This is no ordinary catering business. Sure Spade to Blade do weddings, events, conferences, parties but not in the way you would expect. Every week owner Gary Thomas finds out what the local farmers are producing and tailors his upcoming catering contracts to fit what is available locally. He’s been doing it for 25 years. From small beginnings in the 1990’s running a Café in Hepburn, he now employs four permanent staff, several casual workers and more than a dozen front of house.
How it Evolved
He has brought his own experience of what works; along with emerging trends of small-scale agribusiness, the growth of consumer discernment about their food choices, learnings from the Slow Food movement and connecting with many unsung local farmers and well-known influencers like Rijk Zwann and Rod May. Trusting his instincts to follow these trends he has evolved a way of sourcing and using high quality local produce that supports local farmers and provides an alternative to large scale commercial products. It ticks all the boxes to reduce food miles, use less waste, promote and educate about the value of local healthy food choices and provides delicious flavoursome food.
The Slow Food movement has been a boon for local chefs and growers. When attending his first gathering Gary felt like he had connected with his mob; there were others like him. There was a sense of camaraderie with a whole network and a much bigger food map. He did however see that many talk it but don’t do it. He has had to work at it to stay successful in a changing landscape.
Gary has a clear purchasing philosophy. He starts with off using local farm produce, harvest from the catering garden and where appropriate local wild food windfalls. His first choice is local and organic. 90% of his produce – meat, vegetables, grains and flour, oil, dairy comes direct from local and regional farmers. His second choice is local, third is organic and the last choice is conventional.
Spade to Blade has a strong emphasis on supporting the local producers. The practice is to pay the asking price, on time, without quibbling. He explains that whilst the business doesn’t try to compete with the commercial caterers that purchase in bulk and do cookie cutter serves, his business is financially viable and offers a diverse seasonal range. In recent years his sales have increased, cost of production decreased, and he can often source the best possible variety of produce often cheaper than conventional food businesses where costs are high and waste excess.
Use it all and limit waste
Using all of what is available and limiting waste is an important aspect of the business. Whether it is purchasing a whole beast and using every part of it or making use of a massive crop of (say cucumbers) that are sliced diced fermented pickled preserved in a variety of ways; it is all part of a no waste philosophy. Spade to Blade chefs get really creative. You can see the micro version cycle of growing, harvesting and composting produce in the Spade to Blade garden.
Benefits Challenges and Insights
Maintaining good relations with farmers is paramount. With their best efforts crop harvests are variable in volume and quality. Co-production is a good practice. For example, the tomato crop may net a bumper crop one year, then be inferior the next. This is where the costs can be shared with standard pricing.
Say YES to producers and work things out from there. Never take produce you can’t pay for and always pay on time.
Making a shift from being a sole trader to a company with a small staff has made a difference. From the stress of trying to do it all himself he now has a great staff who want to stay, can be creative and make great food. A happy workplace is an important thing. People want to be doing something worthwhile and feel proud of what they do.
The general public are now more aware of the value of about the value of local food.
Also on the plus side is the abundance of remnant small production opportunities.
On the downside the cost of competing excludes some clients. Corporates for example often want vast cuts of the same meat. This tends to creates excessive waste and is not an efficient use of produce.
Another challenge is that people often misinterpret what local food is. Shopping for it locally does not cut the mustard! Plenty of room to educate some locals, tourists, as well as local, state government and business.
The Slow Food movement has been a boon for local chefs and growers. When attending his first gathering Gary felt like he had connected with his mob; there were others like him. There was a sense of camaraderie with a whole network and a much bigger food map. He did however see that many talk it but don’t do it. He has had to work at it to stay successful.
A Community Experiment
This region has strong community focus on relocalisation and frequently have community dinners. One such dinner was requested by Su Dennett of the Hepburn Relocalisation Network. Would Spade to Blade (aka Gary) orchestrate a community dinner where all the produce was grown locally? He agreed on the conditions that it had to be a free event, all food was excess, low energy use in preparation and local. All the attendees delivered their produce to be cooked for the evening and the food preparation began. It was a memorable experiment with a full hall of locals enjoying delicious and varied food. Chestnut soup, pickled walnuts, acorn and apple pancakes were standouts. The evening highlighted the creative efforts that prepared a sumptuous feast from the vast array of local produce. It was a profound education for the uninitiated and good recognition of what was and wasn’t available in our region.
Demonstrating what is possible
Gary Thomas is a food visionary who is principled, ethical and a committed community leader in local food production.