While supermarket shelves are empty, farm produce is stuck in limbo

Theodore's restaurant owner Lily Stokes and Northside Fruit and Vege's Kim Driver are saving farm produce from being ...
Theodore's restaurant owner Lily Stokes and Northside Fruit and Vege's Kim Driver are saving farm produce from being wasted by putting together crates of produce for public consumers.  Photo: Christopher Hopkins

While Melbourne's supermarkets are stripped bare of produce, local farmers who supply restaurants are in danger of ploughing fruit and vegetables back into the fields. 

Restaurateur Lily Stokes has plenty of reasons to be stressed, an empty restaurant being one of them. But the owner of Theodore's in Brunswick soon became aware of a flow-on effect of her kitchen being so quiet. "I realised it wasn't just restaurants hurting, it's the farmers too," she says. "My fruit and veg supplier told me he'd had 127 phone calls in 48 hours from restaurants who told him they wouldn't be ordering. When the supply lines to restaurants stop, farmers face their food going to landfill at the same time as the supermarket shelves are empty. It kills me to think about it. The stress and anxiety inspired me to take action."

She started selling produce boxes to customers who couldn't find what they needed at the shops. "It started with an email and a spreadsheet and now we can hardly keep up," she says. Since Tuesday, Theodore's has supplied 1200 kilograms of fruit and vegetables and more than 100 dozen eggs to 200 households, many of them restaurant regulars. It's also regular customers who are helping with spreadsheets and invoices. "It's a really confronting time but it's amazing to see people reaching out to support each other," she says. "It's humbling. People out there have our backs."

Her efforts help end eaters keep their fridges full. They also help wholesaler Kim Driver, owner of Northside Fruit and Vegetables, and the farmers he buys from. "We are 90 per cent down on regular trade," says Driver, noting that at least 40 per cent of traders are not even showing up to the Epping wholesale market at the moment. "They know they're not going to get business," he says.

Northside usually supplies premium local produce to 250 restaurants, including Attica, IDES, Annam and Smith & Daughters. "It's understandable that they can't order from us at the moment, but if restaurants die, we die, and that flows on to the farmers I source from," says Driver.

One of his farmers is John Jonella who grows baby corn for top restaurants, including Vue de monde and Omnia. "It's a niche market which has all of a sudden cut off," he says. "You don't have to be a magician to work out the conditions don't look bright. It's been a great season but if I can't sell my baby corn I would have to leave it on the bush or chop it up for stock feed. It's hard to do that with a crop you've put your heart and soul into."

In the city, Becco owner Simon Hartley has also been struck by the supply line crisis. "Our restaurant business has dropped so much we'd have to close by the end of the month anyway," he says. "My potato supplier told me what a disaster it was that restaurants had stopped buying. I thought, people are out there buying up staples like flour and pasta, why don't we sell them potatoes too?" He's resurrecting the produce store his restaurant last ran in 2001, adding milk and eggs and using Becco's regular meat vendor to stock retail shelves. "This situation changes every minute," he says. "But I'll keep going to the market and I'll keep selling food."

WHERE TO BUY

Theodore's, 4 Saxon Street, Brunswick, www.theodor.e.  Register online for produce boxes.