What We’ve Learned From AP’s Sea to Table Investigation
Last week, one of our partners, Sea to Table, found themselves in some pretty murky waters. (We buy our wild Alaskan salmon from the Brooklyn-based, family-owned company.) The recent AP article alleged that Sea To Table were mislabelling product — tuna caught in North Carolina sold as local, from Montauk; ships listed on invoices that claim to have been in other waters — amongst some much nastier stuff.
We’ve gone as far as we can to ensure our fish is what we say it is: We have landing dock and vessel verification for our salmon. We have stamps of approval from the Marine Stewardship Council. But we have regretfully decided that after our two weeks (approximately) of fish supply runs out, we’re going to pull it from the menu and serve Icy Strait Seafoods salmon, while we continue to understand what’s happened with Sea To Table. Icy Strait owns their entire process from reel to plate — a process which our Director of Supply & Sustainability and Chief Culinary Officer are flying to Alaska in the next few weeks to witness firsthand. They’ll return with a deeper understanding of where our fish is coming from, and spend time learning from all of the amazing fishermen and women bringing this beautiful product to our restaurants.
Regardless of this decision, the article rocked our office, and left a group of us sitting around last week scratching our heads. What if everything we’ve worked tirelessly to build erodes because of this one issue? What if we try and do the right thing here and it backfires? What if we stop serving salmon and all the hardworking fishermen who caught it miss out on their cut? Is that worse? What is our role in all of this? Technically our fish is completely fine, so should we even address this?
QUESTION: Do you expect brands associated with, but not responsible for, “scandals” to acknowledge their relationship?
At Dig Inn, we want the right choice to be as easy as walking into one of our restaurants, pointing your finger at some amazing local vegetables, and knowing that your buying power is having positive impact in the world. We spend months, even years, finding the best farmers and the best food as close to home as possible. We visit our partners; we drink beers with them as friends. We trust them. We even leased our own farm to go deeper on our promises, and understand more about the challenges associated with growing food. As potentially disappointing as it seems, this whole seafood situation really forced us to admit: We are also not perfect, try as we might.
But every single day, our teams come to work with the goal to get better, and to be better. We are activists at heart, and we try damn hard. On average, we source ~45% of our vegetables locally (this is huge, to be honest); and ~51% direct from the farmer. We build relationships with underrepresented farmers (young, minority, LGBTQIA, and women), because we think fresh perspectives bring amazing solutions. We support local Alaskan fishermen doing their best to bring the most sustainable salmon, and help protect the Alaskan and Northern Pacific foodshed. We commit to contracts months before before farmers even plant their crops, so they can guarantee income in a historically volatile industry.
But getting food in a bowl is more complex than you might imagine, and the Sea To Table issue has catalyzed a deep look under our own hood. Our supply chain is subject to so many variables: Weather, natural disasters, logistics and trucking, and, well, humans. (Those pesky humans!) Take this spring: Our broccoli farmer lost over 100 acres of produce due to heavy rains. The year before, mold took out $150,000 worth of crop from another broccoli farmer. To make sure our restaurant teams were stocked, we had no choice to pull from a distributor until we could get another contract up and running. We didn’t reprint all of our marketing materials, or notify all our guests that a menu item that says broccoli is coming from one farm is actually, for a few days, coming from another. We have a disclaimer on our website and menus, but should we be doing more? Food is a constant negotiation between priorities and values.
QUESTION: If we change something very minor and for a brief period of time on our menu, do you want us to communicate this? Or are you ok just having the broccoli regardless?
We aren’t going to tell you that never, ever, ever will we or one of our partners make mistakes. That is simply not realistic and any company promising perfection is mostly likely owned by cyborgs and you should run, run, run. Instead, all of this has made us focus on the things we CAN change. Like how we communicate with our friends, family, guests (you!), and peers. From now (screenshot if you will) we will always tell you what we know, and admit what we don’t. That more important than pointing fingers and playing that terribly fickle blame game, we’re going to be candid with each other. Because system-wide industry change doesn’t happen in a silo.
Like anytime something “breaks,” it’s a chance to step back, fortify, and put the pieces back together in a more thoughtful way. We are already building out a yearly audit process, which will be available in the next couple months on our website so that everyone can see what we look for in our partners. We are going to publicize our yearly purchasing commitments, so you know what is direct from farms and what isn’t. (Right now, we’ve already committed to buying over 2.4 million pounds of food direct from our farmers this year.) And we’re going to make damn sure any and all of your questions are answered, even if the answer is: “Honestly, we’re not sure right now — but we’ll look into it and get back to you.”
We’re still figuring out how to be an even better partner and restaurant group, and we really encourage you to leave feedback and questions.