Today’s Special: Zero Waste meets Farm-to-Fork Purchasing at the Ecology Center Farmers’ Market

Ecology Center Farmers’ Market Manager Francesca Costa reports on a bustling new stand at the North Berkeley Farmers’ Market:

There’s a bustling new stand at the North Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Emanating alluring smells of warmed buttermilk biscuits and fresh vegetables sautéed in garlic, “Today’s Special” is quickly becoming a popular spot for farmers’ market goers to grab a satisfying and wholesome meal. Owner and chef Andrea Willems serves up a seasonal menu of whole-grain and gluten-free sandwiches, quiches, soups, salads and teas, featuring ingredients sourced directly from the vendors at the Ecology Center Farmers’ Markets. Beginning this August, she will also be offering a breakfast menu to shoppers at the Downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Saturdays.

Willems has a deep familiarity with the Ecology Center’s goal of supporting organic and sustainably produced foods, having worked as the Market Manager in North Berkeley before founding Today’s Special. As a Market Manager, Willems was instrumental in implementing the farmers’ market’s “Zero Waste” initiative in the spring of 2009, a concept that she has developed and carried forward in her own business. In fact, Willems has based her entire business model around the synchronistic goals of supporting local, sustainable agriculture and reducing food system waste. “It’s all for the good,” Willems says. She points to the disconnect within her own community: “There are a lot of people committed to reducing waste and recycling who have not realized the value of supporting local, sustainable agriculture, and vice-versa. I want to show people that it’s the same. Not everybody has it all together, but it’s all the same, baby.”

The concepts of Zero Waste and sustainable agriculture are tied together in many ways. In the introduction to his book, Fair Food, agronomist and food activist, Dr. Oran Hesterman, says, “Our relationship to food is the most basic relationship we have with our environment – whether we are environmentalists or not. The natural ecological systems of soil, water, and air are needed to produce every ingredient of every meal.” Reducing waste is one way to protect the essential resources needed to grow food. Supporting local, organic agriculture is another way to protect these same resources. Both practices have the effect of protecting water and air quality, conserving land and soil, and improving the overall health of our communities.

Amazingly enough, Today’s Special quite literally produces no “downstream” waste for farmers’ market customers – meaning waste generated after the food is sold. Even when meals are requested to go, Willems and her crew resist giving out single-use, disposable containers and bags. For a one-dollar deposit, customers can take food to go in reusable glass jars and return them to Willems at a later date. For customers eating at the market, all of Today’s Special’s meals are served on real plates with real utensils, “because this is real food,” Willems says. Customers can enjoy their food on site and leave the dirty dishes to her. Shrugging off the extra work of washing dishes, Willems explains her motivation: “Sometimes when I’m washing them, I count them. With each plate, I think to myself, ‘not in the trash, not in the trash,'” she says.

Because Willems sources the majority of her ingredients at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, she also produces very little landfill-bound “upstream” waste, meaning waste generated in the kitchen while she is preparing her dishes. Unlike food from distributors and wholesalers, food sourced from the farmers’ market has minimal to no packaging. Willems carries reusable plastic totes to the market to put her produce in so that she doesn’t have to take waxed boxes or bags from the farms that she is purchasing from. The majority of the waste that Willems generates in her operation is food waste, which, once composted, can help to build the soil needed to grow more food.

Though there are many chefs in the Bay Area who are making the commitment to support local farmers, if you look at the restaurant industry as a whole, these practices are not widespread. As Temra Costa explains in her book, Farmer Jane, “The average food business makes weekly purchases by calling a mere two or three vendors at the beginning of each week. Bread, toilet paper, linens, fish, onions, apples, dish soap, pan scrubbers, and filet mignon are delivered in one big mass by the big guys such as Aramark, Sysco, and Sodexho.” Most restaurants purchase this way because it is cheaper, easier, and more efficient. However, when chefs like Willems take the extra time and effort needed to purchase direct from local growers, its a win-win for farmers and consumers. Farmers benefit by getting a better price for their produce than they would when selling wholesale, and consumers benefit by getting fresh food that has not been bred or treated to withstand long-distance travel.

Willems grew up in San Antonio, Texas, far from the local food movements and “Zero Waste” initiatives of the Bay Area. After attending School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and living in New York for a few years, Willems relocated to the East Bay. “My dream of dreams had always been to open a café,” Willems says, “but after working as a Market Manager in Berkeley and seeing so many applications to sell food here, I started forming ideas about what kind of food I could make. There was a tiny seed planted from wanting to see something different. I thought to myself, ‘I could do that.'”

Still uncertain that she could start her own business, Willems sought the advice of vendors who had established successful food stands at the Berkeley markets. “I talked to Antonio from Flaco’s and he was so encouraging. He said, ‘Do it. If you don’t, someone else will and you’ll want to kick yourself for not trying.'” Energized by the camaraderie, Willems gave her months’ notice to the Ecology Center and enrolled herself in the Women’s Initiative, an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to helping women build their entrepreneurial capacity. “It’s been incredibly helpful,” she says. “They helped me write my business plan over the course of a few months – a lot of the time, it takes years to do that.”

Willems’ menu is carefully crafted on a number of levels. First, Willems spends a significant amount of time at the farmers’ market, tasting produce and talking to farmers in order to find the best, seasonal ingredients to create her “farm-to-table” fare. Using the ingredients as inspiration, she dedicates hours in the kitchen to compiling and perfecting her own recipes. Willems lets no herb go unexplored. One of the many things that makes Today’s Special stand out is that her menu varies from week-to-week based on what produce is available and what new techniques Willems has employed to emphasize the flavors of the season.

One of the highlights of her ever-changing menu is a grilled, marinated Tempeh sandwich, which can be served vegan and gluten-free upon request. The sandwich features a variety of vegetables and house-made sauces and spreads depending on the market day. In recent weeks, Willems has featured creative variations, including a Tempeh Ruben Sandwich with Russian dressing and homemade ruby kraut, and a Dry Jack Melt with sundried tomato pesto.

Willems’ gluten-free quiche was another labor of love. The rustic walnut and blue Hopi cornmeal crusted quiche features, you guessed it, seasonal vegetables. The filling comes two ways: creamy garlic infused tofu sourced from Hodo Soy for the vegan crowd, or the notoriously decadent Riverdog eggs teamed up with Spring Hill’s garlic quark for dairy lovers.

Today’s Special’s newest summer offering is a decadent, grilled peach shortcake, which couples a generous helping of peaches and Straus whipping cream with Willems’ signature gluten-free biscuit. This biscuit is evidence of Willems’ persistence and innovation – it’s not easy to produce a gluten-free baked treat that is just as soft and flaky as the traditional, wheat-flour version. Her biscuits have already gained popularity among North Berkeley farmers’ market vendors. Around dinnertime, one can often spot Ted Fuller, of Highland Hills farm, double-fisting two of Willems’ cracked pepper biscuits along with her soup of the day.

Willems’ dedication to the market, the farms she works with, and the customers she happily feeds is apparent to any and all that stop to chat with her. The dishes she presents are scrumptious, and the tenacity with which she pursues her twin goals of agricultural and environmental sustainability make eating her already delicious meals that much more gratifying.

Today’s Special was recently invited to join the Downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, where Willems plans to serve up a unique breakfast menu including Farm Egg Sandwiches with toppings like Arugula Pesto and Heirloom Tomato Tapenade, and Steel Cut Oats with Honey-Almond Crunch, Seasonal Fruit Topping, and a splash of homemade Almond Milk. However, in order to cover the cost of additional health permits, equipment, and commercial kitchen space, Willems needs a little bit of help. Visit her Kickstarter Page before July 30th to make a donation in support of bringing Today’s Special to the Downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market!

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