Erik Stanford's Pivot Produce takes the fuss out of obtaining local produce for restaurants
“There are a lot of people who think food doesn’t grow here,” said Erik Stanford, owner of Pivot Produce.
Along with well-known edibles from greens and herbs to citrus, legumes, and roots, the Sonoran Desert provides a plethora of edible plants as well as some endemic plants that add a unique Sonoran take to local cuisine. Think bright prickly pear and barrel cactus fruit, the potent heat of chiltepin, plump delicate squash blossoms, and honey-sweet figs. Why isn’t there a larger farm-to-table movement in Tucson, then? This is where Pivot Produce comes in.
Stanford had been working as a chef for years in Tucson, within which he started programs to locally source produce, creating contacts, and cultivating relationships with local farmers. It began to shift his ethos from working under the status quo of industrialized food sourcing programs to supporting local farms and farmers. With that shift however, he began to see the issues chefs run into when trying to source locally.
“It’s a lot of work to maintain a relationship with a farm for one product,” Stanford said. “Without the entire scope, it’s hard to invest in the program.”
So when he decided to leave the restaurant industry as a chef, he saw a need within the food industry to bridge the gap between farmers and restaurants.
“How do we get more restaurants to source locally?” Stanford asked.
And that’s how Pivot Produce was born.
The name, which began as simple alliteration, started to exemplify what Pivot Produce stood for: the shift in ethos from standard and industrialized to intentional and local. In doing so, he also helps shift the capital to local Tucson area farmers in true Robin Hood fashion. Stanford places orders weekly with farms from a produce availability list, picks up the produce from farmers, and distributes his haul to restaurants, breweries, and businesses around the city.
Pivot’s operation is demanding logistically, especially for a one-man operation. Depending on the season, Stanford is working with anywhere between 7 and 20 farms, including the San Xavier Co-op, Avalon Garden, or Dirty Girl Farmette. Many of these he connected with either as a chef or through the network of farmers that feed the Tucson Farmers Markets. The scope of his sourcing extends across Southern Arizona, from Phoenix and Marana through Wilcox and Benson.
The first half of his week is spent rounding up produce. For some orders, he drives to the farm for pick up in his Ford Transit. For others, he meets farmers at one of the local farmers markets. After Pivot’s availability list is shared with restaurants – of which he with about 45 – he fields orders from chefs by phone call, text, email, and even Facebook messages. By Friday, he’s separating, organizing, and filling orders for delivery. Remaining produce at week’s end is either sold at the 5 Points Farmers Market or donated to the Casa Maria Food Bank.
Pivot’s infrastructure is strong. There are contracts with farmers, a monthly list of seasonal crops for chefs and restaurants, and an availability spreadsheets for chefs to order from. Operating out of a warehouse, Pivot’s walk-in cooler is packed so full each week that you couldn’t fit in another leafy green.
“How do I buy as much produce from these farms and find a market for them?” Stanford said.
What he can store is limited by the Pivot Produce headquarters, but he hopes to have a new facility in working order by the end of the summer outfitted with additional refrigeration space. The added space also allows farmers to store a crop yield for longer, if needed.
One of the joys of creating a network of chefs and farmers is the unique relationships and collaborations Stanford gets to be part of. He participates in menu planning with chefs, such as with Brian Smith of Maynards Market & Kitchen and Ryan Clark of Casino Del Sol. He also helps with crop planning for farms to grow something unique. Currently, he’s working on developing an app that both farmers and chefs can work from with live availability of produce.
Starting in August, Pivot Produce will begin a new collaboration with Sky Island School. The students will learn to plan and cook their own lunches using seasonal local foods in a more holistic educational experience. The school had been sourcing from one local farm, but working with Pivot Produce means that students will be working with a greater variety of local producers while also eating more vegetables. Stanford hopes to cultivate more relationships with schools as Pivot Produce grows.
With Pivot growing so much in the past two years, it has gained significant social media weight – sometimes with unintended consequences. For instance, an eater might post a photo of a big, beautiful salad captioned with “Pivot Produce Baby Mustard Greens,” when the greens were actually sourced from Crooked Sky Farm.
“Taking over the brand of local produce isn’t really a good thing in my mind,” Stanford said. “The brand has run away from me. I want more recognition of the farms and the people growing the food.”
Being recognized more widely on social media is valuable for Pivot Produce, but Stanford wants to make sure the farmers are recognized for their work in raising and harvesting the food.
In his mission to find new revenue streams for farms and bettering the local food economy, Stanford sends a strong message.
“As a consumer, you decide what food system you want to exist in your community,” Stanford said. “You are ‘voting’ in a sense. Think about where your money is going. I want to shift capital and make that perpetuate the food system that I believe in.”
For eaters in Tucson, local produce distributed by Pivot Produce is commonly available at restaurants like The Cup Cafe at Hotel Congress, Exo Coffee Kitchen, Monsoon Chocolate, and breweries like Pueblo Vida Brewing Company and Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co., among others.
With Pivot Produce helping local farms thrive, Stanford has expanded the spectrum of food availability and opened the local consciousness to support the local food economy. But it doesn’t stop there — in late 2017, he was hired as a consultant for the Tucson City of Gastronomy board.
Stanford’s position handles assorted tasks such as developing content for and posting on social media outlets. However, he’s also focused on helping the public understand that Tucson’s designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy was due to Tucson’s agricultural history and native foods.
For more information, visit pivotproduce.com.