By Jacob Ward
June 16, 2018. That’s the date when my two brothers, our two friends, and I, decided to start a breakfast sandwich pop-up restaurant. Naturally, we would call it the Better Breakfast Bureau. It had to be. Half of our ambition stemmed from the breakfast sandwich desert that was Denver, Colorado. Sure, you could get an egg on a bagel. You could find an egg on a parched English muffin in every greasy spoon in the city. Breakfast burritos, the self-purported king of handheld breakfast foods, are a dime-a-dozen. We wanted people to know what we had known for years – that egg sandwiches could be the humble heroes of breakfast. And so, the Better Breakfast Bureau was born.
The second half of our ambition – the experimental, meticulous, big-question ambition – was to prove that we could serve breakfast sandwiches from, and of, Colorado. That is to say, could we source every ingredient from our state, and, in doing so, pay tribute to it? Eggs from the Eastern Plains pastures; onions, Poblano peppers, and microgreens from the Front Range; stone fruit from the Western Slope; and flour from, well, almost anywhere in the state. Colorado regularly ranks among the top ten wheat-producing states in the country – farmers here plant more than two million acres of it across 40 of our 64 counties.
Sourcing top shelf vegetables was easy – the Front Range agriculture scene is growing quickly and new farmers are experimenting with exciting hybridization and regenerative techniques. Kyle Monroe, of Monroe Organic Farms (the oldest organic farm in Colorado), and James Thole of City Yard Farms (at less than 1/3 acre, perhaps the tiniest organic farm in Colorado) grow some of the tastiest produce in the state. James’s microgreens and Kyle’s Cherokee Purple tomatoes made cooking good food almost effortless.
Finding a steady supply of eggs proved slightly more challenging. Denver’s demand for eggs from pasture-raised hens has ballooned over the last several years. That is good news for farmers and was bad news for us. Few distributors in the city carry eggs from pastured hens; if they do, their supply is usually from a single producer and is almost always stretched thin. Going directly to the farmer was, paradoxically, less successful. The farmers I spoke with either sold their entire inventories through a CSA, or committed their productions to a single distributor. Eventually we found a distributor that carries eggs from Cottonwood Creek Farms, an excellent third-generation producer from Merino, Colorado. Even then, as supply and demand fluctuated throughout the second half of 2018, we found ourselves hitting the phones to scrape together an inventory. By the end of the summer we had sourced eggs from four different suppliers.
I find no shame in boasting to you that our breakfast sandwiches were Denver’s finest. The sandwiches were simple and the ingredients shined. But the unassuming English muffin always stole the show. The recipe is simple, and what comes out the other side is food magic. Light but not too light, chewy but not too chewy, and appropriately appointed with nooks and crannies – the gloriously ordinary pockets inside the muffin and, oddly, the only quality anyone seems to care about. Yet sourcing its seemingly straightforward ingredients was surprisingly difficult. Every attempt to find an all-purpose flour from Colorado was thwarted. Despite living in a state that regularly pumps out 70 million bushels of wheat, none of the distributors we talked to could source the stuff in flour form. So, for the first time in our pursuit of a 100% Colorado product, we settled. Our compromise: wheat grown in Colorado, trucked to Utah for milling, and returned to Denver for distribution. It was our first real glance into the often ugly and convoluted machinations of the commodity food system.
The commoditization of agriculture has done great things for product consistency and price stabilization, but has frequently fractured regional food systems in its wake. For every ten bags of all-purpose flour I buy from a producer like Ardent Mills, all ten will taste stale, and yet the same. What the producer gains in sameness and shelf-stability, the farmer loses in revenue and product control; and the consumer loses in flavor, terroir, locality, and traceability.
As a producer, I understand the foundational value that is product consistency. There is no doubt that turning out English muffins of the same quality, week in and week out, helped make our miniature business successful. But as a producer that valued more than product consistency – locality, flavor, growing practices, to name a few – how should we have balanced those values when they became mutually exclusive? This is a common conundrum for values-oriented chefs and makers in today’s commoditized food system. The thing is, I don’t have the answer – except to say that I would have gladly traded the safety of our commodity flour for the volatility of something local.
Little did I know that in October of 2018, when I joined Bio-Logical Capital’s Food & Retail Operations team, I’d be working to address the same issues that had plagued me that summer. The way I see it, Bio-Logical Capital exists to fill the gaps in our food system. And while our company works across the spectrum of the food system – from soil to plate, and back again – it is the job of the Food & Retail team to connect its two ends. The tangible implications of our team’s work manifest themselves as commercial kitchens, slaughterhouses, grain mills, food markets, restaurants, and the teams of talented folks that run them. In other words, we build the businesses and develop systems that support local, regenerative agriculture, and good food. Backstage, our team welds together the pieces of these businesses that are rarely reflected by the final products – financial models, operation plans, business strategies, supply-chain design – the pieces that ensure these businesses work, and work well.
Commoditization is not the only reason the Better Breakfast Bureau couldn’t make English muffins with Colorado flour. Like the origin of most big challenges, this one is tangled, and difficult to trace. And tempting as it might be, the sustainable solution will not be found in replacing commodity mills with their small, localized counterparts overnight. Like food itself, the solutions to these challenges often take time and immense patience. But there are signs that positive change is afoot. The food landscape in Colorado has been drastically remodeled over the past fifteen years. Some publications have even furnished Boulder with the ridiculous moniker, the “Silicon Valley of Food.” New farm and food businesses open their doors every day. Capital is flooding into the state, and investors are increasingly interested in regenerative agriculture. Chefs are flexing their power, too. Caroline Glover, the awards-showered chef and restaurateur, founded her acclaimed restaurant Annette on the principle of honoring food producers – a simple tenet with radical reverberations. And Kelly Whitaker, the chef behind Basta and The Wolf’s Tailor, recently founded the Noble Grain Alliance to begin reviving Colorado’s local grain network.
It is an exciting time to be part of the titanic food system change happening in Colorado. Although it is slow, it is tangible. It will undoubtedly require the continued collaboration of individuals and organizations across the food system – from farmers, chefs and restaurants, to companies like Bio-Logical Capital. And hopefully, in the not-distant future, a small business like the Better Breakfast Bureau will be able to produce a product wholly from, and of, this state.