Via the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, by Karen Miltner
As a young college graduate with your whole career ahead of you, the world is your oyster.
Luke Stodola decided his world would revolve around food that was organic, locally grown and cooperatively produced.
The Rochester Institute of Technology grad, along with a few friends, started Small World Food, a worker-owned cooperative, in 2007 by baking whole-grain breads in a restaurant during its off-hours and selling the loaves at farmers markets.
Today, Small World not only has expanded its bakery offerings to include granola and desserts but also offers local organic flours, hot sauce and fermented and pickled vegetable products. This summer it launches the area’s first-ever ice cream community-supported agriculture program.
To make room for more fermented and gluten-free products and to have its own retail location, the collective in the past few weeks dismantled the bakery it built several years ago inside a South Plymouth Avenue rental home (where some of its worker-owners lived) and moved to a much larger venue at 90 Canal St. in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood. (Brewster Gordon & Co., a wholesale grocery distributor, was the original occupant. Now the building is used for artists’ studios, offices and apartments.) Bakery production and sales are taking a short hiatus while Small World finishes remodeling, though products will still be available at farmers markets and select retail locations (see breakout box). Small World Food’s retail shop is expected to open in early July.
“It’s a game changer,” says Allie Push, who joins Stodola, Ruth Blackwell and Ken Sato as one of the four current worker-owners of Small World. Four interns also help with various aspects of production, logistics and marketing.
To help raise funds for a large walk-in cooler and sink, Small World used the social fundraising site Kickstarter, which requires solicitors to reach their target goal to receive the funding. Small World met its $2,500 goal in three days. By the end of the campaign, 800 pledges had been made for a total of about $5,800. The extra money will be used to buy equipment for more gluten-free products and to get started on a pocket park and brick pathway that will lead to the artisan food purveyor’s hard-to-find retail entrance, located near the back of the building.
Axel Kairies of Rochester makes a point of buying Small World bread every Saturday at the Rochester Public Market. He’s just as enamored with the company’s sauerkraut, kimchi and miso.
“When they first appeared at the market, they just seemed like a bunch of hippies,” says Kairies. “I did not know much about their set-up. They have not only survived but grown, and that is good to see.”
Locavore at heart
What made Small World truly unique when it started was its commitment to sourcing locally grown wheat and other grains at a point in the locavore movement when locally grown grains were not as easy to find as local produce. At first, that meant buying from an in-state mill that sometimes processed New York-grown wheat, explains Stodola.
In 2008, the bakers partnered with a local wheat farmer and invested in a small mill to grind their flour. When that mill needed repairs a couple years later, Farmer Ground Flour was already established. Small World opted to contract with the Tompkins County flour producer to mill its grain and has never looked back.
“Wheat is the least predictable crop to grow,” says Stodola. “You can’t rely on one farm to get a consistent supply so, depending on the time of year, we get ours from different farms.”
The co-op needs eight or 10 different farmers to ensure a steady supply. However, not all of these farms grow similar varieties, which means Small World’s bakers have to make adjustments with each new batch, Stodola says.
Small World will also bring in heritage flour varieties, such as Red Fife, when it’s available.
If Small World has done its share to promote local, organic grains, it has worked miracles to popularize fermented vegetables that have either fallen out of fashion or have never made it to the mainstream. Customers seem to have latched on to Small World’s sauerkraut (which comes in several flavors) and kimchi (both mild and spicy), as well as its wide array of pickled vegetables: everything from dilly beans and turnips to garlic, kohlrabi and onions. As with grains, Small World buys produce from a number of local farms.
“This year the fermented foods really took off,” says Push.
“People love them, especially the sauerkraut,” says Ann Duckett, who sells the ferments at her Little Bleu Cheese Shop in the South Wedge. “But we do get a lot of questions asking what to do with miso.”
The salty Japanese soybean paste, which can take months to ferment and age, is Small World’s newest product. Small World makes a mild white miso, a stronger red miso and a fusion black bean miso.
Small World Food’s business model, legally structured as a partnership but functioning as a cooperative, is a throwback to more idealistic times. The worker-owners have equal say in decision-making, and they split profits equally. In order to become a worker-owner, one comes into the operation as an intern, learning all aspects of the business over the course of several months. New worker-owners must be approved by the rest. An investment of $1,000 is also required.
Not all interns want to become worker-owners. Taylor Dayton wanted to take time off between undergraduate and graduate studies to learn baking. RIT senior Kelsey Smith signed up for free bread lessons and will be helping to design the new facility’s environmental health and safety plan as part of her co-op program.
Sharing their food knowledge is part of the Small World philosophy, and the Canal Street facility could hold baking and fermenting classes down the road.
Those who find their way to the Small World partnership typically do so by a circuitous route and still work other jobs to support themselves and their other passions.
Stodola, a 27-year-old Vermont native and the only original partner still active in the business, has a degree in applied art and science and works for a web design company.
Blackwell, 33, another Vermonter, graduated with a fine arts degree from Alfred University. She signed on as a Small World worker-owner in 2008 when she moved to Rochester. She only works at Small World in the winter; she works at a nearby CSA farm during the growing season.
Push, 24, moved to Rochester with an art degree from the University of Delaware and became a worker-owner two years ago. She runs a small craft business that sells hand-bound journals.
Sato is the newest worker-owner, bringing his love and knowledge of miso to the business last year. The 34-year-old Japanese native is the founder of Big Picture Rochester, the public art project responsible for turning downtown into an outdoor photo gallery.
“We use local ingredients, but we try to make foods from all over the world,” says Sato. “I think that’s kind of cool.”