Local food business owners talk future of food in Solano EDC webinar

July 27 2022

The Reporter By  | nsestanovich@thereporter.com |

July 26, 2022 at 4:01 p.m.

Solano County is bountiful when it comes to agriculture, producing numerous produce, nuts and even meats for the region and beyond.

It has been this way for more than a century, but as food production trends toward sustainability and providing options, even Solano is adapting. This was highlighted when Solano Economic Development Corporation and Kaiser Permanente hosted another installment of its Speaker Series featuring representatives of local organizations discussing their impact on the food industry and opportunities for sustainable production in the county.

Chris Rico, president and CEO of Solano EDC, moderated a panel that featured Viraj Puri, founder and CEO of Gotham Greens; Shane MacKenzie, executive vice president of operations for Superior Farms; GW Chew, founder and CEO of Something Better Foods, Inc.; and Terces Engelhart, co-founder of the organic restaurant chain Cafe Gratitude and the plant-based Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre, which has locations in San Francisco and West Hollywood.

“Solano is a place that’s steeped in agriculture for more than a century,” Rico said. “It’s home today to a variety of farming techniques and some products.”

Puri talked about Gotham Greens, a New York-based producer of leafy green products that has expanded to six other states and recently opened its first West Coast greenhouse between Dixon and Davis through a partnership with the University of California, Davis.

The company was founded to solve the concern of leafy greens being transported in a truck from California or Arizona to other parts of the country and not being as fresh when they arrive last a facility.

“Much of that produce would only last a few days before it reaches the grocery store shelves and before the end consumer would have to throw their product away,” he said. “That’s just a colossal waste or resources. You’re using all this land, labor, water, capital, freight, produce, and consumers are not having a chance to enjoy it.”

Thus, Gotham Greens was founded to grow the product much closer to the market, in this case, the East Coast. It later expanded to the Chicago and Denver areas to bring it to the Midwest. Solano was chosen as the first West Coast site because of its rich agricultural heritage and proximity to UC Davis for research and development.

“If Gotham Greens is going to keep growing our business and advance, a controlled environment with farming, we need to be in California,” he said. “That’s home of our nation’s agriculture industry, home of our nation’s fruit and vegetable industry, the entire ecosystem is based there. If we’re going to be a part of it, we need to be located there.”

Rico asked MacKenzie about sustainability at Superior Farms, a Sacramento-based company that specializes in all-natural lamb and has a processing plant in Dixon.

“California’s still the second largest lamb-producing state, so it allows us to have good access to a lot of lambs,” he said. “The infrastructure for feed lots, for grazing, for all the sustainable agriculture that we are addressing…we’ve got lambs that are out on crop aftermath, in our area for instance.”

A big part of Superior Farms’ business model, MacKenzie said, is not letting any part of the lamb go to waste.

“Obviously, there’s human edible products, but then there’s biological products,” he said. “We save the eyeballs and brains and use them for teaching purposes. We save body parts for pet treats. We save the skins, and those either get turned into fashion or, for instance, paint rollers or lambskin for baby prams or strollers. They’re fully utilized. We don’t waste anything that comes to the plant.”

Engelhart, who also operates Be Love Farm in Vacaville with her husband Matthew, said the farm is regenerative — i.e., one that takes conservation into account throughout the farming process — and has become a resource for the community. It has provided tours to families, brought inmates out to harvest peaches and has a store on site with locally grown items for sale.

“For us, it’s about reconnecting people with the land and their food, getting people off of screens and out of fast food and getting more related to the health and well-being (of people),” she said.

Chew grew up in rural Maryland where he said food was a big part of his family’s culture.

“My mother had her favorite potato salad and mac and cheese,” he said. “My aunt had this special thing that she made, so food was always those happy memories.”

However, Chew said a lot of his relatives began developing “lifestyle diseases” such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer in their mid 40s and early 50s, with several dying as a result.

When Chew was about 18, his family went completely vegan and adopted a plant-based diet long before it was trendy.

“I started wanting to experiment and experience the foods that I grew up on but making it plant-based,” he said. “That started a 20-year journey for me, literally in 2001.”

Chew began using grains and beans to create meat-like products, which he eventually parlayed into his company, Something Better Foods, which serves plant-based alternatives to everything from shredded steak to fried chicken to fried fish and distributes them to markets, including Whole Foods stores throughout the West Coast.

The foods are produced in Vallejo, where Chew is also planning to open a restaurant and small store. His goal is to provide easier access to healthy food.

“You think about places called food deserts where you have people that do not have access to healthy food options,” he said. “There’s no Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or healthier food stores available. A lot of the produce is really poor quality.”

Chew said the argument against a lot of the major plant-based food companies is they use less natural ingredients and may actually be less healthy than meat. His company differs by using established grains and crops for its products and is planning to go 100% organic in 2023.

“Our process is process-driven rather than ingredient-driven,” he said. “We’re not utilizing ingredients that give enhanced flavors that’s pretty much chemicals…We’re using natural flavors, ingredients that you can pronounce.”

Rico said that the Engelharts are planning to move to Idaho and asked if Be Love Farm would remain connected to Vacaville. Engelhart said she has heard from several potential buyers motivated by the organizations vision.

“This has become such a landmark for the community,” she said. “Unless something goes particularly south, it will always be a resource for the community. Everyone who’s looking at it is present to the value and the difference that it’s made.”

Engelhart said she enjoyed all the different voices the panel brought together.

“It’s such a cultural shift that we’re in, and I think it’s beautiful all the players that are doing their part in how we treat the animals, how we treat the plants and how we feed the people,” she said.

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