July 30, 2014 Updated: July 30, 2014 at 12:57 pm
When it comes to buying food these days, what's old is new.
Before the days of big agribusiness, people bought food from farmers down the road or grew it themselves. Now, after years of relying on produce and products from huge commercial operations, people are returning to the basics: They're sourcing their food from nearby. There's been a surge in farmers markets, with more cropping up each year.
But for many folks, the yield from Colorado's short growing season isn't satisfying enough. That's where three relatively new options are filling baskets throughout the year: Local First Grocer, Hunt or Gather, and Garden of the Gods Gourmet Market and Café. We'll take a look at all three and see what you can expect to find at each.
Local First Grocer
It's not unusual for Luke Cissell to wax poetic; after all, he is a poet. So it won't come as a surprise when you meet him at Local First Grocer, at 116 Canon Ave. in Manitou Springs, to hear him do just that about the new store and all its products. He and Elise Rothman are founders of the store, along with a handful of members on the board of directors. They raised $17,000 as seed money to bring the store to life through a Kickstarter campaign, and it opened April 1.
"This is what Manitou Springs needed," he said, "a place to find fresh locally grown organic produce or responsibly produced household supplies. The store is built around the idea that food is medicine. Wholesome food and herbs help you feel good."
Shelves and refrigerators are filled with mostly Colorado-grown foods. There's an emphasis on education and bringing the community together. They are concerned about the carbon footprint of the products they offer.
"Unlike large grocery stores with 30 types of chips or cereals from which to choose, we might have only one brand of corn chips," Cissell said. "But there's a story behind each (product) to be told that gets richer each time it's told. Our goal is to reduce the moral minefield that is presented at most grocery stores with so many selections."
In other words, they have studied each product to be sure the production practices are sustainable for the environment and good for your health.
Larry Stebbins, founder of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, is a fan of the new store because it takes him back to more than 50 years ago when he could walk to the corner store from his grandparents' house in Detroit.
"Just like that store, Local First has a soul," he said. "Every nook held a special surprise. When I shop, I do my best to make conscious choices. This store has taken that worry away."
Stebbins also believes that smaller local grocery stores can help bring communities together.
"It is easier to know the owners and learn where the produce comes from," he said. "We then all can be more informed and make choices that we prefer. I would hope that is a hint of things to come.
Hunt or Gather
This very small store opened a year ago under the umbrella of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation in the Ivywild School, 1604 S. Cascade Ave. The concept is to offer an outlet for local farmers, small urban farms and backyard gardeners to sell their food year-round.
"We sell local food to local people," said Megan Andreozzi Harris, store manager. "We never source commodity food. We try to keep our sources for local food to a 300-mile radius."
And because the food is seasonal, not all items are available all year. In the winter you'll find crops that can be dried, like beans, for longer storage. Or, foods that have been canned or frozen.
"Not all of our foods are certified organic," she said, "but it is foods that are grown organically. The farmers have not always taken the time to fill out the necessary paper work to be certified.
"We do a lot of research to be sure food is not being produced with GMOs," she added, referring to genetically modified organisms. "We had to sell through some products from Haystack Mountain Goat Cheese because they could not guarantee that all the goats were being fed GMO-free hay."
The venue also has allowed access to farmers who were not able to sell their crops at retail.
"Country Roots Farm, Sweetwater Bison Ranch and Venetucci Farm, for example, had not had a retail outlet before for their products," she said. "And we have become a drop-off and pickup for two CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs."
People also can learn from shopping at the market.
"We have a strong emphasis on education," she said. "People can ask questions like, 'What does GMO mean?' They can come and get connected with the community and learn about the farmers producing their food."
A big feature the market offers is a buying club. For a membership fee of $50, members can buy large batches of food at wholesale prices.
"If someone wants to can a bunch of peaches, they can buy crates of them," she said. "Or if they have a large family, they can buy wholesome organic food in bulk."
Bonnie Simon, who supports local businesses through her website and newsletter "Hungry Chicken Homestead," is excited about these local sources of food.
"Hunt or Gather is terrific," she said. "Everything they carry is from Colorado, and if you want specific produce in season, they can usually get it for you. They got 20 pounds of Colorado cherries for me, which makes me very happy. I froze them and will have cherries all winter now."
Garden of the Gods Gourmet Market and Cafe
This 10-year-old market had outgrown its former location, so in June the owners moved to 410 S. 26th St. on the city's west side. The café was added, with its unique offerings for breakfast and lunch. Dinner will be available soon. But the market area of the business has been massively expanded. Market buyer Karrie Williams has been on a mission to find as many Colorado products as possible.
"We carry more than 100 Colorado products," she said. "If you're looking for something to send friends to remind them of wonderful Colorado products, we probably have what would fit the bill. Tourists have loved having such a selection of pure Colorado items to take home as souvenirs."
You'll find items such as Callicrate beef burgers, Bristol beer brats, Sara's Sausage, Umpire Coffee, Aspen salad dressings, Radiantly Raw Chocolate and Glacier Homemade Ice Cream and Gelato.
The bottom line for Simon with all three market options? "I like these stores because I love farms and want to support our local farming economy," she said. "They make shopping easier since I don't have to wait for my CSA or the farmers market."
And the food is unique and fresh.
"The stores get food that is grown for flavor, rather than shelf life, and picked when it is ripe," she said.
"They can do that because the food doesn't need time to be shipped across the country."