Local Hero Profile: Wheelhouse Farm
Local Hero Profile by Ellery Pool, TerraCorps Service Member
Wheelhouse Farm connects their guests with seasonal food from the Valley through custom menus that will please foodies and casual diners alike. Starting as a food truck and farm in 2014, Wheelhouse has transformed into a catering and events company with a permanent kitchen in Amherst that sources local food. They cater throughout the year, hold farm dinners during the warmer months, and supply the food served at Artifact Cider’s Cellar Taproom in Florence. I spoke with Jake Mazar and Will Van Heuvelen, co-founders of Wheelhouse and Business Director and Executive Chef, respectively. We discussed Wheelhouse’s local and regional sourcing and the workplace culture they have created through the years.
Part of Wheelhouse’s mission is to create seasonal menus from food grown and raised in western Massachusetts for their events. That goal, in Van Heuvelen’s words, “provides strength” to the organization.“Our superpower is that we’re forcing ourselves to work with producers in this area,” as the foods grown in the Valley have the benefits of growing in wonderful soil and being tended by “incredible growers.” The co-founders and their staff love the challenge of creating menus that highlight what is in season for every event they cater.
Committing to local sourcing also helped Wheelhouse become part of the fabric of the food community in the Valley. Mazar says that “connection to food and the local community is at the heart of what we’re doing,” and Van Heuvelen explains that their food is “an opportunity to celebrate the cultural heritage of the Valley and all the things that contribute to the Valley’s sense of place.”
Mazar and Van Heuvelen both apprenticed at Brookfield Farm before starting Wheelhouse, and so have personal connections to many farms in the area now run by fellow apprentices from that same timeframe. These ties go beyond a transactional buyer-seller relationship as they help each other out throughout the season. Farmers will let Wheelhouse know when they have a surplus of one vegetable or another so that they can buy it in bulk, and Wheelhouse staff will help with tasks like planting garlic or skinning greenhouses for their partner farms. Wheelhouse deeply values its connections with the farms in the area and takes pride in helping to build a sense of community in the Valley.
On top of creating delicious food and fostering relationships with local farms, Wheelhouse sets itself apart by having a hard-working and creative team of people working for the business. Mazar and Van Heuvelen agreed that the greatest reward of running Wheelhouse is the people they work with. Mazar says that they “take a lot of pride in making a work environment and culture that people feel good about,” and both want to highlight that while “we had the seed for it, what it’s become is a really big, diverse, collective effort.” In particular, Stephanie Gibbs, General Manager, and Gabrielle Chapman, Executive Chef, have been at Wheelhouse for years, and Mazar says that they are the “lifeblood of the business.” As they have grown, the team has become more responsible for the day-to-day operations than ever before.
Mazar and Van Heuvelen have been able to foster their team and keep people long-term by creating a supportive and welcoming workplace environment. Van Heuvelen says that we live in a culture in which “we pretend that there is this fictional ‘professional persona’ and this fictional ‘personal persona’ that you can leave at home or bring to work,” but at Wheelhouse they acknowledge that everyone is a whole person and this false dichotomy of work and personal personas is not realistic. Staff at Wheelhouse are supported through regular check-ins with Mazar and Van Heuvelen where they talk about how to make their workloads feel sustainable. Additionally, staff have clear boundaries of when work starts and ends, so no one is expected to be working after their hours end for the day.
Van Heuvelen also highlighted that “we are constantly investing in the people who work with us” by helping them grow and learn new skills. The co-founders treat gaps in knowledge as opportunities for growth and as a result do not expect every staff person they hire to know everything when they start at Wheelhouse. They are excited to help new staff learn and show that they care about staff as people, not just employees who produce for the company.
Van Huevelen summarizes their workplace culture philosophy as “it’s about investing in people, it’s about setting appropriate expectations, and it’s about treating people not as machines but as human beings who change and evolve with circumstances, and anticipating and welcoming that.”
By sourcing local food, fostering relationships with local farms, and supporting their staff, Wheelhouse seems to be fulfilling its goal of building community through its catering business. 2021-2022 is shaping up to be Wheelhouse’s biggest season for growth ever, with about 15 full-time and 50 part-time staff working at events throughout the year. Mazar says that they are currently “at the precipice of fulfilling this part of the vision” of making Wheelhouse an established catering resource in the Valley, and I am excited to see whatever Wheelhouse envisions for their future.
Information about Wheelhouse, including how to inquire about catering for your event and upcoming farm dinners (the next one is at Black Birch Vineyard in July) can be found on their website.