|Kris Liakos: From His Hands to Yours|
|Features - Farmers and Markets|
|Written by Jon Ross-Wiley|
After multiple trips to City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain, MA, I realized that I was missing something. Every time I came into the store, I was happy to find what I was looking for (and, often, one or two items I wasn't expecting), and always thought how terrific it was that the supplying farms' produce was wide-ranging and consistent. The missing piece was knowing the person who has to keep variety and quality in the forefront of his mind on a daily basis; the produce buyer. I had "bumped into" Kris Liakos on Twitter (@cityfeedproduce) a few times, but looked forward to having the chance to chat with him about his path to City Feed and how it is that he, on a regular basis, stocks the bins and shelves with the best of the best.
How long have you been working with City Feed and Supply? Were you there from the start? Were you always in this position?
I have been with City Feed since June of 2009. I'm based out of the Centre St. location which has been open for about a year. I'm the produce buyer for both stores, including the original location on Boylston St. Even though I've only been with the company for 6 months, I've been eating the sandwiches from the Boylston St. store for awhile.
Tell us a bit about your path to this line of work.
My career in local food started with a company called In Season, the brainchild of my friend Chris Crandall. We did home delivery of 100% local products including produce, dairy, meats, specialties, etc. It is/was a great idea and I'm proud of the work we did but the market was especially tough on new business at the time and we had to move on. When we suspended operations, I was already in love with the local food business and had no desire to go back to a traditional office. I got by with my other gig as a freelance sportswriter just waiting for something to open up in food. When I saw the ad for this job at City Feed I was here the next morning at 7AM.
What does the day of produce buyer entail? What does the year, particularly winter, look like for you?
Moreso than any other place I've worked, the environment at City Feed is a living, changeable thing. Trying to map out a typical day is tough but there are certain things that always get done week to week.
I spend a fair amount of time talking to farmers/wholesalers. This takes up a bigger portion of my week in the Spring and Summer, but even now, thanks to the wonders of storage and indoor growing I'm still buying directly from about 4 or 5 New England farms. All of produce buying is just making comparisons. If I can get something local and organically grown, then that's my first choice. If I can only get something locally grown but not organic, I will tend to purchase that over a nationally grown organic product.
There's a big difference between being a specialty service, like what I did at In Season, and just being a small grocery store, like City Feed. We want people to do their shopping with us year round. So while I do believe in the myriad benefits of eating locally and encourage my customers to do so, I also think people need some Florida citrus in the winter. It's good to be able to bring them the best stuff I can find from not only New England, but around the country.
I also spend a good deal my days out on the floor talking to customers about the produce, introducing them to unfamiliar varieties or suggesting new ways to cook some of their old favorites. We also try to accommodate customer requests whenever possible. If you came in for organic okra, but couldn't find it, I'll bring it in for you if you don't mind waiting a day or two. Good food always sells.
Then, of course, there is the administrative work, which entails entering items into the store's database. It has to get done, but I'd much rather be on the floor chatting with customers.
You buy for the masses. What are your own personal tastes for food/produce?
I get made fun of sometimes because every couple of months I try to bring in broccoli rabe and no one ever buys it. It's one of my favorite vegetables and I make signs, I make recipes cards, I try to personally sell it to people like I'm trying to sell them a car. And it never works.
Some things I buy from my own section almost daily are kale, collard greens, citrus (in season), carrots and mushrooms. I'm a huge greens guy and a huge mushroom guy. We carried locally foraged mushrooms from around Jamaica Plain this summer and I had to be conscious not to buy them all so customers could try some.
Another aspect of my "taste" in produce is a philosophical one. I believe in the benefits of chemical and pesticide free farming, but sometimes feel like people have become too attached to the word "organic." A couple of my favorite local farms grow without chemicals but have chosen not to go through the lengthy certification process, and I always wonder how it affects their sales. Not to mention some of the largest factory farms in America have huge plots of organic land but that hasn't necessarily changed their other business practices.
For buying with a conscience, I have to look at a farm in its entirety, not just the organic label.
What is a dish you might make on any given night?
I cook a lot. My common dish for nights when I'm just cooking for myself is a pan sauté of kale (any kind), sliced mushrooms (any kind), onions, garlic and a chicken, duck or pork sausage. It takes one pan, one cutting board and one knife. I must eat this twice a week. I also have a famous rib recipe but it doesn't take advantage of much produce as much as it does Dr. Pepper so I won't go into it here.
How about for a special occasion?
For special occasions I usually take the classic route and roast a chicken that I stuff with apples and leeks. Just recently I glazed some pork chops with a reduction of some Cape Cod cranberries and organic jalapeños that was really great. If you ever see me unpacking a box of produce in the store I'm probably thinking of ways to take it home and cook it.
Be sure to stop by City Feed and Supply and ask for Kris!