Cooperative Catering: Just Local Food expands with catering services
How many Just Local Food Cooperative employees does it take to operate a deli slicer?
Well, it used to take one person to call the storage space to arrange for pick-up, one person to get it, two to haul it into the tiny kitchen at Eau Claire’s local food co-op, 1117 S. Farwell St., and one person to slice up some meats and cheeses. In their old kitchen – which staffers generously estimated was only 50 square feet – there was no room to keep the slicer on-site, so storage was a must.
That’s before Just Local Food’s recent expansion into the catering biz. They recently secured a shared kitchen space, 309 E. Grand Ave., where they will prepare an increased selection of deli options for their central store and provide custom, locally sourced catering. Bag lunches, veggie platters, soups, coffee, sandwiches, and more are all on Just Local Food’s expanded menu. With Heidi Sanders – their deli and catering manager – at the helm, the endeavor is starting with an average of about 70% local sourcing, with plans to keep that figure growing.
"You can utilize things and make a perfectly wonderful product that is nourishing and tasty and made with things they wouldn’t typically have bought off the shelf." – Heidi Sanders, Just Local Food Cooperative
Just Local Food was throwing away a lot of “ugly” produce, according to Sanders and General Manager Scott Zellmer. Their deli operation, and now their catering, is a way to reduce waste and provide even more options for co-op customers. Bruised or oddly-shaped fruits and veggies are easily incorporated into recipes for soups, breads, and other grab-and-go goodies.
“Everyone wants things to be picture perfect,” Sanders said. “And it’s nice, but it’s a little bit of a privilege to be able to do that. You can utilize things and make a perfectly wonderful product that is nourishing and tasty and made with things they wouldn’t typically have bought off the shelf.”
Sanders has more than 40 years of experience making delicious food in her own home – at the 1990s Eau Claire eatery Beautiful Soup and in culinary classes, views catering as an artistic endeavor. She looks forward to meeting with clients, discussing their needs and discovering who they are, and creating a service that is unique to who they are and what their event is about.
“You might have an entire group of people who have been to Just Local before, but your tray doesn’t look like anything they’ve seen before,” she said.
Even less-customized trays and plates will be infused with local character, says Zellmer.
"We’re not going to buy el cheapo cheese and things like that,” he said. “If you want a tray made with ingredients from within 130 miles of the store – sausage from Cadott, or cheese from over that way – we can do that tray.” They are also able to accommodate dietary preferences and requirements with vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, or gluten-free options.
Their new space is not much bigger than a large home kitchen, but after squeezing all her work into the tiny office/kitchen/storeroom at the store, Sanders is excited to have some room to breathe.
“It feels like 9 million square feet,” she said. They invested in some new freezers – with enough room to preserve local ingredients through the winter – shelving, washing stations, and more. And that deli slicer has its own counter space for easy access at any time.
Working out of this kitchen, Sanders will prepare all of the deli offerings for Just Local Food, including soup, pies, sandwiches, and even the occasional take-and-make dinner for customers to prepare at home. They also intend to offer fresh-sliced meats and cheeses at the store.
Catering services are still ramping up. They provided the food for one event at the Pablo Center at the Confluence and for the co-op’s Harvest Festival. As they get into the swing of thing, they plan to pick up more events and offer bag lunches for local businesses.
To inquire about Just Local Food Cooperative’s catering services, call Heidi Sanders at (715) 828-1890. The expansion’s official opening will take place in October.