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With Squash Blossom, Santa Fe woman aims to make it easy to buy local

By Tantri Wija
Reprinted with permission from the Santa Fe New Mexican

The holidays are upon us, and you know what that means: errands. Just as the roads get terrible, we all hop into our cars and start whizzing around town, fighting over downtown parking or tromping through slushy parking lots well after dark to stand in line at the post office, acquire decorations, dinner ingredients for dozens of guests and, of course, buy gifts. For people who normally like to put in the effort to buy fresh local produce at the farmers market or patronize Santa Fe’s ever-growing plethora of small food shops, the temptation this time of year to forget all that and buy everything at once at the grocery store can be strong. We want to buy local, but our kids are out of school, our relatives are yelling at us, and we’re busy.

girls at los poblanosNina Yozell-Epstein has the solution to that problem, at least.

Yozell-Epstein is, in a way, Santa Fe’s farm ambassador, the personable, personal connection between farmers and those who seek their vibrant, crunchy, succulent wares. Yozell-Epstein is a bona fide, Santa Fe-bred young person, fresh-faced and earnest, but she knows more than many chefs about what goes into growing a great vegetable. Yozell-Epstein has been a farmer, ran the farmers market cafe for three years and was the director of the nonprofit Farm to Restaurant for five years, so she’s used to being the go-between between farmers and consumers. For Yozell-Epstein, business is personal.

“I know these local business owners and farmers. That’s how it started. They are really all friends and family,” she says.

While Northern New Mexico is not a “breadbasket” region, necessarily, there are a good number of small farms producing unique items, products that Yozell-Epstein is intimately familiar with.

“We are acequia-fed still, and farms are one to five acres,” explains Yozell-Epstein, “and that’s because of the landscape and how the farms were set up. Not all the farmland is being used, and that’s a shame, but the Santa Fe Farmers Market is one of the top 10 in the country. I think that’s because we have really unique crops that grow here. We have really traditional, heritage practices. Part of Squash Blossom’s mission is to protect [our farming] culture and preserve it, and keep farming as a viable income stream. The other part is to bring healthy food to our community really conveniently.”

Squash Blossom is Yozell-Epstein’s new venture, a company that incorporated in June and which, up to this point, has focused on bringing local wholesale produce directly from small farms to restaurants.

“It’s easier for the farmers, selling hundreds of pounds, and everything harvested to order for the restaurants,” says Yozell-Epstein. “A farmer will say, ‘Nina, I have a lot of cucumbers this week,’ and I’ll communicate this to restaurants.” Everything is then harvested to order and arrives at each restaurant within 36 hours of harvest, delivered by local company Just the Best, with which Yozell-Epstein has partnered. “And the farmers aren’t just guessing what restaurants want, so there’s no waste,” she adds.

Squash Blossom is truly a hometown business, built on Yozell-Epstein’s personal relationships with food producers and restaurants and, now, with the individual consumers who buy these items to take home. Starting this week, Squash Blossom will begin its direct retail service, allowing people to go to the website and order produce directly from Yozell-Epstein in “Blossom Bags” that can be picked up once a week.

This direct retail model is already going strong among foodies. The blooming popularity of direct-mail companies like Blue Apron (which ships people the aggregated ingredients required to make individual meals at home) and Naturebox (which compiles collections of mostly crunchy snacks to be delivered monthly) speak to the desire of food enthusiasts for fresh, varied foods that they can make at home, as well as their weariness at having to drive all over town to collect things, a pain that Yozell-Epstein knows well.

“I just really love food, and I find myself cooking a meal and driving to eight different shops to get the food. So Blossom Bags were, for me, like, ‘finally.’ ”

Blossom Bags are compiled once a week and are totally a la carte. Consumers can simply go on the website, peruse what is available that week from farmers and food purveyors, and add what they want to their bags. There is fresh, local produce available even in winter, as some of the 20-plus farmers serving Squash Blossom have indoor greenhouses.

“Lots of dark leafy greens can be fine in a greenhouse that’s not even heated,” Yozell-Epstein says. “They actually get sweeter after a frost. The same with some root vegetables. Kale is the yummiest then.”

Yozell-Epstein doesn’t require that her farmers be certified organic — that is, that they’ve gone through the paperwork and paid the fees — but, as she puts it, she “requires that they communicate their growing practices to me so I can educate the consumer, and that they be local.” This information she passes on via her website, so shoppers and restaurants have all that information too.

On the Blossom Bag side of the business, Yozell-Epstein will also be selling things besides produce, local products like pickles from Barrio Brinery, chocolate from Kakawa, coffee from Iconik, cheeses from Cheesemongers of Santa Fe’s local selection, and many of the sauces, mustards, breads and jams from companies like Heidi’s Raspberry Farm or Old Windmill Dairy that you’re likely to have sampled or purchased at the farmers market. If you’re a local food devotee, you’ll quickly realize this saves you an awful lot of running around. Yes, the resurgence of the tiny, one-ingredient local shoppe is a wonderful thing, but it can make for a lot of time in the car if you want to stock your larder with these things. That’s the problem Yozell-Epstein seeks to solve. Plus, she says that the markup is a bit less expensive than purchasing all of these things at the grocery store.

“The beautiful thing about this is that it’s all local,” she says. “It’s the best of Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico.” Yozell-Epstein also happily includes products from the rest of New Mexico, and even considers southern Colorado part of what she calls our “food shed” (as in “watershed”). She also hopes to include local, natural beauty products in the bags as well, like soaps and lavender lip balm, further reducing the number of errands her customers have to run.

If you’re a carnivore, though, you’ll still have to run out for fresh meat. Yozell-Epstein says Squash Blossom does not currently offer meat because of “how intimidating the food safety is. It would have to be a whole new way of storing and freezing and aggregating food; I would have to have more freezers. It’s an option in the future, just not right now.” Cured meat products are available, sourced through Cheesemongers of Santa Fe.

Bags should be ordered by any given Sunday for pickup the following Wednesday at Verde Juice, 851 W. San Mateo Road (you can also order Verde Juice in the bags). Yozell-Epstein would one day like to deliver the bags, but for now, since she’s sort of a one-woman band, packing the bags herself, that’s enough to handle.

Squash Blossom will celebrate the launch of their Blossom Bags at a party from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6, at Iconik Coffee, 1600 Lena St. There will be vendors there giving out samples of items available through the service.

Yozell-Epstein said Blossom Bags make great holiday gifts, in case your loved ones have enough scarves and ties — and you can potentially get your grocery shopping and your Christmas shopping done all at once. That, plus a bag full of cheese and jam and winter kale, can be the gift you give yourself.

View this and other ag news in the December issue of Local Food Connections >



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