That Charlottesville is a foodie paradise is no secret. A varied and envied restaurant scene with big city chefs coming and going; a picturesque wine trail; Thomas Jefferson’s farm-to-table tradition; an acute sensitivity to food trends; and plenty of hungry but selective eaters (and bloggers) make our Central Virginia town able to compete with the big guys. Perhaps just as vital is the sense of community these qualities have created—the roles between farmers, producers, and customers are often blurred, thus giving way to a more honest and truly local foodie experience.
It is in the specialty food industry, however, that Charlottesville’s star shines brighter than the rest—and it’s official. Feast! was named Outstanding Retailer of 2013 by Specialty Food Magazine and the Specialty Food Association at the recent Summer Fancy Food Show. One of only five, the award highlighted retailers and merchants that “share a commitment to premium food, service, and loyalty to their community”—traits that Feast! owners Kate Collier and Eric Gertner possess if you ask any of their suppliers.
“It’s an award that we were nominated for by our vendors,” said Collier. “Eric and I really appreciate that the people we buy food from think that we are outstanding.”
Collier and Gertner are not novices at this game, but have put 11 years of their lives into building a store that has morphed into a go-to place for quality, local, and international food items you can’t find anywhere else—and the store’s footprint has tripled in size from the original concept.
“We found a niche in Charlottesville, primarily focusing on family food producers, focusing on telling their stories and bringing in the product at the very best quality,” said Collier.
They are veterans in an industry that has been gaining attention worldwide for the past few years, but that has exploded only recently. In 2012 alone, specialty food sales reached $86 billion, a 22 percent increase from 2010.
The reasons behind this spike are varied, but Collier points to the increase in small food companies and the economics that go with it.
“You can see it at food shows; you can see it in the number of individuals who come into the store selling their jams or vinegars or produce that they are growing,” she said. “It seems like people are having ideas and they have the confidence to follow it through.”
And who has more confidence and grandiose ideas than kids right out of college? No one should be surprised that more and more young people are getting into the business. They are ripe with ideologies, are ready to take risks, get their hands dirty, and start a business based solely around food.
“There is a big community of foodies in this town and in New York City and Brooklyn and San Francisco, and those people are taking advantage of the Internet and social media to connect with each other to tell their stories and to learn from one another,” said Collier. “It used to be a blue collar job to be a chef or to be a food producer, but it’s now become much more respected by young people and by their parents.”
If you walk around the Charlottesville City Market, you can attest that young farmers or food producers are indeed taking their place in our agricultural landscape and, ultimately, in our kitchens. According to a report from the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, which is home to the Young Farmers Conference, the average age of farmers is 57, but that of an organic farmer is 34.
Strictly food speaking, cheese is the largest category in the industry, with $3.6 billion in sales in 2012, and a major food trend for this year and for a few years to come. Collier has seen an “unbelievable” growth of producers at food shows recently, an occurrence that has made obscure regional cheeses available to the masses. Locally, Feast! has hired a head cheese monger, Sara Adduci, an American Cheese Society judge, who has begun bringing great specialty American cheeses to Charlottesville, which by all accounts counts for the resurgence of American artisanal cheese.
Charcuterie has also gained ground in the realm of specialty foods. At Feast!, the transition to handcrafted cured meats has been slow, but steady. Collier recounts that when she and Gertner opened Feast! 11 years ago, the choices in charcuterie were few and far between—especially locally produced.
“We used to be able to get five or six domestically produced salamis or cured meats and now, in Virginia alone, we have three prosciuttos,” she said.
The Timbercreek Prosciutto from Timbercreek Organics, a sustainable enterprise only five miles from Barracks Road Shopping Center, is the Central Virginia take on Italy’s mainstay and can be enjoyed sliced or in one of Feast!’s lunch sandwiches; Richmond-based Olli Salumeria produces prosciuttos, salami, sweet and hot coppa, speck, and bresaola, just like my local butcher in Sant’Agata Martesana, where I grew up. Finally, a Spanish style Serrano ham from Surry, Virginia is reminiscent of the old country—but with the addition of local feed (peanuts!), it can become a regional and unique masterpiece.
Restaurants are taking notice of their customers’ preferences, too. Have you seen the sheer amount of dessert cheese plates appearing on menus around town and the country? Or appetizers that feature cured meat? Not that I am complaining.
Looking to the future, the Specialty Food Association lists the fastest growing category as energy bars and gels—like the Darden-developed Nouri bars, organic energy bars with a social mission: For every bar that is purchased, a child is fed with a hot meal.
As seen with other trends, namely pizza (there are more than 20 spots for pizza in Charlottesville alone), food trucks, and cupcake shops, Charlottesville is sure to have a prime spot in the next fad. Better yet, we may already be ahead of the curve.