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Food

Through the pandemic noise, a farmer calls for help and a baker answers

Artichoke at the Santa Monica farmers market
An artichoke on sale at the Santa Monica farmers market. When a Coachella Valley farm found itself with a “field full of food with nowhere to go,” they called for help. Röckenwagner Bakery answered.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

“Sending out an SOS!”

That was the plea sent out by County Line Harvest, a Coachella Valley farm, on Instagram last weekend. Like so many food businesses, County Line was reeling from the effects of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s decision to close bars and dine-in service at restaurants across Los Angeles in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

While not a restaurant itself, 80% of County Line’s carefully tended produce — eye-catching baby lettuces, fine greens, vibrantly hued root vegetables and more — was sold to distributors, who in turn supplied some of the city’s best restaurants, including Gjelina, M. Georgina, Felix and Botanica. With restaurants slashing produce orders or closing their doors entirely, the farm suddenly found itself without customers too.

Shoppers at the Santa Monica Farmers Market are now asked to abide by new social distancing measures in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
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“March is usually our busiest month, and we had a field full of food with nowhere to go,” said co-owner Megan Strom, who runs the farm with founder David Retsky. “We really needed to do something immediately to keep our doors open.”

That something manifested in the form of a partnership with Röckenwagner Bakery, the venerable baked-goods operation from Hans Röckenwagner, which has a cafe and retail storefront in Mar Vista and a sprawling wholesale production facility in Culver City.

“As a bakery, we’re not just a manufacturer, we’re also a distributor,” Röckenwagner said. “We have 40 trucks on the road every night, delivering from Santa Barbara to San Diego to Palm Springs.”

The bakery normally makes more than 1,000 drops daily to grocery stores, markets, hotels, country clubs, food service and more — but it too is hurting, having lost roughly half of its business overnight with the new restaurant restrictions.

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So far, Röckenwagner Bakery has managed to avoid layoffs by keeping its storefront open and expanding takeout options, and by cutting employee hours across the board. When Röckenwagner heard that County Line had fresh food but no way to get it to people, a lightbulb went off: “I thought, ‘We can do that,’” he said.

Virtually overnight, the bakery and storefront have become a distribution hub for the farm. Röckenwagner placed an order for 250 produce boxes and will begin offering them, along with — naturally — a selection of its own fresh-baked breads, for home delivery starting on Friday. The boxes are priced at $37.50 for an individual size, which includes produce and two bachelor-sized loaves of bread (sourdough and honey wheat), and $58 for a family box, which includes three bachelor loaves (sourdough, honey wheat and brioche). Delivery costs $7 from roughly the ocean to Sepulveda Boulevard and Pico to Jefferson boulevards, and $15 to other Westside cities, with potential to expand east if there is demand.

“Teaming up with Röckenwagner is really exciting because I’ve been a one-woman show, taking on all of these communications with customers and getting logistics and sales up, which I’m not used to, on top of needing to actually harvest and pack,” Strom said. “I’d been asking and asking for help — I knew there had to be someone out there hurting, that had idle trucks and idle staff. Their support is huge.”

Röckenwagner and his wife and business partner, Patti, say they have infrastructure in place to lend assistance to other food businesses in Los Angeles that are hurting for distribution, as well as individual shoppers looking to avoid crowded stores with empty shelves.

“All of us are entrepreneurs, and in moments like this, we’re all getting creative,” Patti Röckenwagner said. “We’re not completely solving a very dire problem, but if we can be flexible and nimble, we can hopefully ride this out. Businesses need to help other businesses, so we can all stay in business.”

Note: County Line CSA boxes, priced between $25 and $40, minus Röckenwagner’s bread, are also available for pickup at a handful of restaurants around the city that are still open in a limited capacity, including Eightfold Coffee in Echo Park, Hoxton Hotel downtown, Highly Likely Cafe in West Adams and Lady & Larder in Mar Vista — check its website for the most up-to-date locations and call before ordering.


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