I told you good news was on the way and here’s a shot of just that. I’ve been waiting anxiously to share the great news that Chris Burger and Century Harvest Farms will close next week on their purchase of Just Ripe. In a very happy conclusion to my previous story about their decision to move on, Charlotte and Kristen are able to pursue other goals, Century Harvest Farms will expand their business model and perhaps the biggest winner of all is downtown Knoxville, which retains its small grocery store.
I met with Chris to discuss Century Harvest Farms and their plans for Just Ripe. He’s engaging and excited about this new venture and the long-term plans he has for growing his business. Interested in expanding to direct retail, they searched for a spot where, “intelligent people are making more progressive choices in food.” They considered Happy Holler and other spots just north of downtown as well as Bearden. The public announcement that Just Ripe was on the market was a case of perfect timing for him. He’d already shifted his focus to downtown for a spot to bring his vision, which is very consistent with that of Just Ripe.
Century Harvest Farms, a three-hundred fifty acre farm founded in 2007 and owned by Chris and Shona Burger, is grown using organic and sustainable farming practices. The farm, located in Greenback, Tennessee, produces grass-fed beef, pastured pork, pastured chickens and eggs, and seasonal vegetables.
Chris can also get passionate about the technical aspects of sustainable farming. “Ammonium nitrate feeds a large percentage of the world’s population.” He points out that it comes comes from mined materials, but that his farm cycles atmospheric nitrogen through organic cover cropping and composting livestock manure.
In other words they practice the kind of farming common a hundred years ago as opposed to drowning their crops in manufactured fertilizer and pesticides. They alternate crops and cultivate legumes and use the fertilizer produced naturally by the animals on the farm. It’s difficult for many farmers to do so because it requires cycling or, “one year of a cash crop and one year of a cover crop.” It’s hard for most farmers to cover expenses for a year while their farm is planted in cover crops.
In an effort to leverage their own efforts and, ultimately, those of other farmers using similar methods, in 2014 the farm expanded operations to include a processing plant complete with a large industrial kitchen, managed by Dustin Busby. The project should increase profits, but it also achieves a quality goal for the farm. Chris explains that the “strategy is to manage the quality of our food from seed to plate. We’ve struggled with processing by others and we want to take over that process.”
The new facility is fully operational and includes three components: Storage and administrative offices, USDA cut and wrap operations and the TDA (Tennessee Department of Agriculture) inspected and certified kitchen. The cut and wrap operation processes the meats, while the kitchen processes the vegetables.
Chris points out the importance of having healthy food options year-round, but notes, “You can’t have a great tomato 365 days a year.” To address this issue, they will take a portion of their tomatoes, as an example, and turn them into ketchup which can be used year-round. The production facility makes that possible, thus extending the shelf-life of the food into the non-growing portions of the year.
The acquisition of Just Ripe offers the opportunity to take this food directly to consumers – which is a piece of his plan that was not in place until now. Consumers will have a direct interaction with the producers of the food – much like at the Farmers’ Market – and it avoids costs between farmer and consumer, helping hold prices down.
Additionally, agriculture products sold directly by the farmer growing it are exempt from sales tax, which offers another savings you’ll experience in the store as they expand the product line with their own vegetables and meats. Organic food production costs more in the short-run, but Chris notes that when the health costs of eating cheap food are factored in, organic food looks more affordable.
I asked him if he considers this store a competition for other like-minded businesses, particularly Three Rivers Market, and he said, “No. We see this not as competition with Three Rivers, but rather as a complement. It’s a provision stop rather than a complete grocery store.”
He pointed out how much he admires what Charlotte and Kristen have established and the food culture they have helped to build through Just Ripe. He feels it can accomplish some additional goals in the future, but emphasized, “what they are doing now will remain.” He has purchased the rights to use their recipes, for example, so you’ll be able to continue to get your favorite prepared foods.
He has plans to make a few changes, such as later hours, hoping to offer some late-night food options at a time “when people tend to take bigger risks,” on foods to which they may not be accustomed. He’s also picturing more events, such as pairing fine wine and craft beer with the products they offer and with new products they are introducing. He wants the store to be a “complete dynamic culinary experience.”
He will likely introduce charcuterie dishes directly from the farm, an example of the kinds of offerings only possible because of the fact that they own the farm. They will do most intensive food preparation in the professional kitchen at their farm, which is thirty-five miles away, and bring it in each day. This should help simplify labor and space issues at the store.
He sees Just Ripe as a “beautiful purist expression of an investment in food and not as much everything else.” The money is directed toward the food. He plans to continue that – and that includes continuing relationships they’ve already established. He points out that he has relationships already with many of their suppliers. He also adds a teaser for future possibilities, “while Just Ripe has established itself as the place for local, high-integrity foods, it will soon be working in concert with an online marketplace that will offer the Knoxville community an unprecedented selection of the finest locally produced foods.”
The primary difference in the short term, will be the addition of Century Harvest products. In addition to the charcuterie mentioned above, they’ll add preserved vegetables, both acidified and fermented. Of course, they will have additional meat products. He emphasizes that their production is all “old world techniques to produce the same products we are used to” – though he speculates they may even be safer than what you might buy some other places. Both meats and vegetables from their farm will be offered fresh when possible, as well as frozen.
Over time the space inside the store may be reconfigured in order to have additional room for products. He feels they won’t need as much storage or office space, for example, as those functions will be carried out at the farm. He hopes to “capture as much space as possible.”
For now, Chris wants to make clear that a reason he is excited by this particular purchase is because Kristen and Charlotte have “brought together people who care about quality foods.” He said he particularly admires that “They’ve done a very good job making the business profitable in such a small space and with such high integrity. I’m honored to be the next steward of what they have built.”
The sale is expected to close next week and, while there will be a transition – Kristen and Charlotte are expected to be around for a couple of weeks – it is not expected to be particularly disruptive as changes will be gradually introduced. Stop in and express congratulations to Charlotte and Kristen on a job well done and a successful transition, and look for Chris and the new owners to welcome them to the neighborhood. You’ll likely see Joe Bliffen, pictured above, who will be operational manager of the storefront.