The following is an excerpt from Becky Krystal’s article “When in a pickling pickle, how D.C. food businesses get around shortages,” appearing April 15 at www.washingtonpost.com
“The world was full of panic — and mock panic — early this year when Chipotle pulled carnitas from some of its restaurants after a pork supplier was found to be violating the chain’s animal-treatment standards. The shortage continues, with no end in sight.
What if that had happened to a small business? What do you do when even the slightest fluctuation in ingredient supplies can have an outsize impact on your bottom line?
That is the kind of dilemma local restaurateurs and food business owners run into regularly. Weather can wreak particular havoc, as we all learned in last year’s margarita-threatening lime shortage.
Yi Wah Roberts, co-founder of fermented foods business Number 1 Sons, also got a firsthand lesson in the power of Mother Nature last year.
When it came to formulating their pickles, Roberts and his sister Caitlin decided that cucumbers from several West Virginia farms made superior half-sours, dills and more. “The cucumber pickles make up probably two-thirds of our sales,” Roberts said.
So imagine their dismay when Number 1 Sons ran out them last year, a development Roberts attributed to both their popularity and a shortage of cucumbers from growers. He would have preferred to have stocked up on cucumbers to cure and sell over the winter, but that wasn’t possible. Roberts said the farmers typically do two cucumber plantings, and the second planting did not yield the expected amount of produce.
Could such a thing be avoided in the future? Roberts’s light-bulb moment came recently when he attended a sustainable agriculture conference, where he learned what affected the second harvest: downy mildew. Because it can’t survive cold temperatures, the mildew surfaces late in the growing season after it blows north from Florida. It can take out cucumber plants in days, he said.
Roberts has talked to a scientist at Cornell University who is developing a mildew-resistant version of a pickling cucumber. (Most research so far has focused on slicing cucumbers, he said.) Number 1 Sons is also working with a seed grower in Virginia who will provide Roberts with mildew-resistant seeds to share at farmers markets with growers and customers. Both Bigg Riggs Farm and Spring Valley Farm and Orchard have agreed to try growing the in- development variety of cucumber.
“That is a potential success,” Roberts said. “The payoff’s a little further down the road, but it’s worth it.”
Knowing that the cucumber supply is at risk prompted Roberts to look at other ways to diversify and experiment. When he started polling fellow farmers-market vendors for ideas, he learned that they’re frequently left with extra chili peppers, which look great on the sales table but don’t always get cleared out by shoppers. Now Roberts plans to make hot sauce to sell this season.”
Krystal, Becky. “When in a Pickling Pickle, How D.C. Food Business Get Around Shortages.” The Washington Post. Washington Post, 15 April 2015. Web.