Restaurants have been trying everything they can think of to stay afloat throughout the pandemic. One of the latest ideas arrives fresh from the farm.
Chef Ana Sortun, of Oleana, Sofra, and Sarma, believes so deeply in serving local, seasonal produce that she fell in love with the farmer growing her vegetables. Her husband, Chris Kurth, owns Sudbury’s Siena Farms, named for their daughter. The farm is known for glorious sunflowers, a vibrant presence at local farmers’ markets, and CSA shares stocked with high-quality produce.
CSA stands for “community supported agriculture,” and if you haven’t yet participated in a program, you’ve probably heard of the concept. Consumers invest in a local farm, purchasing a share of the season’s harvest. The benefits are many: The customer receives regular boxes of just-harvested local produce, the farmer gets paid upfront, and both participate in a relationship that connects the parties to the land and one another, enriching the transactions of buying and selling food.
The pandemic has been a boom time for community supported agriculture, as people have cooked at home more, sought low-exposure ways to do their food shopping, and supported small businesses close to home. Since March, Siena’s CSA program has seen explosive growth, expanding from 500 members to 2,000. At the same time, many restaurants, including Sortun’s, were suffering. There has always been a close relationship between the farm and the restaurants. Was there a way the former could support the latter?
At Thanksgiving, Sofra executive pastry chef and co-owner Maura Kilpatrick contacted CSA manager Rachel Orchard, asking if she could add pies to Siena’s “Gobble Box” offering, featuring fall fruits and vegetables geared toward the holiday feast. It started there, Sortun says. There was a group brainstorming session. “It was a lightbulb that went off”: Maybe the CSA model that worked so well for the farm could work for places like Oleana and Sofra, too.
Enter the CSR, or community supported restaurant. Both Oleana and Sofra offered winter CSR shares through the farm. “We launched them right when we launched all of our 2021 shares back in mid-October,” Orchard says. “The Sofra and Oleana shares were the first to sell out.” There is currently a waitlist of more than 300 people. Oleana distributes 100 shares a week, and Sofra does 75, but the restaurants are limited by social distancing requirements in already small production facilities. (Both still offer regular takeout, and Oleana has outdoor and indoor seating.) The numbers will go down for the spring season, when restaurants tend to get busier.
Several other area restaurants, such as Loyal Nine, Mamaleh’s, Saltie Girl, and Shy Bird, have also started experimenting with subscription meals during COVID. And the idea has seen some success nationally, from a $5,000 annual membership at Quince and its sister restaurants in San Francisco to New York’s Summerlong Supper Club, which features a meal from one of 16 participating restaurants each week, to Table22, offering subscriptions to restaurants around the country.
The CSR works much like a CSA does. People subscribe for a few months at a time, generally about 12 weeks. Oleana’s CSR is $85 per week; Sofra’s is $75. Participants receive a box filled with food, enough for several meals for two people, or a huge meal for four, with enough for lunch the next day. At Oleana, a box might include two different salads or meze, three different heat-and-serve options, assorted sauces and toppings to pair with those dishes, and a couple of desserts. Sofra’s CSR box is similar, with two oven-ready meals for two, more emphasis on the baked goods, and a pantry item — maybe a spice blend, a jar of tahini, or a favorite honey. Oleana’s offerings are all vegetarian, while Sofra’s are not. Some subscribers pick up their shares at the farm or restaurants, but most are delivered to their homes by a Northampton-based company, What Cheer Fruit & Produce, for an additional $10 inside Interstate 495. “We piggybacked on the farm’s distribution system,” Sortun says. “For us, it was one of these pivots where it’s not at all about resiliency. The ‘resilient’ word is not what’s happening to anybody in the restaurant business. It’s survival.”
And the CSR has been a game changer for the restaurants. “It’s brought the stability to be able to keep a certain amount of employees employed. It’s really going to take us over the edge of bleeding. This time of year, even if you’re doing a great takeout business, you’re starting to bleed without outdoor seating and minimal indoor dining,” she says.
It also brings rhythm, creativity, and fun to her operations. And it truly does bring the sense of community that’s built into the very concept. “It’s the feeling for me that, wow, these people have really got my back. This is a huge commitment to eat our food once a week for three months and pay for it upfront. It almost brings me to tears when I think about it.”
Each box comes with a handwritten menu that includes ingredients, preparation instructions, and notations about which dishes are safe for those avoiding gluten, eggs, dairy, and nuts. Dishes have included crispy red lentil rolls with carrot, cumin, and pickled cabbage; twice-baked gigante beans, to be topped with the included spicy feta, lemon labne, or harissa; Moroccan-spiced carrot soup with preserved lemon chermoula; mushroom kibbeh; and chocolate olive oil cake with tahini buttercream.
“It’s been a joy,” says Eileen Reynolds, a primary care physician at Beth Israel Deaconess who lives in Lexington. “It’s something I look forward to. I pick it up on Thursday after work, and you don’t know what’s coming. You don’t get any notice what’s going to be in the box. There are often things I’ve never had before. I love the variety of what we get. It’s such high-quality food from such an amazing restaurant.”
Reynolds loves to cook, but she works long hours; one reason she subscribed to Siena Farms’ CSA was that the pick-up point was open late. After a particularly busy day, the CSR is extra-welcome. “I love that it’s not the ingredients to make something, it’s actually food to eat. It’s not really takeout, but it is kind of takeout. It’s somewhere in between,” she says.
Sycamore is another local restaurant experimenting with subscriptions in addition to its regular offerings. It offers a monthly School Night Subscription: On Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, subscribers pick up a loosely themed, ready-to-eat meal of, say, lumache Bolognese with Caesar salad, white bean dip, focaccia, and olive oil cake, or slow-roasted cod, Greek salad, crispy potatoes, tomato-braised green beans, and Greek yogurt panna cotta. Cocktails and wine pairings can also be added to the mix. February’s sold-out three-week offering (they’re skipping Week 3 due to Valentine’s Day) is $225 for two people or $450 for four.
“It’s working really well, and it’s a ton of work,” says chef-owner David Punch. “People like that surprise. We have food waiting for them hot and ready, and they get to go home and have this feast.”
The subscriptions bring a certain amount of financial stability. “Getting people to commit in advance takes the guesswork out of your weekly sales. You know what’s coming down the pipe,” Punch says. They are also a reminder of how supportive the community is. “People have been super-generous gratuity-wise for the staff, which is really fabulous. I sometime feel like it’s my parents being like, ‘Good job, Dave. We’re gonna do your subscription.’ They are so supportive, I feel like they almost become family.”
At Forage in Cambridge, customers can sign up for a Family Meal Subscription — a month’s worth of midweek four-course tasting menus, served hot. They are available in versions for vegetarians and omnivores, at $280 for two people or $560 for four, or $35 per person per meal. Add on bread, a cheese course, pasta for the kids, and a bottle of paired wine or cocktails for the adults, if you like. The menu one week might include delicata squash stuffed with house-made ricotta and lamb (or ricotta and lentils), mushroom-potato soup with Parmesan biscotti, greens with fennel crackers and Marfax beans, and lemon pistachio cake with summer jams and rose custard, while another week subscribers could find themselves feasting on seared char (or lentil fritters) with winter root curry and rice, mushroom laap, greens with spicy roasted carrots and pickled asparagus, and cashew rice pudding.
“People were super-responsive,” says owner and general manager Stanislas Hilbert. The subscription helps him plan, both in terms of ordering ingredients and scheduling a bare-bones staff. Although Forage doesn’t use the term CSR, Hilbert still draws the analogy: “It’s kind of like a CSA model, where you get your money upfront. In terms of business, it really shifted my perspective on how to run a restaurant. This is how much money I have in my pocket, and that’s how much I can spend.”
There’s been enough uncertainty over the past months, after all. The subscription model helps alleviate that, Hilbert says. “It’s hard to go into a restaurant when you don’t know how many people will come. If you get the patio set up and nobody comes out, it’s kind of heartbreaking. With this, boom! We’re going to feed people. There’s some hustle, some energy. It’s giving us a sense of purpose.”
That’s what Sortun hopes to share with other restaurateurs, and why she wants to get the word out about the CSR model.
“What I’m trying to do is maybe reach some peers that are bleeding and this could stop the bleeding a little bit and keep them from having to shut their doors,” she says. “A lot of my friends here are not coming back after this thing’s over. This is a survival tactic, but if it could help somebody, it is so worth talking about.”
Oleana, 134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505, oleanarestaurant.com. Sofra, 1 Belmont St., Cambridge, 617-661-3161, sofrabakery.com. Sycamore, 755 Beacon St., Newton, 617-244-4445, sycamorenewton.com. Forage, 5 Craigie Circle, Cambridge, 617-576-5444, foragecambridge.com.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.