Pass the Whitefish: U-M Chef Builds a Sustainable Food Network
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Michigan Ag Connection - 01/20/2022
The customer had been coming to Lakon and Tod Williams' Eastern Market stall for a few weeks, buying whitefish they caught in the Saginaw Bay for his family.
The Williamses own the Bay Port Fish Co. Each Saturday--before the coronavirus pandemic set in--Lakon and a few of her employees traveled from the Thumb region to Detroit to sell directly to customers.
The customer was doing what he often did on weekends and vacation time: visiting farmers markets across the state to nose out the best meat and produce on offer. But this Saturday, Frank Turchan, executive chef at University of Michigan Dining, let the Williamses know who he was.
"One week, he mentioned, 'Hey, I'm the head chef for the University of Michigan. How much fish do you catch a year?' Lakon recalls. "My jaw dropped. I said he should have told me that a while ago. He said, 'That's why I didn't tell you. So I can see how your fish is before I offer to buy it.'"
Turchan invited Lakon and Tod to campus, to tour the university's dining facilities. In turn, they invited Turchan to Bay Port Fisheries. Located in Bay Port, the fishery has been in existence since 1895, and is one of 13 state-licensed commercial fishing companies that derive its primary income from fishing in the Great Lakes.
"We invited her and her father to the campus to see what we're doing and talk to our chefs, talk to our team and see what we're looking for," Turchan said. "I went up there and saw what they did and saw the fishery that's been around for over 100 years or more. I mean, it's beautiful. So we got to understand what we both can do."
For Lakon, who has a degree in general management from Michigan State University, meeting Turchan at Eastern Market was fortuitous.
"The University of Michigan account definitely helped us grow. It basically saved us. We were barely breaking even," she said.
Turchan courted the Williamses' business as part of the campuswide Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. The initiative grew out of a push by the now-retired Michigan Dining chef Nelson "Buzz" Cummings to bring the local food movement to U-M in 2006.
Cummings and Turchan, who had been at the university by then for just a year or two, began coaxing the university to expand its local produce offerings in undergraduate dining halls.
"We were told, 'Well, you can buy a thousand pounds of grape tomatoes,' and that was gone within the first two days," said Turchan, who later became campus executive chef and made it his goal to continue what Cummings had started. "Over time, we were able to buy more tomatoes, then squash, and over the years, it just kept growing."
Michigan Dining serves about 20,000 meals across nine dining halls on a daily basis, and all students have access to local produce and whitefish. Local and sustainable food makes up more than 19%, or $2.8 million of Michigan Dining's total budget. Turchan aims to reach 20% by 2025.
For Turchan, using local produce is a way to support sustainability, but it's also just good food. In addition to Lakon and Tod Williams, Turchan works with a number of farmers and producers both locally and from across the state. These include more than 20 companies that sell food products, such as Zingerman's; Prairie Farms, a Midwest dairy cooperative; and Detroit's Better Made Chips, McClure Pickle, Quality Meats & Culinary Specialties and LaGrasso Brothers, which grows lettuce and sources produce from other local farmers.
In addition, Jim and Tina Todosciuk, who own J&T Todosciuk Farms in Howell, sell tomatoes, zucchini and other salad bar items to Michigan Dining; Brandon Seng, owner of Michigan Farm to Freezer in Traverse City and Detroit, buys and distributes Michigan-grown produce; and Dale Lessor, owner of Lessor Farm in Dexter, supplies apples and plums.
"One of the things I learned early on is that Michigan is number two in varietal produce, behind California. It's something that we should be tapping into everyday," Turchan said. "I can call our apple supplier up and say, 'Hey, Dale, what kind of apple are you eating today?' And I'll take six of whatever he's eating, and he'll ask why. 'I'll say, if you're eating it, I know it's right.'"
Commercial anglers Lakon Williams and her father Tod haul in hundreds of thousands of pounds of whitefish every year, from a circumscribed grid in the middle of Lake Huron.
It's hard work. They set nets in the springtime. Tod, in their 50-foot boat called the Osprey, checks the nets daily, unless the wind is too contentious. He hauls the nets over the boat using a system of pulleys and winches, then sorts out fish that are too small or the wrong species. Those fish go back into the water; the rest slide down a tube into the boat's hold. Tod then resets the net on the other side of the boat, where, aside from their daily checks, the nets stay in place until November.
Over the 45 years the Williamses have owned the business, they have largely been wholesalers, selling their fish to resellers, who sell their fish to retailers. But they also sell directly to consumers--which is what they were doing about six years ago, at Detroit's Eastern Market, when Turchan first approached him.
The Williamses provide about 8,000 pounds of whitefish to Campus Dining annually, which accounts for about 15% of their total annual income. The bulk of the fish is sold in fresh, frozen fillets, and the contract with U-M has allowed them to change the business model.
Lakon took over as operations manager from her mother about 10 years ago, when the company was mostly wholesale. But the wholesale market had become tricky, she said. There were fewer buyers, and the market was unpredictable. Plus, selling their fish to a reseller, who sold it to a retailer, added a middleman and subtracted profits from the Williamses.
"I was shipping whitefish out wholesale, gutting them and sending them out whole by the hundreds of thousands of pounds," Lakon said. "But it takes about 100 hours a week to fillet Chef Frank's fish for his students, which adds about 100 hours a week on the payroll. Our employees appreciate that."
The Williamses' accounts are now mainly direct to retailers, with more than 20 accounts that purchase fish that the Williamses fillet. These accounts make the Williamses 20% more than selling their fish whole.
"The fish numbers in lakes have dropped, largely because of invasive species. We've been family owned for 45 years this year, and for 31 years it was always a wholesale business. The fish were bountiful and they supported our payroll," Lakon said. "But I'm a business major, and when I looked at the books, I realized we had been almost in the red for seven to 10 years. We weren't catching as much fish. I knew we had to change and that's when I started filleting more whitefish and keeping them in Michigan."
Turchan's offer of business, Lakon says, is what has allowed them to do that.
"He really is a great chef," she said. "I've never dealt with someone who cares about quality or supporting local fisheries as much as him."
Jim and Tina Todosciuk's relationship with Michigan Dining began in 2006--they were one of the first farming families Cummings sought out.
"He pursued us," Jim said. "He wanted us to supply cantaloupe--Howell melons. We thought it over and tossed it around, took a year or so, said OK, let's try it."
There were a few details to iron out, Jim said. The Todosciuks wanted to make sure they could meet the amount U-M wanted to buy and U-M's quality expectations. But after working through the unknowns, the Todosciuks proceeded with the partnership and their sales with U-M began to grow. They started selling produce to a growing list of dining halls, then to U-M's catering services, and finally, to the university's hospital system and the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.
The Todosciuks sell a host of vegetables to Michigan Dining--"A lot of what we grow for them is based around a salad bar," Jim said--including grape tomatoes, tomatoes, summer squash and peppers.
"Now, they will pretty much purchase anything we grow," Jim said. "We actually got to the point where we didn't want to go any bigger. We've pretty much maxed ourselves out, and about 75% of what we grow is available for them to purchase."
The Todosciuks have worked for so long with Cummings and then Turchan that they customize what they offer to Michigan Dining. Michigan Dining may not need a 30 or 40 pound case of something like peppers for one residence hall dining room, Jim said. Instead, Jim and Tina can offer smaller quantities, or specific vegetables they have in abundance on a particular week. The relationship benefits both: Michigan Dining can cut down on its food waste, and the Todosciuks can sell whatever surplus they might have on a particular week.
"One dorm isn't very big, so they can't use a large volume of produce in cases. So we do little specialty boxes for them. They may only need one pound, two pounds of summer squash, green zucchini or white squash," Jim said. "By us talking with the chefs, their waste is down a lot, because they're getting what they need and they don't have all the extra product.
"It's fresher, it's picked the day before, or even that morning that we deliver, so they're getting it fresh right out of the field. it doesn't have a lot of miles on it, and it hasn't been on a truck for two or three days."
Turchan met Brandon Seng at a Pure Michigan Business Connect event connecting agricultural producers to buyers. Seng co-owns Michigan Farm to Freezer, a company that contracts with Michigan farmers to sell their produce as frozen products that can be used outside of Michigan's short growing season. Seng originally ran a school lunch program in Northern Michigan, but started the business to bring more Michigan produce to food-insecure families through school lunch programs--and to help those looking for work experience in leadership.
"In my school, we had a 14-year-old who came through my lunch line who had never eaten a blueberry before," Seng said. "And it's not his fault that he hadn't had that opportunity or experience. It's mine. It's my responsibility to feed him foods that are grown locally because it's his right to eat that. And Chef Frank has a similar approach and philosophy."
Seng, along with business partner Mark Coe, founded Michigan Farm to Freezer in 2013 in Traverse City. The pair work with farmers across the state to buy their produce, which flash frozen in their facility in Detroit. Then, the produce is distributed to those who purchase from Michigan Farm to Freezer.
"Our strawberries are picked just dripping red and frozen within hours of being harvested," Seng said. "So when you open up a bag of our strawberries, it smells just like a strawberry should. As that strawberry is reading through its genome, it's putting on minerals and elements of complexity of flavor that you can't get with something that's picked white and ripened in a truck over thousands of miles.
"When we're looking for customers, we want to find folks that see the beauty and the power in those products, and chefs at the university have been great to work with."
Seng's business works with 400 school districts across the state, as well as with major universities and hospitals. In 2020, it sold two million pounds of Michigan fruits and vegetables. Michigan Dining buys frozen sliced apples, strawberries, peaches, blueberries and cherries for smoothies and yogurt parfaits. Contracts with larger institutions provide more manageable costs for smaller school districts, Seng says.
In Turchan, Seng found a kindred spirit interested in the same quality of food that Seng values.
"It's not uncommon for us to see him Saturday at the Eastern Market, and he'll always stop at our booth. We'll talk about what we've got available, what's in harvest right now, and he's constantly evolving and pushing us to think differently about how and what we're putting out into the network," Seng said.
"It's partnerships like what we have with the University of Michigan that force a discussion about the true cost and value of food in our country. We want to be able to provide a living wage for growers and provide them with the opportunity to scale and be successful in their field. Because without farmers, we won't have food."
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