Making the connection to restaurants

Larry Cleverley has found a way to market the bulk of the vegetables from his Iowa farm. He sells them directly to fine restaurants, which not only pay him more than he could earn through most other outlets, but also lead customers to his other big outlet: a farmers’ market.

Cleverley has established a trade in selling fresh vegetables to fine eateries in Des Moines and Iowa City, Iowa, where he gets premium prices for his high-quality, naturally grown crops. He then asks the restaurant owners to show the source of the veggies on their menus, and that is direct advertising for the Cleverley Farms stall at the Saturday Des Moines farmers’ market. Many diners show up at the stall asking for more of that wonderful, tasty produce.

Cleverley Farms sells more heirloom tomatoes at the Des Moines farmers’ market because of the branding it gets on restaurant menus.

Cleverley Farms is a small operation, but as a result of its marketing and focus on natural, local produce for the restaurant trade, it has become an Iowa icon. After being interviewed for many regional and national magazines and TV shows, Cleverley has become nationally recognized as “the face of Iowa agriculture.” He does what growers near New York City and San Francisco do—give prominent chefs a place to buy the most fresh and tasty vegetables. His farm in Mingo is 240 acres, but most of it is leased to row crop or timber operators. He earns his income on 8 acres of produce—that’s where the money is.

Cleverley was born and raised in Iowa on a farm his grandfather established in 1928, but he went away and worked for years in credit and marketing management. While living in New York City, he was a frequenter of farmers’ markets, and after a death in the family he came back home and purchased the family farm. He was determined to use his marketing skills to get fresh produce into restaurants, a new concept being employed at that time only in major metropolitan areas.

“I knew how to put a business plan together; I knew how to market,” Cleverley recalls. He wasn’t so sure how to grow the crops, but he got a lot of advice from people who had done this successfully elsewhere. He moved back to Iowa in 1996, and within three years had a couple of acres of produce growing.

He wanted to sell to restaurants because in New York City he had seen how the city’s chefs bought high-quality produce like heirloom tomatoes directly from farmers or from farmers’ markets. That wasn’t being done in Iowa at the time, so he began going from door to door at prominent restaurants in Des Moines, 25 miles from the farm.

His first restaurant client, the owner of Cozi Cucina in Des Moines, which has since been sold, was the result of a cold call. The owner/chef was looking for better–quality heirloom tomatoes, arugula and basil. They made a deal, and Cleverley Farms was on its way. By the time he obtained his third restaurant, Bistro 43, the owner was suggesting that he put the farm’s name on the menu as a source of produce for some meals.

“It was apparent that I was onto something with the restaurants,” he says. The “white–tablecloth, fine–dining” establishments were looking for ways to brand the meals they prepared, and promoting a local farm that featured fresh, natural and sustainable vegetables gave cachet to the menu. Customers liked it, and better yet, they loved the taste of the vegetables.

Larry Cleverley, left, with Bill Niman.

Now, 10 years later, Cleverley is growing a wide range of crops from potatoes to lettuce, and he serves 25 restaurants in Des Moines and Iowa City. Up until a couple of years ago he was getting about half of his income from restaurants and half through the farmers’ market; now, he estimates that 65 percent of his earnings comes from restaurants. He also serves a couple of natural foods stores that he includes in that network. He does no on-farm marketing, though he will accommodate buyers who find the farm.

Cleverley Farms obtains a premium price from these direct sales, but the unexpected bonus comes from the advertising on the menus, which is now done at all of the client restaurants. People who eat at those restaurants have become big fans of his produce, and one of the most common sources of buyers of his various crops at the Des Moines farmers’ market on summer Saturdays, which is the source of the other 35 percent of his income.

In fact, because he can charge more for his produce retailing it to shoppers at the farmers’ market than he can wholesaling it to restaurants, he now requires that any new client restaurants put his brand on their menus. “In people’s minds, after a while, they associate our name with a pleasant experience,” Cleverley says. The farmers’ market can draw up to 15,000 people, and many of the people who frequent his stall say that they came because they ate his produce at a client restaurant. It’s a very direct, and free, form of advertising.

Cleverley Farms grows many crops, but specializes in ones that are popular in restaurants. His main crops are heirloom tomatoes (about 1 acre in as many as 60 varieties), garlic (another acre), specialized potatoes (another acre) and a lot of baby lettuce in forms such as spring mix usable in restaurants. He tries different crops popular in restaurants in the summer, such as summer squash, as well as specialty items such as squash blossoms.

Heirloom tomatoes are one of the items that restaurant diners love, and they will follow the brand name to the Cleverley Farms stall at the farmers’ market.

He spent a lot of time in the first few years finding good varieties and seed that would do well in this climate. He, and the restaurants, promote them as super–fresh and naturally grown. Cleverley doesn’t grow organic.

He also delivers. He has a walk-in cooler on the farm and a refrigerated delivery truck, which insures fresh produce. He takes orders up until the day before delivery, and much of the produce is harvested early in the morning of that day. He doesn’t contract with restaurants, but works a lot on communications to determine what chefs need, both during the course of the season and on the day of delivery.

“I do business the old-fashioned way, with a handshake and a prayer. It’s all about building relationships, being reasonable,” he says. He can do that because of the kind of camaraderie chefs and restaurant owners are eager to establish. They are in the same business he is: providing fine food. He thrives on the relationships that can grow between a chef and a farmer who is intent on providing him with the tastiest produce possible.  They have the same passion.

Des Moines is only a mid-sized city, but it has many great restaurants and delis. To take advantage of his position, and to reduce transaction costs, Cleverley Farms has become a distributor of Niman Ranch “raised with care” gourmet meats.

Cleverley Farms specializes in produce that local restaurants find highly desirable, such as spring lettuce, garlic and specialty potatoes.

Cleverley drives the delivery truck himself much of the summer. When he shows up with great produce and has a few minutes to chat with the chef or restaurant owner he invariably makes new sales. He can notify them of his newest crops, and which ones will be harvested soon. A couple of chefs have even worked on his farm for a period of time for their own education, and that kind of interaction creates a bond and a tighter marketing network. It becomes more than just a business transaction.

There is an implicit guarantee about produce quality. He says that his customers know—without a written agreement—that he will replace the rare veggie that isn’t up to snuff. “We’re very particular about what we put out there.” Heirloom tomatoes are susceptible to splitting, for example, but those will not go to a restaurant. The chefs are such fans of his that they buy the veggies right out of the field, which means they have to clean them themselves.

Cleverley says his growing season starts as soon as the ground can be worked, somewhere from March to April, though he does use spun poly row covers to extend his season. It usually ends in late September, though crops such as the kale family and radishes can stretch longer. He uses a center pivot sprinkler to help germinate crops and get them through hot spells, but in general he relies on rainfall.

Summer squash and squash blossoms are a big hit on restaurant menus in Iowa, part of a program that allows Larry Cleverley to make a living from 8 acres.

The farm operates under the “natural” label as defined by Certified Naturally Grown. No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used, with turkey manure and hand-picking of insects being sufficient for the farm’s purposes. Cleverley says he doesn’t have any big pest problems.

As for the future, he says he has no plan to increase acreage. His focus from here is to increase efficiency in growing the crops. He is at a nice equilibrium point as far as synchronizing production with marketing, he says. The restaurant trade has given him an excellent means of selling his crops.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.