We're Changing The Food Game
Every decision we make at Dig starts with a deep respect for our ingredients and where they come from. Our recipe development process always involves a conversation between chef and grower about what we really want to cook and harvest. We work one-on-one with 102 farmers and partners to bring those recipes to life, planning crops specifically for our menus. Mindful sourcing is our bread and butter. We buy from minority-run and small-scale farms, using our purchasing power to support sustainable growing practices and invest in the future of farming. Our own farm in Upstate New York connects chefs in our kitchens to produce where it’s grown.
Our list of growers includes only those with whom we have direct relationships. Meaning they plant crops specifically for us; meaning we know them by name. We’re focused on quality, not just quantity. Other companies measure success based on the number of farms listed on their menu. But at Dig, we’re flicking through seed catalogues alongside our farmers. Together, we plan harvests fit for their land and our menus. This is true seed to service.
We purchased over 2 million pounds of produce from our 65 local farms in 2017. Local is defined as being within 300 miles of our restaurants. Our locavore commitment has its advantages: Just-picked fingerling potatoes, or candy-stripe beets that don’t need more than a dash of olive oil and pinch of salt to temper their earthy sweetness. There’s no doubt food grown close to home tastes better. We’d much rather source carrots from eight neighbors over one giant distributor. It gives small farms a better price, and means our produce has more flavor because it’s served within 48 hours of harvest.
Developing Recipes in the Field
We’ve blurred the line between fork and field. Rather than sourcing food to fit a recipe, our chefs create new dishes with local growers in mind; overhauling the menu six times a year to make way for what’s in season. Farmers are artists, and we’re constantly seeking their input on how to make make the most of their pristine vegetables. Our favorite fall dish, Honeynut & Greens, came about by happenstance. Our partners at Alewife Farm had excess Honeynut they were worried about selling, so we created a recipe using both pickled and slow-roasted squash to use it up.
Committing to Contracts
Our farmers are guaranteed ongoing support. We sign contracts that commit us to buying, say, 612,000 lbs of sweet potatoes over nine months. We work with our farmers to develop time periods that work for them, but in general our contracts last six, eight, or 15 weeks at a time. (As opposed to most restaurateurs who buy just one week at a time.) These large-volume contracts provide farmers with financial stability while helping us establish a fixed price for vegetables we know will be on the menu for the entire season. This is more commonly referred to as a win-win.
Backing Certified Transitional Farmers
We’re investing in a better future, by paying top dollar to growers who are transitioning their land from conventional to organic farming. Farmers are required to use organic practices for three years to achieve USDA certification. It’s an expensive process: Using fewer chemicals requires more costly manual labor, natural crops yield less than their conventional competitors, organic fertilizer and supplements are pricey, and crop rotation is good for the land but means fields lie fallow for entire seasons. We pay Certified Transitional farms the same market price we would for organics, as a way to support them through the growing pains. It’s the same food, after all.
The Dig Farm
To better understand where our food comes from and how it's grown, we leased a 12-acre farm in Orange County, New York. (In the vein of walking the talk, our resident farmer rocks an amazing beet tattoo.) Through a fortunate twist of geological fate, our farm lies on some of North America’s most fertile soil—known as the “Black Dirt” region. From the air, you can see the iconic smears of dark earth at the foothills of the Catskill mountains. We pulled 31 different crops and over 21,000 pounds of produce from the sulfur and nitrogen-rich soil in 2017, serving them at our restaurants within 48 hours of harvest. We’ve since added a greenhouse, and are on track to quintuple our production this year.
Being Better Partners
Our first growing season taught us a lot. We’ve learned that farming is fickle and full of uncontrollable challenges—like an early frost that decimates an entire crop, or a lack of rain producing stumpy cauliflower. Experiencing it firsthand has made us more empathetic to the people feeding our country and our business. We’ve also become better partners to our suppliers just by being near them. Lending tools or helping a neighbor mulch a field supports them in ways we previously couldn’t from our headquarters in NYC.
Training our Chefs
We take our chefs to the Dig Farm for weekly training and inspirational days—where they harvest squash, pick bumble bee tomatoes, and learn exactly where and how our vegetables are grown. It’s a chain reaction: We expect them to take fresh food and real lessons back to their peers. These rudimentary connections are what sustain us in the pursuit of a better food future.
Our sourcing program helps us serve fine dining quality ingredients with an affordable price tag. (Because everyone should have access to good food.) Buying direct from farms means we avoid traditional retail markups and provide a $25 meal for half the cost, while still paying growers a fair share. And clever cooking techniques help us minimize waste and use entire vegetables, from root to leaf.
Our menus make the most of produce that would otherwise end up in landfill, due to tight supermarket standards. Also known as ‘ugly vegetables,’ it’s hard to watch this perfectly delicious (and healthy) food go to waste while so many in the world are hungry. In 2017, we created recipes that rescued 1,156,997 pounds of blemished cauliflower, pockmarked apples, jumbo sweet potatoes, and runty beets. Seven farms’ trash is our treasure. We partner with a melange of local growers to create our Rescued Vegetable Salad. Each week, they ship us a custom blend of their bottom-of-the-bin root vegetables—the ones overlooked by greenmarket goers—and our chefs shave them into a baby kale salad with a white balsamic vinaigrette.
Using Whole Vegetables
Each year, 40% of food produced in the US goes uneaten. In an effort to reduce waste, we’re committed to using whole vegetables, stem to leaf. Our leftover broccoli leaves, for example, are chopped fine and reunited with their florets and stalks in a fresh slaw; and our orange peels are pillaged for their zest, grated into a vinaigrette, and drizzled over golden beets and popped quinoa.
Our north star is to give more than we take. It feels good to make a positive impact and nurture the communities that support our existence. Here’s how we’re spreading the good vibes:
Paying it Forward
At the end of each day, our restaurants donate unsold food to organizations like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine and New England Center & Home for Veterans. We trust these boots-on-the-ground organizations to route excess food where it’s most needed in our communities. We also donate produce from the Dig Farm to institutions like the Food Bank of NYC, where fresh vegetables become home-cooked meals. In 2017, we donated 93,720 pounds of food—the equivalent of 78,109 meals.
We’re proud that our supply chain deeply impacts so many people. But it’s in our DNA to always want more. Here are some projects in the pipeline:
Diversifying our Partners
We want a farm network as socially diverse as our kitchen teams—because broad perspectives encourage growth. This means actively seeking and partnering with minority growers: People of color, queer and young farmers, and women. Our goal is to buy over one million pounds of produce from 15 marginalized farmers in 2018; helping them succeed in an industry where they’ve long been underrepresented.
Serving Nose-to-Tail Meats
Vegetables will always be our focus. But we’re also committed to sustainably sourcing whole animals, and offering grass-fed beef and heritage pork specials on our menus. Just as we embrace ‘ugly’ produce, we want to elevate all the weird and wonderful cuts of meat that are normally overlooked, underpriced, and often wasted.