How Vermont's Black River Produce pioneered the local-food movement
Diners at good Vermont restaurants have come to expect menus featuring fresh radicchio or local broccoli rabe. But the eating options haven't always been so vast. Thirty years ago, it wasn't uncommon to find canned veggies on the plate, even in fine establishments. Culinary standards have risen. Chefs all over the state seek out foods from the farm down the road. But only one company delivers them fresh, on-time, six days a week: Black River Produce .
With headquarters in North Springfield, a retail store in Proctorsville and a fleet of 40 vehicles including three tractor-trailers, Black River Produce is perhaps Vermont's biggest local-food success story. It currently employs 160 people and generates annual revenues in the neighborhood of $35 million.
Black River started with two guys who had the right idea at the right time. In 1977, Stephen Birge and Mark Curran were happy but penniless ski bums trying to figure out their futures. They were living in Ludlow - far removed from the culinary cutting edge. The General Electric plant, now long gone, was the employer in town, and its lunch-bucket-toting workers gave the place a distinctly blue-collar feel. Okemo ski area existed, but it was a far cry from the major-league resort it is today.
Birge, now 54, was a winter transplant from Connecticut who loved to ski. He paid the bills by waiting tables and washing dishes at Nikki's restaurant, one of the better establishments in town. Curran, 52, was also a diehard skier, hailed from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and made his living as a carpenter. They met on the slopes at Okemo.
The two had a lot going for them: by the mid- to late-1970s, the whole culture of the southern Vermont mountain town was in flux. Birge knew from his table-waiting days that even the better eateries in the area weren't serving fresh produce. At the same time, eager young chefs, who couldn't possibly have afforded a restaurant in Boston or Manhattan, were headed north to establish themselves where the real estate was more affordable. As the weekend ski business blossomed, the new clientele was asking for more than spaghetti and meatballs with an iceberg salad on the side.
"The chefs were begging for fresh produce, and the only game in town was Twin State Fruit out of White River Junction. They carried only the basics," recalls Birge. "We saw a great opportunity."
What the partners didn't have going for them was money. In fact, they didn't have any; it would be three years before they were able to pay themselves regular salaries. A couple of banks rejected their loan applications, but the Rutland Savings Bank came through with $5000. That was the turning point.
Birge and Curran used the money to buy an old van and some refrigerator equipment. They found a small storefront in what is now Ludlow's Village Pizza, and installed counters, shelves and the refrigerator. Mark Livermore, a businessman from Weston, joined the company. The business, then called Black River Market, was born.
Curran describes a typical day in the early years: "You started at 1 a.m. to drive to Boston. You'd get back here by 9 a.m. to unload. Then you'd repack the truck to make deliveries, and you'd take off on the delivery route. Sometimes you'd get home by 9 p.m."
"Tuesdays were Innkeepers' Day at Okemo," Birge remembers, "so on Tuesdays you'd ski."
The pick-up route went way beyond Boston. The duo would also stop in Greenfield and Springfield, Massachusetts, to buy specialty breads, whole grains or some other item one of them fancied. They bought from their favorite produce brokers in Boston, and from local Vermont farmers who occasionally required them to harvest the produce themselves. "We showed the chefs what we could get, and their eyes popped out," says Birge.
Birge and Curran have stayed ahead of the curve, responding quickly to market trends and reinventing their business as necessary. They've witnessed increasing demand for whole grains, root vegetables such as celery root and jicama and more varieties of greens. Before long the wholesale business had outstripped the retail operation, and Birge and Curran set up shop in an old livery stable outside of Ludlow - something that would never fly in these hygiene-conscious times. They also changed the company name to Black River Produce, and created an extensive distribution network that now includes parts of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and a bit of upstate New York, in addition to corner-to-corner coverage of Vermont.
Black River expanded its line of offerings beyond fresh produce to include dairy products and flowers. The common denominator, according to Curran, is that "everything we offer has a shelf life of three days." They sell nothing that isn't perishable, with the possible exception of the one-cup coffee packets available at the retail outlet.
Another common thread in their purchasing is that they buy "local" whenever possible. Both say emphatically it's the ethic that guides their business decisions, the reason they do what they do. Of course, local is relative. Buying from a neighboring farmer down the road is the ideal scenario. But Vermont strawberries are fleeting. Out-of-season strawberries from New Jersey are more local than strawberries from Southern California.
In the late 1980s, sensing more growth potential, Curran and Birge bought a building along Route 103 in Proctorsville, and opened a retail outlet cum warehouse facility. It became a busy place as they increased the size of their fleet and added new customers to their delivery routes. In 1994, they added seafood to their product line, going as far afield as Chile and Argentina to get it.
Since 1990, Black River Produce has expanded at an annual rate of nearly 10 percent, says Curran. Although the growth curve has flattened a bit in recent years, it's still positive, as evidenced by the company's recent purchase of the old Idlenot Dairy Plant in North Springfield. Half of its 60,000 square feet are refrigerated.
Today, 25 to 30 Black River Produce trucks roll out of the North Springfield plant each day, while the three tractor-trailers make pick-up runs to Boston, Hartford and the Connecticut River Valley. Delivery stops include colleges, institutions, and retail outlets - particularly food co-ops - all over Vermont, western New Hampshire and northwestern Massachusetts.
In Chittenden County, says Birge, competition is fierce with other wholesalers such as U.S. Foods and Sysco. What makes Black River different, Curran notes, is that his trucks deliver six days a week, and a customer can call in an order as late as 10 p.m. the night before and have it delivered the next day. U.S. Foods and Sysco, in contrast, deliver three days a week and require a call-in by 5 p.m. prior.
And there are other significant distinctions. U.S. Foods and Sysco are national distributors that supply restaurants with everything from crates of tomato paste to produce and paper napkins. Black River, the only statewide distributor in Vermont, hauls all-fresh cargo.
Birge and Curran's future plans involve adding more colleges and institutions to their wholesale customer list. Birge says they may also expand the company's line of dairy products. But they have no intention of changing the local nature of their business. In fact, they'd like it to be more so. Says Curran, "We support the local-food movement 100 percent."