The CheFarmer and the Alchemist
The CheFarmer is Matthew Raiford, and the Alchemist is his partner Jovan Sage. They are the dynamic duo behind The Farmer & The Larder, a combination restaurant, culinary shop and teaching kitchen in historic downtown Brunswick, Georgia. It’s a spot that in only a few short years has garnered attention from local and national media and gained a loyal customer base.
Raiford, an alumnus of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food System’s internationally renowned ecological horticultural program, co-hosted a workshop with Sage called “Marketing Your Top Product” that dished up lessons learned from starting a small business.
An accomplished professional chef as well as a farmer, Raiford’s self-taught when it comes to marketing.
In addition to running The Farmer & The Larder, Raiford is also a co-owner of Gilliard Farms, a farm established by his great-great-grandfather in 1874. He and Sage handle all the communications and PR for both businesses…there is no agency pitching the press on their behalf. Through word of mouth and their own hard work, they have captured the hearts (and appetites) of not just the local press but national media as well. Their business has been prominently featured in outlets such as Garden & Gun magazine, HGTV and the Food Network.
For many farmers, marketing takes a back seat to the myriad skills it takes to raise food.
To be a successful farmer, you have to be a successful marketer, said Raiford who shared his tips at a workshop that was part of a series of weekend events celebrating 50 years of organic farming at the UC Santa Cruz Farm and Garden (now managed by CASFS).
Here are some of the tips Raiford and Sage shared at their talk.
Marketing is knowing your community
A commitment to community has driven The Farmer & The Larder’s business model and shaped their marketing story.
“You have to start at home and in your own area,” said Raiford.
Tuning in to the area was how The Farmer and The Larder grew.
Raifor and Sage built their business from the bottom up thanks to barters, trades, and payment plans with small businesses in the area. The crockery was made by an artist and potter living in the region and the linens upcycled from a nearby restaurant that closed.
The venue’s centerpiece is a large communal table made by a neighborhood wood maker. It serves as a meeting space for mingling, musing, and of course: munching on food grown at Gilliard Farms or sourced from nearby vendors.
These local connections have become part of the Farmer and the Larder story.
And that story is a cornerstone to their marketing.
Marketing is about telling a story
Farmers are in the business of storytelling, said Raiford and Sage. Simultaneously, it’s about letting the food speak for itself.
“We take pictures of everything at our farm,” said Sage, who is the “Larder” side of the brand. She oversees their line of pickled goods, jams, teas, and other value-added, packaged products. Sage used to direct network engagement at Slow Food USA and consult for various food artisans and small-scale farmers in the Brooklyn, NY area before moving to Georgia to join Raiford.
Sage also handles all the company’s social media, a tool she says has been instrumental in sharing the story behind the food she prepares. For example, she will take a picture of a cabbage grown in the field, but then save that photo to use when she is ready to promote her sauerkraut.
“People buy stories,” added Raiford, and showing the different steps of a meal’s journey is a fundamental part of that. He encourages farmers to not just sit behind a table at the farmer’s market but demonstrate the creative ways their produce can be made.
“You have to meet people where they are,” said Raiford.
Marketing is about listening to customers
You also have to make and market what your customers want, said Sage.
When the Farmer and the Larder launched at a “First Friday” in 2015, the immediate feedback they received was they had to serve brunch. There were no other brunch spots open in the area, and the couple clearly saw a demand.
“We have bread, we have eggs… Yeah… We can do this,” remembers Raiford.
The couple started serving brunch just two days later and haven’t stopped dishing it up since. Their Sunday brunch has put the Farmer and the Larder on the map, and has become a destination for tourists road tripping along the Georgia coast.
Marketing is about being mindful of labels
While farm fresh and local are foundations of Raiford and Sage’s business practice, they resist the label “farm to table.”
“Anyone can call themselves farm to table these days,” observed Sage and Raiford about how the label has lost credibility, usurped by mainstream brands in their marketing strategies.
“Everything once came from a farm,” Sage pointed out. “Even McDonald’s is calling itself as that,” she added about the fast food chain’s controversial rebrand as a sustainable food vendor.
Raiford and Sage’s commitment to community fused with authenticity and integrity in their messaging is paying off. Their brunch business is bustling and their original products (like their bacon jam) sell out before they even hit the shelves. But staying fresh is also a key to successful marketing, and Sage and Raiford say that they are always adapting and modifying their business approach.
Marketing is a constant evaluation
“We have to do gut checks all the time,” said Sage. She shared that there are constant moments of reflection: what is making money and what is not making money? How are people perceiving the company, and problematically, how are they misperceiving the business? “These are the questions we ask ourselves all the time,” she added.
Whether it is a restaurant or a farm, Raiford and Sage’s advice is relevant for any business:
Following your instinct, being active in your community, engaging with your neighbors, and gathering together to share a good story and meal are important actions – especially in these uncertain times.
In addition to co-hosting a workshop on marketing your top product, Raiford also spoke at the 50th Anniversary event’s Hay Barn Banquet alongside founder of Chez Panisse Alice Waters, where themes of building community through food were key topics of discussion.
To learn more about the UC Santa Cruz Farm & Garden and upcoming events, please visit the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food System’s website. September 30 is the deadline to apply for the 2018 Apprenticeship training course in organic farming and gardening, and there are a number of course fee support options available.