What is Artisanal Food?

Craig McCord

Craig McCord › Craig possesses 23 guitars and cannot play any of them. He likes fresh grilled sardines with a ...


It seems like artisanal food is strong these days. Handmade, small batch–food created with caring hands and top notch ingredients is one of the joys of the real food movement.

CUESA is one of our favorite organizations–their acronym stands for Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. Based in San Francisco, they’ve managed the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market since 1999 and it just might be that folks in the Bay Area know a thing or two about artisan food.

Last week, CUESA, Kitchen Table Talks, and the Good Food Awards presented a panel discussion, posing the difficult question, “How big is too big in artisanal food?”.

Marcy Coburn of the Oakland-based Food Craft Institute lead the lively discussion as the panelists spoke to ‘what it means to be an artisan and how to grow with integrity in an expanding, and sometimes dubious, “artisanal” market’.

The panelists were a stellar group.

Sue Conley, co-owner of Cowgirl Creamery, a cheese-making business based in Petaluma and Point Reyes is certainly qualified to speak on this subject.

A salumist at the Portland charcuterie maker Olympic Provisions, Elias Cairo contributed his expertise.

And June Taylor of June Taylor Company, who has been making small-batch preserves “seven jars at a time” in Berkeley for 20+years, with the help of only two employees.

How big is too big in artisanal food?

It’s clear these good food people (and many more like them) are incredibly dedicated to their respective crafts.

According to the article on CUESA.org, some themes came from the panelists as principles upon which they will not compromise. Here they are in a shortened form:

Commitment to local farms and community. All three businesses source directly from their local foodshed, and they develop strong relationships by paying a fair price.

Flexibility and creativity. Much like farmers, small food makers are often vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, but (June) Taylor uses these challenges to hone her craft. She changes her offerings depending on what fruit is available . . .

Transparency and education. These artisan producers got their start selling at farmers markets, and they continue to rely on direct marketing to educate and connect with their customer base, even as sales grow through online, retail, and wholesale channels.

Hands-on quality control. As small companies grow, there may be a temptation to outsource some of the production to keep up with demand through practices such as co-packing.

Employee health and respect. How big is too big? For (Elias) Cairo, it’s “as soon as I see that tipping point of miserableness at my meat plant—of people not respecting and loving what we’re doing.”

Innovation in moderation. Does “handcrafted” preclude technology? “I think we can mechanize parts of our production in the future that would allow us to get bigger and be more fun,” said (Sue) Conley.

Passing on their craft. Give someone a jar of preserves and they will eat for a day. Show them how to preserve food and they will eat for a lifetime.

Collaboration, not competition. As support for handcrafted food grows, is there room for more truly artisanal businesses? “There’s a spirit of ‘the more the merrier,’ and if we’re all identified as a bloc, it’s much more powerful,” said Cowgirl Creamery’s Sue Conley.

You can listen in on the full discussion right here.

This article originally appeared on CUESA.org. You can read the entire article here.

Have you ever thought about starting an artisanal food business?

Photo credit: Craig McCord