Bringing it all home from Berkshire Organics
Photographs by Wendy Carlson
Berkshire Organics is the brainchild of entrepreneurs Aleisha and Brian Gibbons, ten years married, eight of those working full-time raising their only “child”—their business of bringing good food to more people.
Step into the barn-like structure on Dalton Division Road and you enter a new kind of one-stop supermarket—one that serves clean, healthy, tasty food, all of it sustainably raised and grown, local, organic, and always non-GMO (genetically modified organisms). The store is made up of a group of smaller businesses that the Gibbonses have brought together in their 6,000-square-foot space, which opened a year ago.
Greeting you when you walk in, right next to the front room’s wraparound counter, is the produce section, famous for its farm-to-store selection. Nearby is a healthy assortment of the best products from local food businesses. Indulge in some of Klara’s buttery gourmet cookies, made in Lee. Check out chock-full-of-almonds BOLA Granola from Great Barrington.
In a large, adjacent room is Aura Whitman’s Naturally Catering, serving what Whitman calls “fast food done right.” A graduate of both The Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu, Whitman developed a fan base at the former Café Reva, her former diner-style eatery in Pittsfield, before starting her takeout business at Berkshire Organics. She still cooks up diner classics with high-quality ingredients and an occasional contemporary twist. (In the warmer months, people can eat at picnic tables just outside the front door.)
Donning her signature white cap and freed from the constraints of a set menu, Whitman enjoys working with whatever she sources locally to cook what tastes best each day. Customer favorites include her savory quiches, gluten-free rustic pies, and easy meals out of the grab-and-go case.
Red Apple Butchers owners James Burden and Jazu Stine work to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers looking for otherwise hard-to-find local, sustainably raised meat. Their case is stocked with the week’s steaks and chops, along with other goodies, including ground meat and sausages with names like “Night in Tunisia” for its coriander, cumin, and fennel blend of spices. At this head-to-hoof butcher shop, you can find unusual treats such as tasty chicharrón (fried pork rind), in flavors like java chipotle. You can also get pig’s trotters, which make fabulous dog treats.
Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown occupies one corner of the store, their case stocked with an array of quality, regional cheeses, including their own award-winning line. And at the Bake Me Pretty counter,
owner Kate Miller’s sweet creations include beautifully decorated cookies, gourmet whoopie pies, wedding cakes, and seasonal pies.
What Berkshire Organics does is offer a unified vision in a world where shopping is becoming more complex. It also reaches out to its customers with an extensive newsletter to educate buyers about their food choices.
The Berkshire Organics building used to be storefront for Burgner’s Farm, which raised turkeys and sold produce. Berkshire Organics moved into the farm’s half of the building, with the other half occupied by a convenience store. Sales have tripled since 2010, when the couple expanded from home-delivered baskets to a small retail store. In April 2014, the Gibbonses took over the whole building. Now the weekly basket business has over 300 customers, and the store’s revenues account for more than 60 percent of the business.
The store has recently added a beer and wine department, featuring locally produced beers and organic or biodynamic wines that are distributed by Mise Wines in Newton, plus a portfolio of small producers and independent farms. Beers are sourced from companies such as Big Elm, People’s Pint, and Lefty’s. Customers can also buy growlers, saving up as much as 30 percent and creating less waste with the reusable bottle. The store’s bulk area recently has been redone, with more items added such as local popcorn, beans, various grains, flour, sugar, and nuts.
During the season, owner Brian Gibbons, who has 20 years of experience in horticulture, makes frequent runs to regional farms while the store’s loading dock bustles with deliveries. Longtime organic farmer Martin Stosiek of Markristo Farm in Hillsdale, N.Y., may deliver a truckload of hearty greens and root vegetables one morning, followed by Steve Riccardi of Berlin’s Best, also in New York, pulling up with an order of hothouse tomatoes and micro-greens. Farmers who often struggle to survive say they are very satisfied with the fair price they get from Berkshire Organics, paid right on the spot.
Staff is an integral part of the team, too, and their buy-in is especially important for the mission-minded Gibbonses. Some 40 people are employed by the varied businesses represented in the store, half of them by Berkshire Organics itself. John Schulte, former VP of Finance at Crane & Co., helps Berkshire Organics on the financial end. Shaun Opperman joined the staff after leaving medical school and is now one of the store’s two service-delivery managers. Ruth Wheeler, former co-owner of Clearwater Natural Foods in Lenox, now does a lot of the produce ordering. Members of the team regularly brag about right-off-the-farm foods they buy at a staff discount.
Shoppers drive out of their way to frequent Berkshire Organics, in part because it offers a grassroots food community. For example, a food-pantry palette always been located at the back of the store, and on Tuesdays, pantries come to take what they need. The Gibbonses have donated well over 10,000 pounds of organic produce to Berkshire County food pantries.
The store’s most recent addition in March is a program called “Second Chance Produce Sale.” On Sundays and Mondays, produce with imperfections—perhaps disfigured, scarred, oddly shaped—is sold at a dollar a pound. Aleisha got the idea after a customer emailed her a link to a video by Intermarché supermarkets in France that feature the grocery-store chain’s wildly popular “inglorious” fruits and vegetable program. The message: Why throw away perfectly good produce just because it doesn’t meet some arbitrary, cosmetic criteria?
“More supermarkets there are doing it, and I thought why didn’t we do that?” says Aleisha. “My main goal has been to make produce more affordable and available.” That she has.
What in the World Is That?
Some of the most peculiar looking produce soon will find their way to roadside stands, in farmers markets, and in your CSA basket. Aleisha Gibbons, co-owner of Berkshire Organics, has the dirt on a handful of these locally grown vegetables and how to prepare them.
Celeriac, a winter alternative to the potato, is an excellent source of dietary fiber and contains very little starch. Prepare it the same as you would potatoes for a delightful celery flavor.
Garlic Scapes, available in spring and early summer, are the flowerless stalks of hard-neck garlic varieties. Milder than garlic cloves, scapes are great when sautéed or make for hummus or pesto.
Kohlrabi, or “cabbage turnip,” is edible raw or cooked. Thoroughly peel before eating, and cook the greens as you would kale. Peel, slice, and lightly salt the bulb, which has a taste and texture akin to broccoli stems.
Mizuna, known as Japanese mustard or peppergrass, has white stalks, green leaves, and a mild, peppery flavor like arugula. It is often used in salads, stir-fries, and soups—and, like spinach, it shrinks when cooked.
Romanesco Cauliflower, or Roman broccoli, looks weirdly beautiful. The late-summer, spiral-shaped veggie has a mild, sweet taste—raw, steamed, or boiled until tender. Cut it into little trees and roast with olive oil and parmesan.
Squash Blossoms, the dainty, golden flower of the zucchini, have a mild, squashy flavor and are often filled with ricotta and fried (like tempura) but can be stuffed and baked for a healthier alternative.
Sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes, are the tuber of a species of sunflower. The knobby, root vegetables taste sweet-nutty-crunchy. Peel and shave them raw for slaw, or cook them in a variety of ways like potatoes.