Jo and Rob Pendergraph don’t get to eat out as often as they would like, but that doesn’t stop them from being strongly tied into the regional food scene.
The owners of Manakintowne Specialty Growers, who mark their 30th anniversary this year, supply herbs and vegetables year-round to anywhere from 60 to 70 chefs, caterers and restaurants in Richmond, Charlottesville, Williamsburg and Tidewater.
Niche farmers before it was really popular, Jo said focusing their business on the dining industry has been a great adventure for them.
"What sets us apart from a lot of other small farms is we grow for the restaurants’ chefs. We love to do markets, but our primary focus is the chefs," she said. "A lot of other farms are growing for the markets and for home-based customers first and then the chefs second."
It’s been that way since the beginning, Jo said. In 1985, she was home raising two children while her husband worked, so she started a small garden at their home to give them something outside to do. Her sister worked in a restaurant and Jo started supplying the business with fresh herbs.
"That chef told another chef about us and it just grew from there," she said.
Rob, who worked for UPS for many of the early years, helped a great deal and was finally able to join the business full-time about a decade ago, Jo said. Now they have about seven employees with more in the peak growing season.
Restaurants can be a volatile business venture, but one of the key factors that has seen Manakintowne grow so much since it started is the relationships the staff develops with the chefs, Jo said.
The Pendergraphs’ business is chef-driven, meaning the growers listen to what the chefs want and try to give it to them.
"Years ago, I remember a chef asking for green zebra tomatoes and we had never heard of them. We found the seed of that and started growing them," she said. "They are very popular with the chefs. You see them now more than when we started with them."
The relationships work the other way, too, she said. Sometimes the Pendergraphs will try something new to see if it is worth introducing to customers.
"There is a lot of back and forth with the chefs about what to grow and what they are looking for," she said.
In those cases, it helps that chefs want to be the first to have "the next big thing," Jo said.
"Arugula used to be the next big thing – they were new when we were starting out. Now they are really mainstream. The chefs are on the forefront of that," she said.
With the help of two greenhouses, a high tunnel and about six acres outside, the farm produces year-round, she said. They grow fresh herbs such as chocolate mint, rosemary and chervil; micro greens such as kohlrabi, tat soi, pepper cress and ruby chard; shoots and sprouts; salad greens and edible flowers. The diversity of produce includes both international and heirloom varieties.
Unlike farmers who grow large quantities of one or two crops, Manakintowne Specialty Growers offers a small amount of a wide number of crops, she said.
Pete Dunham, executive chef of Pescados in Midlothian, said he buys micro greens and salad greens from Manakintowne all year and the in-season produce as it is harvested.
That ranges from Swiss shard and kale in the winter to sweet and hot peppers in the summer, he said.
"They have the most beautiful heirloom tomatoes I have ever seen. Those run all summer long so they are my favorite," Dunham said.
He has been one of the Pendergraphs’ customers for the seven years he has been at Pescados and the restaurant patronized them before that. The key to continuing to buy from them so long is the quality they provide, he said.
"You know the quality of the people and the effort they put in is reflected in the product. The product speaks for itself. You don’t have to put much effort into it when it is as good quality as it is," he said.
Chefs move around between restaurants fairly regularly, which can be a good thing for the Pendergraphs’ business, Jo said. Chefs who are happy customers will keep them on as a supplier at their new job while the restaurants they left do the same.
Mike Ledesma, executive chef of Patina Restaurant and Bar in Short Pump, said he worked with Pendergraph at his two previous restaurants and is still a happy customer. Like Dunham, he said it is all about being able to trust the quality of Manakintowne’s produce.
He put it to the test once, buying micro greens from another purveyor and comparing how long the two products lasted.
"Jo’s lasted a good four days longer," he said.
Ledesma said he goes to Manakintowne’s website each week to see what is coming out of the ground and makes his specials from there.
"Their squash blossoms are the best I have ever had. I stuff them with pimento cheese, dip them in tempura batter and serve them with a beet and crab couscous salad," he said.
He also has brought his cooks to the farm to see the farmers at work and get across the importance of creating food that is "that much better to showcase their work."
People are starting to take notice, and Pendergraph couldn’t be more thrilled. In 2014, the Virginia Chefs Association presented Manakintowne with the first Fresh Award for their commitment to fostering responsible and sustainable food traditions.
On Sunday, Jan. 25, the growers were a nominee in the new Purveyor of the Year category at the fourth annual Elby awards, a Richmond restaurant awards ceremony.
Although Manakintowne didn’t win, Pendergraph said she is still honored by the nomination and had a great time at the awards show held at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
"I think it is great for the Richmond food scene to have acknowledged us," she said. "When we started out, there wasn’t the local food mania that there is going on now and the recognition that it is important to keep our farmlands going and support our local economies."
Adding the new category was a natural fit for the awards and was well received by the chefs, who recognize that "great ingredients and great products make for great dishes," said Susan Winiecki, associate publisher of Richmond Magazine, which started the event.
While restaurants and caterers will continue to be the main focus of Manakintowne, the Pendergraphs are doing what they can to support local growers and producers as much as possible.
They joined the Local Roots Food Co-Op, which allows people to go to www.localroots.luluslocalfood.com, buy items from several different producers and pick them all up together at a set date and location, Becky Lillywhite, manager, said.
The venture has seven weekly pickup sites, including one every Thursday at the Complete Picture in Powhatan.
Manakintowne sells herbs, greens, specialty vegetables and more on the site when they are available, and their offerings always sell out, Lillywhite said.
"They have exquisite, delicate salads. Their salad mix comes ready to put in your bowl, as with all of our producers. Everything is washed and ready to eat. Everything is packaged individually with your name on it," she said.
The Pendergraphs are also building up a network of small producers that they connect with restaurants. The producers leave their products with the Pendergraphs to be delivered to customers on their regular runs and the chefs get more access to local products, Jo said.
"Hopefully we have built enough of a recommendation that chefs would be willing to buy from these other farms if we vouch for them and we know what the chefs are looking for," she said.
That networking ties back in with one of the Pendergraphs’ personal goals of helping rural preservation in Powhatan, she said.
"If we can help Powhatan keep its farmland producing something, that thrills us to be able to do that," she said.
For more information about Manakintowne Specialty Growers, go to www.manakintowne.com.
Laura McFarland may be reached at email@example.com.