• Michael Gebert
  • Founder Andrew Lutsey addresses visitors at Local Foods.

Chicago food media went gaga when the news broke that David Chang would be doing a pop-up of his New York hipster Chinese chain Momofuku at the Publican after the James Beard Foundation Awards are held here. I’m as happy about it as the next person, but something that will have a considerably greater and longer-lasting impact on our food scene happened on Wednesday and, while it drew a nice crowd of farmers and restaurateurs, I was one of only a few food mediaoids to turn out for it. It was a walk-through of the 27,000-square-foot Local Foods distribution center, and retail and dining operation, being built on Willow near Elston (and slated for a mid-May opening, though, like most construction sites, it looks pretty raw two months out). Local Foods, which has been innovating farm-to-table food distribution for a couple of years now (see this piece from last April), is about to take it to a much more consumer-focused level—think an Eataly of local meat, produce, and things you can eat (and then buy to cook at home) on the premises.

Local Foods’ initial goal was to serve as a distributor and aggregator for farmers and restaurants—relieving the farmers of having to truck their own goods and relieving restaurants of having to hunt down sources for particular foods. And, of course, there’s the matter of storing and selling food year-round, this being the midwest where, as “wheels ‘n’ deals” manager Dave Rand puts it, “you have to do preservation really well. Stuff comes in force [in peak season]. It’s really important for us to be buyers of that stuff when the market is saturated.” They’ve been very successful at building the year-round distribution side of the business; founder Andrew Lutsey noted that they have about 100 producers and 150 restaurant and catering clients. Rand began the tour by showing us distribution at its most practical: a big loading dock for getting produce in and a smaller one for getting it out to chefs who call up with an order.

Standing in one of several massive freezers, Jared van Camp, chef of Nellcote, Owen + Alchemy, and others, explains how Local Foods’ storing up of food for the long nongrowing season will affect his business: “One of the things when we started conceiving [Owen + Alchemy] is to do cold-pressed juice from local products. Things like blueberries and heirloom tomatoes we’re able to get from Dave in the middle of January, because he freezes them in peak season. It’s peak product, frozen in the peak of the season, so when you drink a tomato juice right now, it tastes like you’re in the middle of summer.”

The refrigeration spaces are so large that as Rob Levitt—whose the Butcher & Larder is moving to Local Foods—says his main meat cooler is larger than his entire store right now. Partnering with Local Foods is going to transform that beloved local business in several ways; Levitt talked about working with local chefs so that when they buy a whole animal, they don’t have to deal with it all at once in house but can have it butchered for them and use different parts as needed. But a particular gleam came into his eye with the next room: a fully USDA-certified facility for curing meats in house, including, he says, a collaboration with chefs so that they can have a product at the restaurant which you can also buy at Local Foods.

One question which I knew would impact me and others I know: Would the Butcher & Larder continue to serve lunch? As it turns out, not only will they do that but all of the products passing through the building, from fruit and vegetables to meat and grains, will be shown off in a cafe which will be run by Abra Berens, who has been a cook in many locally focused kitchens, as well as a farmer in upstate Michigan for the past few years. (You can learn more about her in her episode of Key Ingredient, from 2012.)

The last part of the tour involved another business I didn’t know would be part of Local Foods until that day, HandCut Foods, a new catering company which prepares locally sourced, minimally processed meals for schools, other organizations, and events. We only saw a little of it, but its potential capacity (10,000 meals a day, chef Steven Oberdorf said) will make it an important figure on the local food scene.

It’s all hugely ambitious, but by bringing complimentary existing businesses together under one roof, Local Foods hedges its bets and gives businesses that already work greater efficiency, all while making shopping and cooking locally as convenient as any trip to a grocery store. Eating local is becoming big business, and it has to be to ever really have an impact on family farms, our diets, and the reconnection of Americans with their food and their fellow citizens who grow it.