Seeds of Expansion: Food Entrepreneur Turns Franklin County Tomatoes Into Sauces for Harvard, Tufts
The Recorder, October 23, 2015 by Richie Davis.
Plenty of tomatoes seemed to be still out on the vine when food entrepreneur Karl Dias was out in Franklin County picking up hot peppers for salsa he was selling to Tufts University last year, and it dawned on him he might be able to turn the tomatoes into a hot-selling item for college dining halls.
A year later, his homegrown Fat Boy Foods has displaced a national sauce supplier to provide Tufts and Harvard universities with 18,000 gallons of pasta sauce sourced from four Pioneer Valley farms and two in eastern Massachusetts.
Dias, who makes a salsa for a private label that’s sold at Whole Foods Market, approached The Bars Farm in Deerfield and others last year for a test batch of less than 1,000 gallons of pasta sauce. That was enough to persuade Harvard and Tufts to order a full load of the sauce this year from 120,000 pounds of tomatoes he hauled in a 16-foot box truck, each trip with six pallets. Each gallon of sauce has 8.6 pounds of tomatoes in it, all of which came from The Bars Farm, Harvest Farm and Long Plain Farm in Whately, and Warner Farm in Sunderland, as well as from farms in Northboro and Sharon.
“It was a bumper crop,” said Dias, who is finishing up production of the sauce, packed in 45-ounce freezer bags, at a food processing center in West Bridgewater.
Dias said that to cut costs, he originally planned to use second-grade or “dropped” tomatoes in his two recipes — a more lightly seasoned, thinner marinara for Harvard, a thicker pasta sauce for Tufts — but this year’s crop was good enough, that he wound up buying top-grade tomatoes as well for the no-sodium, no-sugar sauces.
Both Harvard and Tufts were interested in serving a local sauce through their food services, Dias said, even though his sauces are two to three times pricier than the California-made sauces they had been using.
“Their use is so high that they were contracting with larger national brands, and at that volume, they could negotiate some pretty crazy pricing,” he said. “That makes it hard for someone like me. That addresses a larger issue in our food system, where a company is able to grow a crop and make a product, then ship it across country, and sell it for pennies and still make a profit. They own the farm, do the processing and ship it, all on (a larger) scale. I don’t have those mega-efficiencies.”
“The concept’s a good one,” said Allison Landale of The Bars Farm, who said she helped him find other growers to help meet his needs. “We had an awesome crop of tomatoes this year. I’d like to see a little more loyalty to local farms. It’s definitely doable.”
Nico Lustig, food business development specialist at the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield, where Dias had worked with Boston Burger Co. making salsa, said, “We’re really excited it’s happening and more schools are seeking them out.”
The Franklin County Community Development Corp. center has been trying to feed that growing appetite for local among school and institutional buyers,with new quick-freeze and larger storage capabilities as well as enhanced marketing.
“Here we had the busiest August and September we’ve seen ever, in 14 years of existence, and we processed a lot of tomatoes,” Lustig said. “I think it’s great we’re all able to make it a success.”
Dias said he’s already looking ahead to expanding next year, and has been talking to additional schools to make their sauces as well.
At Harvard University Dining Services, which operates 13 residential dining halls, 15 campus retail cafes, a kosher kitchen and complete catering services, serving about 5 million meals a year, “It’s really important to find creative solutions to the sustainable food challenge,” Managing Director David Davidson said. “This sauce is a great example of thinking out of the box to expand local purchasing. When you serve as many meals as we do, you have a real opportunity to support the vital local agriculture economy.”
You can reach Richie Davis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 269