Introducing an Inspiring New Organic Produce Broker: Gnarly Nature
April 6, 2011
Insiders had been pinging me about its existence for weeks. Many of my favorite restaurants had been deploying its packaging for years.
Now I was seeing its mutant carrots are twisted and pale. Its beets are unconventionally elongated. Its yellow squash looks like a bony alien spaceship.
But that wasn't the crazy thing about new upstart Gnarly Nature Organic Produce (383-9215), at least according to the young, ebullient entrepreneur behind the "hideously flavorful" goods, Carolyn Swanson, who's a little crazy (in the best ways) herself.
"Our stuff is a farmer's funkily shaped harvest, sometimes a surplus quantity of a particular crop," she says. "It's perfectly edible food but it would normally be composted because it isn't pretty enough for the retail marketplace.
"Crazy? We thought so too."
Swanson already had a sturdy foothold in local kitchens as the force behind award-winning Passion Purveyors (383-9215), which she started in fall 2007 from a simultaneously personal and planetary place: She saw all the waste created by packaging and, with the money saved from working two jobs—days with Pebble Beach Company, nights at Mission Ranch—with the stated goal of seeding her own business, started approaching restaurants with alternatives to Styrofoam.
"It was a hard sell at first," she says. "Styrofoam bans were not existent, and it's always hard to convince people to pay more."
She targeted locally owned food service establishments (“low on the bureaucratic chain,” she says), forward-thinking folks who would want post-consumer recycled cups and compostable spoons. She pimped the enhanced service she’d provide to slice away at any increased costs.
“I found all the third party-funded rebates, looked at water use, studied energy rebates, and utilized those services we found that were free,” she says.
She now lists Cafe Lumiere, Acme Coffee, Phil’s Fish Market, Babaloo Food Truck, Bernardus, Hula’s, Parker Lusseau Pastries and Peppers among her loyal clients, gathered almost entirely by word-of-mouth.
“As a small startup, I couldn’t give my customers the packaging they want without her,” Babaloo’s Gladys Parada says, who loves her retro cardboard straws. “She’ll buy the case and split it into small quantities, and meet me on the road.
"And when she didn’t carry the [compostable] sporks I wanted, she got the huge quantity I couldn’t afford. She even buys food and won’t take a discount, saying, ‘We’re all in this together.’”
But Gnarly was even more her nature than Passion, and something she could grow from her expanding container contacts.
"We’re working inside restaurants, and my number one passion is food,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘How can I distribute food, get better food into restaurants?’ Chefs are never excited to talk about packaging, that’s where their food goes to coagulate and die, like a little food coffin. But they love to talk about produce.”
And as produce goes, this is conversational gold, particularly for a lady as loquacious as she. One day, she says, it'll be "D-cup beets from Hollister."
"They couldn't sell them!" she says. "They're perfectly good, just people aren't used to the size."
The next, it’s organic lemons that are too small, despite the fact that they have thinner skins.
“They’re juicier!” she insists, and the lemonade I made certainly supports that claim.
Some of her uniquely “misshapen” albino carrots, meanwhile, were as good as any organics I’ve had, and some Gnarly green garlic—a surplus—once oiled, salted and roasted, elevated two different meals to otherwise inaccessible heights.
Since Gnarly can acquire would-be cast-offs for less, chefs are stoked to get the passed-along savings (and they’re chopping up the produce, anyway). Her team delivers Tuesday and Thursday (order by midnight the night before)—and Tuesday extra “Gnarlys” go to Meals on Wheels of the Monterey Peninsula.
The produce hails from small, local organic farms. At this point, that largely means the family of start-up farms at ALBA, though Swanson says she needs more to meet a sprouting need.
Currently she can't find enough farmers to meet demand for the more affordable oddities. "Tell local organic farms," she says. "Calling all funks!"