It used to be when you walked into a restaurant, your server recited the specials, and you ordered. Today’s dining experience is vastly different. You’re told about the farm at which your beef was raised, the story of the farmers who own the land, and sometimes even the name of the cow: “Bessie was a happy grazer before she wound up on your plate.” Cheeses are no longer from a country, but now rather, a county — and a nearby one at that. Do you want oranges from Florida, chocolate from Switzerland, and wine from France? Nope, nope, and nope. It’s all made here in Massachusetts, farm to table, and you better get used to it.
The desire to know exactly who raised and prepared the food on your table has been so transformative that even Domino’s Pizza is telling us about its handcrafted pies. Their recent advertising campaign featured real-life pizza makers who paint watercolors and blow glass in their spare time.
Now, however, the same focus on organic materials that has transformed the food industry is moving toward furniture and other products, as artisans and craftspeople are fueling a made-local movement that is sweeping the country. Not only do customers want to know which local farms made the ingredients for the heirloom tomato, goat cheese, and arugula salad, but also who made the bowl in which it is served.
The preference for locally made products is, in part, a rejection of globalization, from its Chinese-made particle-board-laminate furniture to its sweatshop-produced textiles. After all, how good can something be if it’s made in a country chosen for its cheap labor and then shipped thousands of miles by boat? It also has to do with economic changes that are making manufacturing in America more viable, such as rising wages in China and other Asian countries. But there is more to this movement than blowback from globalization. It has to do with the can-do attitude of this latest generation of job seekers who realize that if you can’t find a job, you make a job.
This generation includes people like Mark Bollman, who, like so many others, came to the Boston area for its universities and stayed for a career in technology. Bollman may be from Atlanta, but it’s Boston where he’s making his mark. He owns Ball and Buck on Newbury Street, an eclectic emporium that sells clothes, records, and gift items. It looks like a man cave, adorned with taxidermy, leather seating, and hunting effects. But it’s really an homage to the locally made movement. Everything in the store was manufactured in America, including a healthy amout of New England-made products.
Bollman also runs a pop-up marketplace he calls “American Field,” this year to be held on the waterfront. Now in its third year, it has a festival-like atmosphere and offers USA-made fashion, apparel, footwear, and accessory brands. He’s not alone. Websites like Maker’s Row tell would-be manufacturers exactly what they need to do to get started. Bollman and others are discovering that customers are willing to pay a bit more for their jeans and moccasins, knowing they can shake the hand of the person who made them.
This movement could have an impact on the entire city — not just downtown. T. Michael Thomas was born in Trinidad and grew up in Upham’s Corner in Dorchester. A former sheet metal worker, today he runs a nonprofit company out of his basement teaching young men how to work with copper. His students, many of whom came out of the criminal justice system, apprentice by learning how to install custom-crafted copper roofs, as well as make artisan products such as flower boxes, iPhone cases, and coffee tables. They may not know it today, but given where this trend is going, they are one or two conversations away from an exploding marketplace hungry to buy their goods.
A strong economy is built on a diversity of industries, including a multitude of small firms. Just five short years ago, no one would have imagined that national food chains would be trying to market themselves as local. From craft distilleries to hand-made clothing, better informed consumers are proving more and more that these choices really matter.Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.