Carly Lilly went into the winter with 2,000 pounds of carrots in storage for her two local food-fueled restaurants in Moscow, Idaho. But that wasn’t all – she also stored “tons of potatoes, beets, turnips…”
“We have a ridiculous amount of root crops in storage,” Lilly said in an interview. “We’re like squirrels.”
She stocked up at the last of the season’s farmers markets, knowing she’d have to find a place for the absurd amount of produce to use in winter stews, salads and other signature dishes at Sangria Grille and Maialina Pizzeria Nepolitana.
Lilly has co-owned restaurants in this small college and farming town for more than a decade. She and her partner, George Skandalos, started serving local food in the last five years or so. From produce to protein, she estimates more than 80 percent of their ingredients are grown here.
She is committed to supporting local growers. She sees it as an opportunity to introduce restaurant staff and customers to the seasonal offerings of the region and to the farmers that provide it.
“Restaurants are really in a good position because they’re in the center of all of it,” she said. “For me with the restaurant, I represent $500,000 in purchasing in the area. We’re nexus of exposure. … People can become exposed to things.”
It takes more effort than using a computer to order the right ingredients, but Lilly is convinced that supporting local growers is worth the inconvenience. And there’s been a lot of that. It’s taken years to build trust and overcome the costs of working with a lot of small growers.
On Saturdays from May through October, Lilly can be found pulling a wagon to six or seven vendors at the end of the market, buying what they have leftover. In a given week, Sangria and Maialina go through 65 to 75 dozen eggs, which she pieces together from three or four farms. Because she waits until the end, allowing the farmers to sell their best stuff at a retail price before selling to her at wholesale, she often has to improvise with the leftovers from the week. On one occasion, that was many pounds of eggplant; but neither of her menus require it.
After consideration, her staff (many of them college students) volunteered to do the leg work required to use the vegetable. They found recipes, concocted specials and taught the rest of the kitchen staff how to prepare it.
Lilly’s effort has helped a lot of farmers, said Adam Reed, who operates Moscow Urban Farm Company. He’s also Lilly’s boyfriend. He became Sangria’s first local purveyor many winters back when he was studying organic farming at Washington State University. He grew greens in a passive heat system, then marketed them to restaurants.
Lilly’s willingness to adapt her menu to the produce farmers have leftover each week “gives a market for our produce that wasn’t there before,” Reed said.
It’s unique for a restaurant to be willing to change the way it does things, he said. “It allowed me to grow from basically nothing to – I just bought 30 acres. … It’s been huge for a lot of growers.”
Lilly is from Moscow, but she moved to southern California for two years in her early 20s with the plan to attend college. In her mind, going into a medical field was more practical than culinary school. But she started working at a Peruvian restaurant where she met Skandalos – whose mother owned the restaurant and about five others like it, Lilly said.
She learned to cook Peruvian food, which involves making most things from scratch. She and Skandalos clicked. They started thinking about opening their own place but knew they couldn’t afford it in California. On a trip back to visit family in 2003, Lilly noticed a restaurant building for rent in the shopping mall parking lot.
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Within a year, they opened Sangria Grille.
At the time, “farm to table” restaurants weren’t popular, especially in Moscow. But when Lilly started using greens from Reed’s winter experiment, she was taken with the idea.
“We were like, ‘This is way better,’” she said.
Since then, she and Reed have worked to revise the system, which he said is “still clunky.” But using the Community Supported Agriculture model, Lilly has invested in some of the upfront costs of the farmers she works with so they can grow and provide the kind of food she needs in the right quantities.
When a farmer was open to selling more eggs to Lilly but couldn’t afford to purchase more birds, the restaurants paid for the chicks. Now they get a discount on egg purchases until the initial quasi-microloan is paid off.
Similarly, as time has gone on and farmers have become more acquainted with the benefit of selling to two successful, large restaurants, they’ve become more adaptable, as well. They respond to what she needs, like more eggs, or find ways to become more efficient, including halting the practice of bunching produce they know she’s going to buy in large quantities.
Lilly is always working with her farming partners to fine-tune what they grow for her.
Even with tons of root crops in storage, she’ll run out sometime before early spring yields new local food. It will spur conversations with the farmers she works with to ensure that next year the root vegetables last longer or the spring greens come sooner.
“They’re really … prioritizing locally available produce,” Reed said. “Now a lot more [restaurants] are starting to source locally. … Everyone’s having to get on board.
“You wield a pretty powerful sword when you’ve got a million dollars in food purchasing.”
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Photos via Sangria Grille