Matt Haley – The Coastal Sussex Interview

by Dave on June 25, 2009

First seen in Coastal Sussex Weekly, June 4, 2009:

CSW: We’re here at Fish On, and while a lot of people will come here, eat, enjoy it and come back for more, many of them won’t realize how much of what they’re eating was grown, raised or caught locally. Tell us how you’ve developed your local sourcing.

MATT HALEY: We developed the relationships first. The person we started with in the beginning was Sue Ryan from the Good Earth Market in Clarksville. Then it was Jason Fennimore from Fifer Orchards and Hattie from Hattie’s Garden. We started developing relationships with the people from the local farmer’s markets. The chefs in our restaurants have an allowance – they’re not forced, we don’t hold a gun to their head – but they have an allowance to go to their farmer’s markets. Fish On has Lewes; Lupo di Mare has Rehoboth; Bluecoast, Catch 54, Northeast Seafood Kitchen all have Bethany and Fenwick. Here in Lewes we do a lot with Good For You Market. Down in the Bethany area, we do a lot with Good Earth Market. Now that Jason has the ability to deliver from Fifer Orchards in Dewey, we do a lot of business with him.

A great example of the whole farm to table thing for me is last night I was eating a radish that was pulled out of the ground yesterday. When I bit into the radish with nothing on it, it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever eaten. It was beautiful, it was juicy, it was fresh. It just tasted like the area. Then I had a baby turnip the same way, and it was just phenomenal. Needed nothing added to it.

So years ago when I had done that, I realized I’m biting into some romaine that has either been in a container, on a truck or in a refrigerator for three weeks. What a difference. Then Sue Ryan started cutting fresh lettuce for us and it was like breaking a potato chip it was so fresh.

We also learned about what times of day to pick. When we’re cutting stuff that’s growing, we want to cut in the morning or the evening. You don’t want it cut in the middle of the day because it kind of wilts up in the middle of the day. In the morning or the evening is when it’s kind of re-hydrated itself and it’s the best time to get product.

I could get into a whole conversation about the time before we had transportation, when we didn’t have the diseases we have today and we didn’t have the allergies we have today. 100 years ago, people ate food that grew on their property. It was grown in the same environment, on the soil they walked on, in the air they breathed. We didn’t have allergies. It was when they started growing stuff and moving it 3,000 miles that we started to develop more diseases, more allergies, more cancers, all kinds of stuff. Especially when you have to start preserving stuff a certain way.

If you go back into some of these small villages in third world countries, they don’t know what osteoporosis is. They don’t have allergies. They’re eating food grown on their property, in their soil, in the air they breathe, in their environment. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. There are animals and fish that only live in certain parts of the world for a reason. So, that’s another reason why I like the farm to table movement. It’s healthier. It’s been proven. People that suffer from certain diseases, certain allergies eat local bee honey. When I am eating honey from Smyrna for a couple of weeks, I feel better. Now I have honey from DC, and when I use it, I don’t have my allergic cough. I had really bad allergies years ago, and they’re getting better the more organic and more local that I eat.

CSW: So local is healthy and tasty?

Yes. The restaurants thought if a radish tastes that good out of the ground, then what a difference it will make on a plate, with or without people knowing about it. The other thing that I take pride in here is that it’s not only eating local but that when I spend my money locally it stays in our community.

I take the farm to table thing a little bit further beyond what’s grown locally to what’s raised locally, because I like to hire local people. I have nothing against the people from all over the world coming to work here, because we couldn’t have businesses here without people coming, a lot of the eastern Europeans and the Latinos who come here. But we take pride that 98% of the people who work with us are paying taxes here and spending their money here locally. So not only is it environmentally friendly, it’s also being economically friendly. So I like to think of the farm to table thing as more than just what’s coming out of the ground. Also, we figured out that if we bought lettuce from Andy Meddick or Sue Ryan, it costs about thirty cents in gas whereas if we’re buying lettuce from California we were paying $18 a case of romaine and now we’re paying $50 a case and at least 50% of that markup is traveling fees and the carbon output on that is significant.

CSW: There are so many additional benefits to buying local, including the environmental impacts of shipping, like you said.

MH: It makes sense. But you know, someone said to me once, “I drove by your restaurant the other day and there was a SYSCO truck outside.” And to them I say that the SYSCO rep has two kids that need to eat and go to school locally. When someone starts making flour and paper locally, then we can talk. There’s only so far you can go. A lot of the people are trying to do 100%. That’s fine if you have a 40-seat restaurant. But I like to think of myself as an economic developer – I employ over 400 people now who are paying taxes in southern Delaware. That’s a benefit in itself, too. There’s a give and a take, so we’re working on it every year and trying to get a little better. For instance, in time, you’ll be able to economically power your place with solar power. Not yet, but soon. I’d need a $120,000 solar system to power Fish On right now.

The other thing about farm to table is as great as it is, people don’t think how much paper you use if you have to change your menu every day because you don’t know what a farm can bring you. I also can’t afford to change my menus every day and go 100% farm to table because farmers can’t supply us. We’ve gotten so big and so busy, we can’t be guaranteed product every day. It’s amazing the amount of time and effort it takes for someone to stop what they’re doing, go reprint a menu based on what comes through the door or what doesn’t come through the door and then retrain staff. To re-do a menu, between the staff, kitchen staff, ink, printer, manager and then sit down for an extra 15 minutes with 6-10 servers, that adds up to $75. If you had to do that every day, that’s a lot of money.

CSW: Do you feel the urge to go to 100%? You’re still buying, providing, moving that direction. Is the pressure there?

MH: I’m not being pushed that way. I don’t feel the urge to go that way. It would be impossible for us right now. The majority of our special sheets, the produce sets are 100% local. The proteins aren’t. I’m not going to Safeway for it, but I’ll stick up for those guys, too. Those guys started small, too. There’s nothing wrong with that. Bill Gates started in a garage. So did Sam Walton. There’s nothing  wrong with them prospering and following the American Dream. So I’m not 100% against all those guys either. I’m kind of a neutral observer in trying to do the best I can for the community I live in and still fund an orphanage in Nepal. I’m more of a local thinker, but I do a few things globally. It’s kind of true, though, that it takes a village and it starts here at home. So, I get to take a lot of pride when Ernie from Tomato Sunshine, who I left out earlier but we do a lot of business with, calls me and says “we’ve got peaches, and they’re perfectly ripe but they’d be better with you than on the shelf.” So I know they’re great, so I’ll get two or three cases from him. I’ll make peach jelly, which I can turn into peach vinaigrette,  a peach mojito, a peach barbecue sauce, or I can put it with biscuits one night. I can do a ton with that. So he has an outlet with us, as does Sue Ryan, because we pickle a lot. There was a period of time when these farmers were growing a lot and throwing half of it away. But now, we love to make jams, jellies, pickle things. So the farmers can call us and say “I have a lot of this,” and we’re like “we don’t need it but we’re going to buy it” because we’ll find a way to get it out. You help us and we’re going to help you.

CSW: What does getting those random phone calls with product do to the creative side?

MH: Actually, the best thing about local farm to table is that you don’t need to be creative. Why, if you get a fresh local radish, do anything with it except for maybe a little sea salt and butter on the side? Why, if you get some deer tongue lettuce, why do anything but lay it on an oval platter with a little olive oil on it and a lemon on the side. Because there’s nothing better. You don’t have to be very creative. I get braising greens from Hattie and why even put garlic in them? A little grapeseed oil, which is flavorless, a quick sautee of these braising greens, and that’s it. The creativity is in the simplicity. For the last 20 years, people have tried to do towers and all this crazy stuff where the reality of it is when I eat mustard greens, I want to taste mustard greens. When I eat a radish, I want to taste the radish. I don’t want to taste a curried radish. And I love curry, but if I have something that grew down the street, I don’t want a curry vinaigrette. I just want a little oil and vinegar, maybe a pinch of sea salt and then you get the real flavor.

CSW: And that’s the point.

MH: That’s the whole point, and I think we were built to eat like that. A thousand years ago, they were picking stuff and it was raw or maybe steamed, boiled in water. I think we’re going back to that area of less is more. I’ve been a less is more guy for a while. Less on the plate. Every once in a while we’ll let one of the young chefs who watches the Food Network do something that you’ve never heard of. But for instance last night, I had baby turnips. I ate the turnips, and I took the greens that were left over, threw them in a bowl with just a bit of oil and salt and put it on a plate. I took a pork tenderloin and grilled it and put it on top of the greens. And it was fabulous, because the greens were bitter. I didn’t need to add pepper to the greens or the pork because the pepper was already in the greens. Talk about eating fresh, when you bite into a little bit of pork with a turnip green that snaps, it overpowers you with freshness. It’s fabulous.

CSW: Whether they know it or not, what is the reaction of the customer when they bite into something like that?

MH: We hear about it a lot, but the tale is in whether you have a full dining room or not. People nowadays don’t settle for less. Our consumers are far more educated than they were 10 years ago based on the cookbook phenomenon, the Food Network phenomenon, the Discovery Channel phenomenon, the whole farm to table movement. People are smart today. They know when they’re eating good food. We promote it, but we don’t get to the point where we list every item and the farm it came from. I think that’s overdoing it a bit, because we’re not a gimmick/theme thing. And some people are riding the coattail a bit on this stuff and overplaying it. The other thing is there’s a big fraudulent black market for natural and organic food. They’re saying that almost 70% of what’s considered organic isn’t. That’s why it’s important to know where you’re buying from. A lot of restaurants are claiming organic when it’s not. And how are you going to know? In our restaurants, they’re eating fresh, local fish a good majority of the time. People can tell. They’re not coming back for a bad piece of fish. They’re not coming back for a salad that tastes like braised greens. I want a salad that pops. I want vegetables that pop. And that won’t happen if it’s been on a truck for three weeks. People know it, but it’s not a big jolt. People who have been coming to our restaurants for a while know what to expect.

Our restaurants try to stay as indigenous to the area as possible. Bluecoast will have dumplings, but made with local products. Lupo di Mare is Italian, but all the products are local. We do a lot of seafood there, but it’s local seafood with an Italian twist.

I don’t want to be the guy who’s doing what they’re doing on the Pacific Rim, I want to be Delaware. I’m true to the tomato and the ear of corn.

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