Baltimore-area food vendors hope to lure big institutional buyers

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

For two years, Kristin Zissel has made dry rubs and condiments for Haute Mess Kitchen. She now hopes to take her fledgling business to the next level.

Lade Adewale, owner of Elkridge-based Ideal Foods LLC, sells her bean patties to consumers looking for meatless options and is looking for growth in mainstream markets. And Guy Fraser and his daughter, Jinji, have been whipping up artisanal raw chocolate at their Belvedere Square retail stall, Pure Chocolate by Jinji, and want to expand beyond a few restaurants and cafes.


All hope to tap into the Baltimore area's growing "buy local" food movement and even connect with some of the bigger customers out there — universities, hospital and hotels. Such institutions are looking increasingly to local vendors as a way to offer healthier choices and boost economic development.

On Monday, a vendor fair sponsored by two groups promoting local buying sought to bring together Baltimore-area food makers and organizations that buy large amounts of food. At the first-ever "Made in Baltimore" food fair at Lexington Market, some 30 vendors offered samples of crab cakes, ice cream, granola bars, sauerkraut and a range of prepared foods, drinks, snacks and desserts. Buyers came from the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Loyola University Maryland, Maryland Institute College of Art, Whole Foods and other organizations.


"If we can plant a seed of the value of what we do, with Hopkins or Whole Foods, we can work toward expanding our base of operations," said Fraser, who handed out samples of organic, raw dark chocolate made of cacao from Ecuador.

The event was co-sponsored by the Baltimore Integration Partnership, a coalition of 10 anchor institutions, local foundations and nonprofits that promote job creation through local hiring and buying, and the Baltimore Food Hub, a commercial kitchen incubator set to open next year in East Baltimore.

"This is about more than food. This is about economic development," said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who called the city's small food businesses "bold visionaries that went out and … created opportunities."

The mayor urged anchor institutions to "present something uniquely Baltimore."

MICA and dining contractor Parkhurst Dining have been working to meet more local vendors over the past year in an effort to increase business with them, said Rachel Milburn, general manager for Parkhurst at MICA.

The college, which serves about 1,000 students on meal plans, now sources as much as a fifth of its food locally, she said. During Monday's fair, she sampled locally made granola bars she was considering for the school.

"We want to help support the community," she said.

Already, coffee is provided by Zeke's, a small-batch coffee roaster in Northeast Baltimore that was started a decade ago and employs 20. Zeke's has created a special MICA blend, which has become a flavor of ice cream at MICA that's made by Prigel Family Creamery at Bellevale Farm in northeast Baltimore County.


Offering such customized food products helps support local economic development and can be a selling point in attracting students looking for healthier and more authentic options, said Michael Molla, MICA vice president of operations.

"The city of Baltimore must prosper in order to attract the best students and faculty," Molla said. "With our purchasing initiatives, we're working to do more to enable Baltimore businesses and residents."

The Johns Hopkins University has a goal of purchasing 35 percent of its food from local sources by 2020, a share that's now at 27 percent, said Bill Connor, director of dining. One of the bigger challenges in reaching that goal is dealing with smaller vendors that don't have large production capacity, he said.

Several of the 13 urban farms that belong to the Farm Alliance of Baltimore are scaling up to increase production to meet the needs of larger buyers, said Allison Marshall, an alliance coordinator who showed buyers at Monday's fair samples of produce such as kohlrabi, dill and kale.

"We're really looking to develop relationships with institutional buyers," Marshall said.

Daniela Troia, the owner of Zia's in Towson and Plant Bar in Belvedere Square, offered up a raw vegan version of tuna salad, raw chocolate mousse and cold-pressed juice. The products also are sold by Whole Foods and Mom's Organic Market, and purchased by Hopkins and Loyola universities.


The Evening Sun


Get your evening news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the

"With institutions, you automatically think of food out of a bag, highly processed food," but institutions are starting to shift to more local buying, Troia said. "I see people wanting to do it, and they're getting there. … When it's local, it's close to the source and there is passion there, and people believe in what they are doing."

Consumers in general are shifting toward more socially conscious buying, said Sadie Cornelius, marketing director for Cover Story Media, parent of Earth's Friends, a website that specializes in promoting eco-friendly lifestyles.

"People want to put their dollars back into the local community," she said. "They want to meet the people growing the food."

One of the biggest challenges for small food businesses can be finding new customers, said Ned Atwater, owner of Atwater's, which specializes in bread, soup and pastry at stores and markets in the Baltimore-Washington area.

"The most important thing is to make good food, and we don't really have the time to go out and find customers," Atwater said.

"If we can increase the amount of food that our local anchor institutions are sourcing through small food businesses, we'll be able to help small business grow," said Deborah Haust, director of City Seeds, a social enterprise of Humanim, one of the backers of the Baltimore Food Hub.