Sending a Message to the Market:
Quality and Sustainability Don’t Come Cheap.
story and photos By Tim Kingston
Scott Miller, the dark-haired, wiry, hyperkinetic executive chef at The Pasta Shop and Market Hall Foods, has a new mission, one that has blossomed far beyond providing local foodies with top-quality meat, vegetables, poultry, and fish. He is remaking Rockridge Market Hall—well known as a high-end food emporium with a large inventory of imported products—into a sustainable, organic, and locally sourced market.
“We want to do the right thing,” Miller says emphatically. “We want to improve the quality of our food, our lives, and the world. We can’t make all the changes all at once, but every little change is important. I will not change Tyson Food, but the big corporations will eventually have to make the shift,” he declares. “Foster Farms will have to make the changes, because they don’t want to give up market share to natural programs.”
If that sounds Pollyannaish and precious, don’t be fooled. Miller is no starry-eyed activist, he is a savvy manager who has helped Market Hall owners Sara, Tony, and Peter Wilson to keep Market Hall Foods, a multimillion-dollar business, one step ahead of the competition for almost a quarter of a century. They have done it by making high-quality food a watchword and listening to their customers—who are sometimes all too eager to share their opinions.
Vociferous patrons can, Miller admits, be “a bit of a pain in the ass,” but one that he appreciates.
“It is my job to make ’em a pain in the ass and educate them,” laughs Ariane Michas of the Berkeley-based Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), adding that she is not surprised at the influence of Miller’s customer base: “He is smack dab in the middle of Rockridge. If there is a more affluent, educated, food-eating population, I would be hard pressed to name it.”
There is more than a bit of the Anthony Bourdain in Miller: the self-sure attitude, rapid-fire speech, and sense of certainty. He grew up in Berkeley, but he presents East Coast aggro. Perhaps having Communist with a big “C” parents or going to Black Panther Summer Camp has something to do with it. Miller is old school. He became a chef in an era where punk rock and bad behavior in the kitchen were normal, and chefs got their chops from the bottom up: by cleaning grease traps, rather than by graduating from the California Culinary Academy. He speaks his mind.
Market Hall sources say the move to greater sustainability all started with paper. First, Miller had customers bugging him to use recycled products. On top of that the City of Oakland had passed a Green Food Packaging Ordinance effective January 1, 2007. “We wanted to do better regardless of regulation,” says one member of Market Hall’s senior management, noting that they all recycle and compost at home, so why not at work?
At first Miller was reluctant. He says that when he was first asked to go green, his response was, “We can’t afford it.” But as the management team started researching pricing and composting, Miller became fascinated by the entire issue and started his own investigations first into recycling, then into food sourcing. The upshot was a “two-stream” recycling program initiated in March 2009 wherein all the utensils supplied in consumer purchases are compostable and all the packaging is recyclable. This is more expensive, but as more manufacturers offer products the price drops. Miller says, “Now we have taken the hit, but we want to be leader of the pack, so other people turn around and go, ‘If they can do it why can’t we?’”
The most obvious sign of Market Hall’s move to sustainability was the replacement of Enzo’s Butchers by Marin Sun Farms. Michas says that this “is a big step forward” because of Marin Sun’s commitment to supplying local meat.
There have also been significant changes behind the scenes. Miller gets vegetables from the highly regarded Happy Boy Farm on the Central Coast and Quetzal Farm in Santa Rosa and Occidental. His air chilled poultry comes from Fulton Valley Farms, a Modesto producer that has a near fanatical devotion to local, sustainable, and organic precepts. Olive oil used in the Market Hall kitchen operations comes not from Italy, but from Bozzano Olive Ranch, a relatively new producer based in Stockton. Miller is in the process of switching over to family run Petaluma Farms for all eggs. For all the company’s baking needs, he is looking to Central Milling, a local supplier that provides a wide range of organic grain grown in northern Utah and processed there at the company’s historic water-powered mills.
In the protein sector, it could be argued Miller’s commitment to taste and quality collide somewhat with the precepts of local, if not sustainable and organic food. While they are high quality, Niman’s beef and the pork from Eden Valley’s Berkshire hogs are not local. The beef is sourced nationally, and the pork is from Iowa. Much, but by no means all of Miller’s fish is harvested locally, but in fishmonger-speak that means anywhere in between here and the borders of Mexico and Canada. He uses farmed salmon from Loch Duart in Scotland, which has cultivated an eco-friendly reputation disputed by fisheries activists.
“People want sustainable, organic, and local, but the truth is: pigs are best raised in Iowa, chickens can be local, the best beef is from Montana,” asserts Miller. “You can’t run a business this size and follow the guidelines. You can’t. . . . We do buy local organic when we can, but it is a difficult task.”
Doctrinaire food activists may object, but Michas gives Miller credit for what he is trying to do. “Chefs are in the process of creating food that people want to buy. I respect that; if the quality is not there they will shy away. My position is that local food is the most high-quality food you can offer, but people have to come to that through experience.”
“Local is important, but not critical for me,” says Lena Brook, senior program associate with the San Francisco Bay chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and the California coordinator for the Healthy Food in Health Care Campaign. “If they are doing a bang-up job producing pork, sustainable pork, and they are sustaining the local economy in Iowa . . . I don’t find that an affront to sustainability. If that comes at the cost of local agriculture that is a different story.”
Greenwash is Dirty
Going green is not easy. Much to Miller’s disgust, he has encountered many more cases of greenwashing—the marketing of environmentally antagonistic products and processes as environmentally friendly— than he could possibly have imagined. Finding the genuine article can be difficult. Just take chickens, for example. Think you know what fresh, natural, free range, antibiotic-free, or no hormones means? Think again.
“The words ‘natural’ and ‘free range’ don’t mean shit now,” snaps Miller. The more he researched the more he realized how little he knew: “I was blinded by catchwords like ‘natural.’ People are now saying natural is not enough—when you see Foster Farms saying ‘natural’ you just gotta be concerned!”
Marketing poultry as hormone-free is meaningless, since the use of hormones in poultry has been prohibited by the FDA since 1959. Then there is antibiotic free. It is true that when the chickens are killed they may be antibiotic free, but, says Miller, “the fact is that they are allowed to pump them full of antibiotics up to 48 hours prior to harvesting.” So technically marketers are not lying.
While natural and free range are terms defined by the USDA, they leave a certain amount of leeway. Mark Kastel, cofounder and co-director of Wisconsin’s Cornucopia Institute, a food system watchdog, charges that natural or free range, “means whatever the marketer decides it means.” Chickens can be given chemically fertilized GMO feed, stuffed full of sub-therapeutic antibiotics, and jammed into cages cheek by jowl. Some can’t even reproduce without intervention, yet are called ‘natural.’ How? Because, says Kastel, the companies are “not adding synthetic preservatives, maybe not using artificial color.”
“Caveat emptor,” Kastel adds. “There is no independent oversight.”
Thus, Miller has had to do a lot of self education. He heard Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop, posit a connection between Europe’s stringent regulatory environment and the fact that many EU governments pay for their citizens’ health care. Governments and thus citizens, through taxation, pay the medical costs of regulatory failure. In the United States, Miller says, it is indirect; companies “don’t care about the guy downstream who gets cancer. They don’t talk about the toxic runoff, because they don’t care about the medical bills!”
The new meat and poultry production catchwords Miller has learned about are “never, ever,” as in, animals that have never, ever been given sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics or antimicrobials. The problem is finding suppliers offering such animals at a price point that will not drive customers away from an already expensive venue. Miller’s costs for chicken and pork have gone up 25 percent, but he cannot raise prices that much.
Miller hopes that Market Hall can cover that gap in revenue through greater sales. They’ve managed to do so thus far, but it remains a struggle. Miller believes that as consumers become both better educated and more demanding they will shift to buying higher-quality meats. “Five years ago few parents cared about what [meat] they were feeding their children. Now they are willing to buy less beef, but it is better beef.”
An 800-pound Purchasing Gorilla
Miller has the clout that many managers of small, high-quality food stores lack. In 2009, businesses under the Market Hall Foods umbrella had combined sales of over $29 million, according to referenceusa.com. Miller is coy about the exact size of the business, but acknowledges it is a multimillion-dollar operation. This enables Miller to cut deals not only with his current food purveyors, but with those eager to get their wares into Market Hall.
Market Hall’s stats are impressive: The company has over 200 employees, 50 of whom work in the massive kitchen above the retail area. “Nobody in the company makes just minimum wage,” says Miller. “We struggle to pay our people fairly. We have a handful of guys who have been there 10 to 15 years.” That is noteworthy, since the food industry is not known as a stable employment market.
Market Hall Foods owns the Market Hall building, as well as Market Hall Caterers, Market Hall Bakery, Market Hall Produce, The Pasta Shop (at Market Hall and also at Fourth Street Market Plaza in Berkeley), the Cheese Counter, Hapuku Fish Shop, and Manicaretti importers. Cactus Taquería (on College Avenue across from Market Hall and also on Solano Avenue in Albany) is part of the company as well. Tenants at Market Hall include: Oliveto Café and Restaurant, Marin Sun Farms, Peaberry’s Coffee & Tea, Bloomies Flowers, and Paul Marcus Wines.
All this gives Scott Miller considerable leverage in getting a good deal on food that would otherwise be out of his price range. For example, Jimmy Galle’s Gulfish supplies the French Laundry and Chez Panisse, but now also supplies fish to Market Hall and domestic shrimp to Cactus Taquería. “We developed a relationship that works,” Miller says of Gulfish. “We sell 72 hours after catch, it is beyond fresh. . . . Yes, it costs more, but we have the story, the sexiness.” “Other places use Indonesian farmed shrimp. We bring in shrimp that is skim-netted, not dredge-netted,” says Miller. “Most taquerias don’t do that. No place does that. But people love that we use wild shrimp.”
What Miller is really trying to do is wrestle the story of food out of the hands of agribusiness marketers and into the hands of the producers and consumers. He is changing his business model to incorporate sustainable, organic, local food, as part of his definition of quality, in a way that he says won’t put him out of business. “It’s all about the education of us—the staff—and you, the customer,” says Miller. “I can’t justify a $14 chicken unless it is important to you.” But that brings up the question of who can afford a $14 chicken.
What are people who can’t afford organic or sustainable food supposed to do? How can they have an impact on the food system? Given Miller’s demographic, this could be seen as an unfair, even irrelevant question. As one friend put to me, “if you are so concerned about that, why aren’t you writing about West Oakland food issues?”
Touché, but the question remains. “I really don’t know,” says Miller. “People need to shift their priorities, spend less on videogames, more on buying better beef.” But even following Michael Pollan’s suggestion of buying more-sustainable yet costlier food for just one out of every three meals is out of the question for many.
Perhaps there is another answer. “My take is that the marketplace needs to be influenced from as many directions as possible and the food system needs to be influenced from as many directions as possible for change to happen,” says PSR’s Lena Brook. “If you just look at Market Hall as an entity in itself, its purchasing won’t make or break any one business, but look at it in concert with several other businesses and the message they are sending the market overall.”
Miller is determined to send that message without jeopardizing his business or commitment to quality. “I am not just passionate about food, I am always trying to do the next thing now,” and to Miller the next thing is sustainable, local, and organic food, and he has the corporate backing to do it. “There is a group of people in the company who come from a solid intention and background, who are interested in doing the right thing.”
Although Miller acknowledges his food-sourcing shift is partly market-driven, there is clearly more to it than that. “What has made us change is the people: People in this area are highly educated about food; they know what they want and express it.” Pressed for deeper motivations, he pulls me into his office and out of earshot of anyone else, so no one can see his soft spot, admits, “When you have kids, you think beyond your life. I want them to grow up healthy.”
Gulf Shrimp Sauté
Courtesy of Scott Miller, executive chef of The Pasta Shop and Market Hall Foods Wild Gulf shrimp is still being harvested. Every purchase of Gulf shrimp helps the livelihood of people who are sustained by this industry.
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup (packed) thinly sliced yellow onion
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped capers
(we prefer salt packed, which must be soaked first)
¼ teaspoon chile flakes
¾ teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
½ teaspoon chopped lemon zest
1 cup (packed) thinly sliced bell peppers
Juice from one lemon
2 cups (packed) diced tomatoes (make sure to use the best available—a little overripe is fine)
1 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt
Pinch black pepper
¼ cup fish stock, vegetable stock, or water
Heat olive oil in a non-stick saute pan. Add onions and cook on medium high heat for 1 minute. Add garlic, capers, chile flakes, oregano, and lemon zest and cook over medium heat for 1 more minute. Add peppers and cook 1 minute. Add tomatoes, stock or water, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Cook for 2 minutes. Add shrimp and cook until they start to curl and become pink—1 or 2 minutes. Garnish with chopped parsley For a Latin flair: Add . teaspoon ground cumin and . teaspoon ground coriander with the garlic/caper mix. (We recommend toasting and then grinding whole spices.) Garnish with chopped cilantro instead of parsley.
Enjoy with rice or tortillas.
Tim Kingston is a veteran journalist who has covered everything from why journalists should not be allowed to play with firearms to where the best local Oakland brewery can be found. The more he learns about food systems, the more he realizes he wants and needs to know about food systems. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
[Research assistance provided by Jenny Huston, MA, CEC, CDM, CFPP]
Edible East Bay contacted Market Hall suppliers, sustainable food advocates, activists, and other food purveyors to get an evaluation of how well the company is doing in providing local, sustainable, and organic food to its customers. All say Miller’s commitment to quality and desire to do the right thing cannot be faulted. Market Hall gets excellent marks for its efforts in sustainable, organic, and local foods, particularly in the areas of produce, poultry, and eggs. The only improvement Michas (of CAFF) and Brook (of SF PSR) could suggest is letting customers know which farms the produce comes from. In the area of meat and fish, Market Hall does well, but some argue it could do better. The one area not addressed by Miller is labor conditions. He does not analyze the labor practices of his purveyors, or of the farms, ranches, or fisheries that supply them.
Miller’s insistence on air-cooled chicken from Fulton Valley is worth explaining. When standard chickens are killed they are dunked in 40o chlorinated communal ice baths “full of feces and blood, and the chickens absorb 8 to 10 percent of that stuff.” Pathogens should be killed by the chlorine and by cooking, but consumers are still paying for water weight rather than chicken weight. Airchilled chickens are hung individually on a line and run through “a really air-conditioned room” above 32o, but below 40o, says Andrew Carlson, Fulton Valley’s CEO.
Carlson says the company uses no antibiotics, breeds and processes its own chickens, grows its own grain, makes its own feed, and even delivers its own birds so everything is transparent and traceable. It even offers halal chicken!
Everyone contacted agreed that Market Hall beef and pork sources are high-end and more sustainable than most. But the fact that both are trucked thousands of miles raises the issue of carbon footprints and how sustainably local that is. Asked about the 150-mile criterion for local food Miller says, “It’s sexy, but unrealistic for some of us.”
On the subject of pork shipped from Iowa, Jim Offenbach, president of Golden Gate Meats, backs Miller. Offenbach uses California hogs, but when asked why Miller uses Eden Valley from Iowa, he responds, “Totally taste. They have more corn there, they have it down; better fields, land, they have done it all their lives.”
Miller buys Niman because he prefers its taste and marbling, which he says are superior to those of strictly grass-fed animals. (Niman’s cows are grass fed but finished on grain.) The Niman Ranch website describes its beef as superior, because it is “humanely raised on sustainable U.S. Farms and Ranches, not given antibiotics or hormones and fed all vegetarian feeds.” Critics argue that since founder Bill Niman left the company it has backtracked somewhat on its strict policies, such as those involving the use of antimicrobials and commercial grain-finishing feedlots that employ GMO grain, changes from when the company was founded. Offenbach simply says Niman got too big and has “gone corporate.”
The point is that if you want quality sustainable meats it is expensive. Samuel Goldberger, president of North Coast Meats, breaks meat down into conventional commercial, high-end commercial, and artisanal supply. He says Niman and Eden Valley are high-end commercial. “The real issue is scale,” Goldberger explains. “If you deal with individual farmers you will get a superior product, but you will pay a hell of a lot for it. . . . It is up to the individual business if the premium is worth it.”
For Market Hall’s deli and catering business, Miller uses All Seas Wholesale Inc. and Gulfish, which is dedicated to “wild sustainable fish” from the Gulf of Mexico. (In mid-June, Gulfish’s owner Galle said ruefully, “it was a good idea until about eight weeks ago.”) Hapuku Fish Shop sources its fish independently, and its sales are made up of approximately a third each of creatures from West Coast, East Coast, and international fisheries. One of those international fish—salmon—has generated a far greater volume of controversy than any other subject researched for this story. Miller buys Loch Duart farmed salmon from Scotland, preferring its higher fat content to wild caught: “Smoked salmon comes out better when it is from farmed salmon.”
But Loch Duart has its own complicated story. Environmentalists and food activists have slammed farmed salmon for several years, noting the dangers of salmon feces pollution, salmon escapes, chemical contamination from prophylaxis, and sea lice contagion affecting wild runs. They also argue that farmed salmon’s cheap price undermines the livelihood of fishing communities. “In my opinion, we should not farm,” says Konrad Fisher, a former activist for Food & Water Watch. “They will raise species that will invariably escape and damage local fish.”
But Loch Duart salmon is supposed to be different. While its founder Nick Joy is at pains to emphasize it is not organic, he says, “I produce salmon the best way I can, to taste as good as I can, and let others make the judgment.” Joy argues fish farming is inevitable and his goal is to do it well. Joy deals with the issue of pollution by moving the salmon pens periodically so no one area is inundated with fish feces. He states he does not use prophylaxis, but will medically treat salmon if they are infected. Joy makes a point of using the word “medicines” as opposed to “chemicals” because he asserts the word chemical is derogatory, despite the fact that many medicines are chemical compounds used to treat disease. Finally, Joy acknowledges there are salmon escapes, “but not for a few years; the numbers are small.”
Don Staniford, global representative for the Pure Salmon Campaign, retorts, “Loch Duart’s so-called ‘sustainable’ farmed salmon is a sham, scam, and a consumer con. The whole notion of ‘sustainable’ or ‘organic’ salmon farmed in open net cages is an oxymoron.
The sad fact is that Loch Duart uses toxic chemicals to control sea lice parasites, and like other open net cage companies, has an appalling track record on escapes and infectious diseases.” —TK