It is with heavy heart I write this. I know this is a tough year for farming. Hell, any year is a tough year for farming, but this one has been particularly poor. But I don't think my farmer's behavior has much to do with this year's crops.
I've been buying produce from this man for many years, both at my own restaurant and those owned by others. In the last few years I've watched his quality decline and his attitude increase. We have had talks about it a couple of years ago and he moaned about the difficulty of building his new house.
I enter a relationship with a grower or supplier with the idea that it is a fluid relationship. Someone who supplies us with lettuces lost a few weeks of production to the rain followed by the heat. I understand that. It sucks for them, sucks for us but we both deal with it. So, for most of the farmers I deal with I stay very flexible. With one of them, whom I saw last night, I have been in the habit of buying his surplus from market days. He gets a higher price selling at market, and I want to make sure he sticks around, not only because he picks up our compost, but because he is a good guy, really trying to pursue a sustainable system.
The network of suppliers here is fragile and I try to do the dance of spreading the orders around to keep everyone going and still get what I need. For instance, there's a local produce company who brings things twice a week from SF. They also pick up meat, cheese, ducks and chocolate for me and others, at rates much lower than UPS. Their produce isn't amazing. It's not bad, but it's more a commodity item for them and I try to get things like onions, potatoes, celery, etc from them. And get them in sufficient quantity that they keep picking things up for us. There's the aforementioned compost guy and there's the mother of a former sous chef who grows lettuces and arugula for us. Then there's the guy this post is about.
Over the years his operation has expanded to first brokering for his neighbors for stone fruit and other items to hauling produce from the market in Sacramento in order to keep coming here year-round. He typically does a pretty good job of crop rotation and he's got a pretty long season. He usually has something available from his own farm from about March-November. With him I have been ordering mostly things he grows, since he gets a premium for them and because I want to make sure I give a little business to the local guys who pick stuff up for me, go the extra mile and dine in my restaurant. To be fair to the farmer he does dine with us also, but less frequently than he used to.
This approach has been erratic though. Things he lists as coming from him on his price sheet are substituted for stuff picked up at our local supermarket when it gets to me. He sometimes doesn't bring things and tells me I can go to the market and pick them up. He seems to always have a complaint in way or another.
We have also consistently adapted to his changes. Whether it's coming once or twice a week, getting two invoices (one for his own produce and one for the other stuff) and writing two checks or making sure he is paid consistently (something I know some of his other customers don't do) we keep our end of the deal.
We save boxes for him so he can save some on packing costs. We almost never complain or ask for credit. Not even when the peaches come in so flavorless that the only hope for them was a lot of sugar, and a little bay leaf as happened last week. In short we accommodate this guy to a degree we don't with anyone else.
So, what's got me in an uproar? A very little thing really. My sous left him a rather small order, some of which was tomatoes which he grows. He called to tell me there would be only half a box rather than a full and did we want to just wait until the next delivery day and get a full box? I said yes. This of course made the small order smaller. On his invoice upon delivery (he usually delivers before I get to the restaurant) he writes "It's not worth my time to stop my truck for such a small order. Next time order once a week."
Now there are many companies out there with minimums. I understand you have to cover your costs and you'd like to deliver a full load rather than a partial and I'm certainly willing to do what I can to help you. For instance, our broad-line distributor, like many others, pays their salesman a higher commission on larger orders. So, I try to order once a week, even though they deliver twice, so my guy makes a little more cash. Not a big deal there because the canola oil, flour, etc I get from them isn't so dependent on freshness as produce or seafood.
So, I don't mind working with minimums. But there's never been one mentioned and the note just rubbed me the wrong way. No please. No thank you. No, "can you help me out?" And this isn't a crusty old uncommunicative farmer with no language skills. This is a savvy marketer, a college grad.
So I checked how much money I've funneled this man's way since we opened. Over $86,000. Nearly $11,000 per year. Now that's not going to make for a palace in Monaco, but if I were him I wouldn't want to lose it.
There are things we do that are not worth our time. But we do them. Should I tell my customers it's not worth my time for them to come in and have only a glass of wine? Or only dessert? Of course not. Would I prefer they have dinner, wine and dessert with me? Of course, but sometimes they won't.
If his quality was amazing, I might be inclined to deal with the behavior, but like I've said it's been declining every year. So, we decided to not order from him at all this week and say nothing. If he calls us I'll tell him I didn't want him to have to stop his truck for a small order. If he doesn't, I won't order from next week. Yes, this is a passive-aggressive way to deal with this and I might change my mind. However I don't think talking to him directly will do anything. As the GM pointed out if the order were too large he'd complain he had to carry it all.
We'll see what happens. For all I know he's tired of dealing with us for whatever reasons he may have. It may be time for the relationship to end. Or maybe this will be an attitude adjustment for both of us. I'll keep you posted.