There aren't many slow days down on the farm - not when your name is Feeding Crane Farms. The young upstart on the local food scene has been extra busy lately as it expands its reach. It continues to supply produce to local restaurants and it's heavily involved in developing a brand for a variety of food products to be sold in grocery stores.
According to Shannin Stein, general manager at Feeding Crane Farms, the Natomas-based farm is in the process of completing the purchase of Steel Magnolia, the commercial kitchen on 16th Street in midtown that rents its space to chefs and small companies involved in food production. The kitchen has become a hub for fledgling food businesses and catering companies since it opened in late 2009.
One important component is that the kitchen is inspected by the county Health Department, also known as the Department of Environmental Management, just like restaurants are. That's crucial if companies want to sell their food to the general public.
Several companies have been thriving since renting the kitchen, including Gardner Gourmet Foods, run by Sash Gardner, whose gourmet salsas can be found at Corti Brothers, Taylor's Market and Compton's Supermarket, among others. Huggiebears, which sells cupcakes, brownies, cheesecakes and other desserts, opened its business July 18 in Old Sacramento. It uses the commercial kitchen for its baking. Pajo Bruich, who has risen to prominence over the past two years and was recently named executive chef at Enotria, used to rent the kitchen for cooking classes and special dining events. Same with Mark Liberman, who went on to open AQ Restaurant and Bar in SaJn Francisco to plenty of fanfare, including a James Beard nomination.
Stein told me Friday that Feeding Crane expects to have the purchase of Steel Magnolia finalized by Oct. 1. She said the farm sees plenty of potential at Steel Magnolia, not only as a base for its product development but as a way to work with and assist small food companies find their footing.
"It's a beautiful facility, wonderfully maintained," Stein said. "There are really amazing food producers throughout the county who just need a little more support" navigating their way through the system.
Feeding Crane has been active on several fronts, including "farm to fork" dinners in collaboration with restaurants. The latest such dinner was with Mama Kim Eats. Those interested in the next one, at Michelangelo's Restaurant (1725 I St. Sacramento) starting at 5 p.m. on Sept. 23, can make reservations by calling the restaurant at (916) 446-5012. Stein told me the special menu that night, a Sunday, will be inspired by the produce grown at the farm, including special cocktails using extracts of herbs grown by Feeding Crane.
Gail von Huene, who opened Steel Magnolia Commercial Kitchen in late 2009, told me Friday that she sold the business because the timing was right and the buyer ideal. Von Huene was an IT consultant when she opened the kitchen and recently accepted a full-time position doing data analysis. Beyond that, she has become more involved in cat rescue, working with a group, Lapcats, to get adult cats out of the county animal shelter and into foster care so they can be adopted (kudos for doing that, by the way).
"When Feeding Crane approached me about buying the kitchen, it was just one of those things that came along. It was not like I had the kitchen for sale, but I couldn't be happier that I am placing the kitchen in their hands," she said. "They are wonderful people and the farm is amazing. They have a plan. They have people in place. They're very focused on what they do. On top of that, they're easy to deal with."
Von Huene said she plans to learn more about organic gardening. She actually factored that in when hammering out the details to sell Steel Magnolia.
"They are letting me have a plot of land and they are letting me grow things," she said.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.