOSHER CHICKEN FARM

Eliyahu Fink, a rabbi, grew up working on his family’s kosher poultry farm in Scranton, Pennsylvania during the summers of his teenage years. Now, he is a Rabbi at Jewish Experience of Madison.

A famous Jewish comedian once said that you can summarize every Jewish holiday with, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” Food is without a doubt very significant and a central component of the Jewish traditions and culture in my life.  Not only is food a part of my religion, it is also a major component of my family’s business. We own David Elliot, a poultry processing plant, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

I worked at David Elliot during my teenage years for a summer job. Don’t get me wrong, Scranton is a very beautiful place, as it is not far from the Poconos Mountains. But the city is past its prime and living there seems unappealing. However, it was always nice knowing that I had a job at my family farm as a back up plan in case nothing else worked out.

The farm is in its third generation now. Our poultry business began because the Korean War broke out and Grandpa David did not want to go. My great-grandfather, who I am named after, did not want Grandpa David to go and fight in someone else’s war. He had been drafted into the Zar Army, which resulted in a horrible experience because they were not friendly towards Jewish people. So my great-grandfather decided to buy acres of land and began a chicken hatchery business so that Grandpa David could get the farm exemption from the draft.

Chicken hatchery is a hard business though. There is a very high loss rate. We eventually left that business and began a chicken processing plant. Chickens were brought in every morning from eastern Pennsylvania. Now, we get about twelve thousand a day.

David Elliott is a small kosher business. Kosher traditionally means that you don’t mix milk and meat together. As far as animals go, there are only specific animals that are kosher.  One critique of kosher is that it is detailed obsessed and focused on a lot of small things. But I believe that attention to detail is incredibly important and lack of attention to detail has its repercussions. Judaism is a relationship with God, and just like in any relationship, details have utter importance. In Judaism, we believe that we are what we eat. This is why we choose to not eat animals that are predatory. Instead we eat animals that tend to be calm like ruminants and poultry. Being a Kosher farm, this means that we work differently from a conventional farm in a few ways. The main difference is that if an animal is sickly and dying of natural causes then it is not considered kosher.  We need to limit those birds on our farm.

Blood is not considered kosher. This means that all blood has to be drawn out of the chicken. Salt draws out the blood, and this was one of my jobs on the farm. The process was boring. I never wanted to schlepp the 80-pound bags of salt to pour into the basins. Those were extremely heavy. When I took the de-feathered headless chickens off the conveyor belt, I would pack its body cavity with salt. I then sprinkled the outside with salt. A kosher chicken farm is engineered to hang the chicken up on shackle so that it can hang for an hour before it is rinsed. Over the course of the day, I would probably do this hundreds maybe thousands of times a day. It’s extremely rewarding as you can imagine. No, it was actually boring, but it was a summer job.

You have to stand there at the conveyor belt for many hours. I started at about 7 AM, got a 15-minute break at around 10:30 AM as a product of OSHA regulations. The days are long and it’s very boring, so you want to make conversation. Domingo was my partner who would stand across from me. He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak much Spanish. This resulted in very animated conversation through body language and signing. It definitely helped make time pass. I still think about Domingo at times. He accomplished his goal of making enough money to go back home to his family in Mexico and work on his farm. Working with people who were working extremely hard to feed their families gave me a certain sense of work ethic. It taught me that if you have a job, you try and do it well and you try and stay focused on it. It wasn’t a typical teenage summer job like a counselor where you work with friends and try to blow off actually working.

I learned a lot from my coworkers. We had about sixty workers when I was working. At first, they came from northeast Pennsylvania and now a lot of workers come from an immigrant population from Mexico, as the business has expanded. As far as documentation goes, the workers were required to show documentation, but we weren’t obligated to verify it. One time ICE came and people got spooked and left. 

Actually, last year, my dad’s good personal employee was arrested for being here illegally. My dad drove two hours to ICE deportation to pick him up once he managed to get released.  Working on a farm changed my outlook on the world in the way that working with such a large immigrant population has made me more sympathetic to immigration in this country. When you work alongside people, you realize they are hardworking, good people. It’s almost a cliché at this point,  but this country is a country of immigrants. My great-grandfather came here from Russia trying to make a better life. I sympathize much more for immigrants. 

I think that most of the workers that came from Mexico had been working with us since day one in America. I’m not sure how much strange things they attributed to America—or Judaism and Kosher. The most common question that we usually got was about our yamakas because you can see them on our heads.

I do have a story of our one employee. Larry, and his experience on the farm. Larry actually grew up in the area and worked on our farm for years right out of high school. After my grandmother died, he wrote a beautiful letter about how before working for us he only knew jokes about Jews. He didn’t know any Jews because he grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. He wrote about how when he began working for my grandparents, he realized that all of the jokes were way off base. He really loved my grandparents. If Larry forgot his lunch, he would go over to the house and my grandmother would make him one. He even picked up a little Hebrew. I actually saw him a couple of months ago when he came to visit so that he could meet my son. Larry kept telling my wife, who never met my grandparents, how special they were.

Judaism is a relationship with God. Keeping kosher is one of the ways that I do this.  Keeping kosher teaches me self-control. Just because I want something does not mean that I have to pop it into my mouth. We have this evolution psychology tick where if we see food, we want to eat it. Kosher is a reminder that just because something is there does not mean you could, would, or should have to eat it.  It defines my diet, but it doesn’t limit it. It just requires more preparation and planning. Especially when I’m traveling, it makes me conscientious about my lifestyle, as I can usually only grab coffee and fruit at a gas station.

The Jewish experience is very community- and experience-oriented, with amazing food. Every Friday night we have Shabbat dinner. It is a day of rest, so we cannot make food on Shabbos. We can only reheat it, so we start cooking at latest on Wednesday for the thirty people that come to enjoy Shabbat with us at Jewish Experience of Madison.  The food is evocative of the whole atmosphere of family or community coming together and sitting down to enjoy a point of time together. We make traditions come alive through food.

Working on a farm has made me more connected with the food that I eat. I know that the meat and poultry does not just come from the supermarket. It comes from somewhere real. The experience of milking a cow and then drinking the milk is important because it gave me a sense of knowledge that there is a relationship between what we eat and the natural world that we live in. Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan has informed me greatly, and it has pushed me to think about sustainability and the way that we interact with our food. It has made me think about the supply end. I do believe that kosher is doing a little bit better of a job than the rest of the industry because the prohibition of eating sickly animals means that they cannot be too hopped up on antibiotics. However, while it is better, it is not perfect. For long-term sustainability, the way we eat and the way we source our food probably has to change.

— Gaby Graham-Glicksman