Robin Morris, founder of Mad River Food Hub, plans to purchase and convert the former People’s United Bank building at Mad River Green Shops into a showcase for Valley agriculture, food and beverage.
Morris will appear before the Waitsfield Development Review Board on December 13 seeking a mixed use retail, office and bar/tavern space for a tasting room. His new project is currently named Mad River Taste.
“This is not a new idea; it’s the maturation of a lot of ideas,” Morris said. He said that he visited similar local and regional food tasting centers around the country and came away with the sense that The Valley would be perfectly suited for such a facility. He said that Vermont is behind other regions in the country in marketing and highlighting local growers and makers.
LOCAL GROWERS AND MAKERS
In his travels to Virginia, Michigan, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and Vermont, he found that the strengths of local growers and makers were directly related to local marketing leadership.
“Marketing is a crucial activity that allows a producer to tell their story, differentiate themselves in a crowded market and justify a premium price point. Mad River Food Hub has always supported our customers at all parts of the value chain from farm to plate but not played a part in marketing,” he said.
Morris talked about a concept that American Flatbread founder George Schenk proposed during the 2015 Vision and Vitality workshop series, that of a “terroir.” Terroir is a French word for land that is used to describe a region and the specific natural environment – soil, topography and climate – that create the taste of specific wines. For example, Champagnes come from a very specific region in France.
The word terroir is now used to describe regions, such as the Mad River Valley, where a variety of local food and beverages are created.
“It’s not that hard to do this. Someone has to stand up and start this complex reciprocity,” Morris said, explaining that complex reciprocity is cross marketing all products from a region across many platforms and also in a single place, like the former bank building, and sharing all information and resources without expecting a return, only trusting that others in the network will share similarly.
“We feel that Mad River Taste is the next big step for sustainable agriculture and food businesses in our community. Our local growers and makers have worked very hard over many years to create delicious, innovative and sustainable products. The task now is to unite these individual efforts under a strong, well thought out marketing umbrella that will benefit everyone in our community,” Morris said.
PURCHASE AND SAMPLE
The former bank building is 3,600 square feet and features three offices, two conference rooms, a vault and a larger central space. He envisions renting the three offices to organizations affiliated with food and beverage in Vermont while having retail and a bar/pub area set up in the open space where people could purchase and sample locally made food and beverages and products.
On a sunny Monday morning this week, the building was cold and empty as Morris provided a tour. Pointing to the counter where tellers used to work with customers, he said that would be pushed backward and become a bar pub area. He talked about having workshops and classes in the conference rooms and having videos as well as large posters explain who local food producers are and telling their stories.
“It will help market all the products made in The Valley. And we’ll be able to cross market to visitors who may have local food for breakfast or dinner at their inn or lodge. We could expose people to local food at this facility and then have local restaurants hold Mad River Taste signature meal,” he said.
FINGERS ARE PRICELESS
The vault of the former bank still contains banks of safety deposit boxes, from small to large, with doors ajar and keys in envelopes on the shelves. The door to the vault is huge and heavy and next to it is a warning that the door would cost $20,000 to replace and notes that fingers are priceless.
Morris thinks he may use the vault for cold storage and perhaps the safety deposit boxes for decorative touches in Mad River Taste.
Mad River Food Hub, Morris’s 5-year-old brainchild where local foods are processed, stored, cured, valued-added and distributed, will own and operate Mad River Taste. If the project moves forward as planned he will purchase the building in February 2017 and open mid-May. With support from Mad River Planning District and Center for Whole Communities he is applying for grants from Vermont Working Lands and USDA Rural Development to help fund Mad River Taste.