Penn’s Corner: The Push for Local in Pittsburgh
Green is good.
But as a marvelous frog once said, “It’s not easy being green.” Fresh produce hasn’t always been the dish du jour for discerning chefs and restaurateurs, but for a city like Pittsburgh, now known for its burgeoning local food scene and gastronomic savoir faire, it’s now embedded in its culinary DNA. Here, lifelong Pittsburgher and food writer Madeline Quigley tells the old farming tale of how Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance — now a household name known for its prolific sourcing of produce, meat, milk, flour and more — came to be. And, in turn, how Sharing Farms, a monthly dinner series hosted by Whitfield — the bistro at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh — pays homage to the city’s farming greats and their year-round bounty. Next dinner’s July 31 and you can save a seat here.
My mom has a charming anecdote about my dad’s 40th birthday party that she loves to share.
“Back then I had to special order spring mix – Can you believe that? Spring mix? – from a wholesale market in The Strip District, just so I could serve it to the guests.”
And no matter how many times she tells the story, on cue, we all act flabbergasted at the thought. Special ordering spring mix?!
Pleased with our reaction, she ends the tale by saying the same thing every single time.
“You just don’t get it. It hasn’t always been like this in Pittsburgh.”
She has a point. It hasn’t always been like this in Pittsburgh. It’s easy to forget that the unique, local produce in our markets and on our plates hasn’t always been here. And it didn’t just appear overnight.
To understand the evolution of accessible, local produce in Pittsburgh, one must travel back to the early days. A good place to start is with the founding of Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance. This year, Penn’s Corner is celebrating 20 years of operation in Pittsburgh (and my dad, for the record, will turn 64 in November).
As of 2019, they have expanded to work with over 25 regional producers and provide fresh food to the region year-round.
Today, Penn’s Corner is a household name, known as one of the most prolific organizations for sourcing local in Pittsburgh. Their bounty includes everything from produce and eggs to meat, cheese, milk, yogurt, pasta, flour and wheat. But back in 1999, when the organization was founded, it was a much smaller operation, created by a small group of disgruntled farmers who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.
At the time, the increased prevalence of chain supermarkets meant opportunities for farmers to sell produce were rapidly diminishing, much less the opportunity to sell at a reasonable price. However, by a different stroke of luck, a new and exciting player had entered the market: chefs and restaurants.
“We just hit it right, you know,” says Penn’s Corner founding member Pam Bryan in David Bernabo’s Food Systems documentary. “1999 was just the beginning of the local food movement.”
While the demand was there, what was yet to exist in Pittsburgh was the connector: an organization that linked farm and restaurant.
“Six of us got together, actually had a potluck dinner at my farm, and decided that we were going to go for it, we were going to try to start a co-op. We did everything that you’re not supposed to do,” explains Penn’s Corner founding member Allen Matthews in David Bernabo’s Food Systems documentary.
“But that group ended up becoming Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance.”
As a “farm alliance,” Penn’s Corner is an organized network of local farms. Their operations streamline the logistics of getting yields from the fields to the consumers. Penn’s Corner acts as a broker for local products, but is farmer-owned. As of 2019, they have expanded to work with over 25 regional producers, and provide fresh food to the region year-round.
Working off a “rising tide lifts all boats” model, being part of the alliance has been imperative in allowing tiny farmers to reach a wider market of customers, and vice versa.
“It’s complicated to work with a ton of different little farms,” says Jeralyn Beach, General Manager of Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance. “And Southwestern Pennsylvania is a big area.”
More than anything, these dinners are for the farmers.
Chef Bethany Zozula
Penn’s Corner’s overarching system involves the grunt work of buying, selling, sourcing and distributing, as well as the physical labor of farming and consolidating products.
“We do a couple crazy things,” laughs Beach. “It’s not pretty sometimes, but it’s how we’ve adapted to the farms being small and spread out.”
The result? Local farms that are able to flourish, and fresh and unique products on local menus and plates. Ensuring that the cogs of this machine keep turning is a ceaseless task.
“We don’t really warehouse or inventory products,” explains Beach. “Everything sold is still in field. We only bring in what is sold.”
For many, Penn’s Corner is best known for their CSA program, a subscription service that provides subscribers with a weekly bounty of fresh and local produce. The Penn’s Corner CSA delivers to over 30 pick-up locations throughout Pittsburgh and its suburbs (and as far north as Erie). Though popular, the CSA was not the initial intent of Penn’s Corner.
“Restaurants and wholesale were the foundation,” explains Beach.
The key factor that allowed Penn’s Corner to grow was its symbiotic relationship with Pittsburgh restaurants and chefs, which began exactly when the movement to eat seasonally and local made its way to Pittsburgh.
“I moved back here in 1995 from living in the Bay Area,” says Bill Fuller, corporate chef of Big Burrito Restaurant Group. “I grew up in Western PA and knew it was loaded with farms, but there weren’t a lot of farmers producing the kinds of crops that are interesting to restaurateurs. There were a lot of commodity farmers, but there weren’t a lot of people growing heirloom tomatoes or carrots, and there wasn’t a lot of availability.”
Fuller is oft-heralded as an early point of contact between the chefs and the farmers at Penn’s Corner.
“I think I was their first and only customer that first year, buying for Casbah,” says Fuller. “It wasn’t a lot, and there wasn’t any meat, just produce. I tried to educate them on what we expect as chefs.”
With new products being grown, and kitchens eager to purchase them, a new market for produce from Southwestern Pennsylvania was born, aided by an increase in attention from customers.
“It took the food scene becoming more competitive,” says Beach. “Little by little we’ve grown and improved over the years, and are still working to do so.”
If you’re interested in tasting the literal fruits of Penn’s Corner labor, head to Ace Hotel Pittsburgh on July 31 when the hotel’s restaurant, Whitfield, will host their second “Sharing Farms” dinner. This new monthly series features a different farm in Pittsburgh, and the July dinner is a 20th Birthday Dinner for Penn’s Corner.
“I thought it would be interesting to do a dinner series of chefs that are using local farms,” explains Whitfield Chef Bethany Zozula.
For the meal, Chef Zozula will team up with Pittsburgh Chefs Lily Tran (Soba), Ben Sloan (Alta Via), Ryan Spak (Spak Brothers Pizza), and Kate Carney (Or the Whale), to prepare a meal showcasing products from Penn’s Corner. There will be four courses, prepared by four chefs, served family style using the abundance of vegetables.
“More than anything, these dinners are for the farmers,” says Zozula. “They put a lot of working and hustling to get stuff to us. It’s like, ‘Here’s what your hard work turns into, here are the chefs and what’s being made with it.’ It’s a little behind the scenes for their hard work.”
Tickets and information can be found here.
Madeline Quigley is a lifelong Pittsburgh resident and a food and travel writer that currently lives across the river in Millville. She runs the travel blog The Gal-ivanter and is also the lead writer for Good Food Pittsburgh. You can find them online here.
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