© the chef’s garden

“For the very first time, The Chef’s Garden, a family-run, sustainable farm in Huron, Ohio, is offering nationwide home delivery of its farm-fresh vegetables, previously only available for professional chefs.” With that introduction of its new Home Delivery Boxes, the specialty vegetable and microgreen provider turned itself around to enable its survival through the pandemic.

“We reinvented ourselves out of necessity,” said COO Bob Jones, Jr. Prior to the pandemic, he said, “I would never have thought we’d be doing the level of consumer delivery that we have. If you’d told me that we would, I would’ve laughed; if you’d told me of the level of restaurant delivery we’d be doing, I would’ve cried.”

For nearly 40 years, the 350-acre farm has supplied its produce to top chefs and restaurants, but with bars and restaurants closed across the country, the company switched its business model within 24 hours to home delivery. But that, along with changes made to meet the challenges of and protect its workers from the pandemic, took a leap of faith. With revenue down 85%, Jones proposed the significant investments. By doing so, the farm was able to maintain its employees — and livelihood.

The changes included those to critical aspects of the farm’s sanitation program. The first was the tripling of its cleaning cycles, Jones said. Typically, every food-contact surface had been washed, rinsed, and sanitized every day, followed by an ATP test for bacteria. If anything was found, the surface was washed again. “Now,” he said, “We do it at the end, beginning, and middle of every day.”

Second was the installation of a new air purification system. Jones had been researching the use of ionized hydrogen peroxide gas systems for about six months prior to the pandemic as it has been shown to be effective in reducing bacteria and viruses in the air and on surfaces. The farm was at the end of a five-week trial when the pandemic hit. So, he said, he thought to himself: “The technology kills bacteria and virus, so why would I not put it in?” Although the system is not yet proven against the coronavirus, studies have shown it to eradicate or significantly reduce bacteria and viruses in the air and on surfaces.

Following CDC guidelines, the farm also increased cleaning of all workspaces and common areas, instituted daily temperature checks and six-foot distancing, increased worker hygiene practices, and provided workers with N95 masks. All of which has resulted in an absenteeism rate lower than the farm had had before the pandemic, Jones said. “We are doing anything and everything considered to be best practices for food safety and worker safety.

“If you protect your team, product, and customer, you protect your business,” he said.

Social distancing was the most difficult practice to implement because it takes constant reminders, Jones said. It is for that reason that the training included an emphasis on why practices were being implemented. Why is it important the workers stay six feet apart? Why is it needed when masks are worn? “It’s not that we want to stop conversation, it’s that we want to keep you safe,” he said. “Why is the single most important part of learning.”

Even once the worst of the pandemic is past, Jones sees some practices being retained. “This will cause all of us to do things differently,” he said. Not only is it about exposure to ourselves but also about (bacterial) exposure of fresh produce displayed openly in the air.”

Some things will change, but the situation is illustrating that people like having produce delivered directly from farm to table, knowing that it was grown in a safe, clean, and responsible way, he said.

“I hope that we all learn along the way about things that make food safety more effective — that we learn from it and get better,” Jones said. “Doing everything related to food safety best practices is really a social responsibility we have to the public.

“It will always be our goal to be evaluating what’s next.”