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Tracing local products from a factory in New Jersey to a lunchtime stir-fry

For fast-casual chains like Honeygrow that focus on local sourcing, buying from independent farms becomes more challenging as the company grows. But that dedication to local food also helps other businesses prosper.

Ramen dough is forced into a narrower shape for packaging at the Sun Noodle factory.
Ramen dough is forced into a narrower shape for packaging at the Sun Noodle factory.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT

Dough for the first round of noodles at the Sun Noodle factory in Carlstadt, N.J., starts getting mixed around 4 a.m. Within an hour, at least three giant batches of noodles have been made from dough that is pressed flat between rollers, shredded into identical strands, sent down a conveyor belt, and chopped into five-ounce portions.

Ninety miles away in Allentown, the lights come on at Fresh Tofu's headquarters around 5 a.m. The machines whir as dried soybeans are fed into a series of pipes, shaped into blocks, and dropped into an ice bath, where they bob along until the texture is firm.

In Fleetwood at the Kirchenberg goat farm, a grassy Berks County oasis perched on a hill between two churches, farmer and cheesemaker John Zimmerman is already partway through the first of two daily milkings of his 250-goat herd.

In the days and weeks that follow, the noodles, tofu, and goat cheese produced from those daily labors will be shipped to Honeygrow stores across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and beyond, where they are added to stir-frys and salads.

Pulling together those ingredients from independent farmers and businesses is an expensive, time-consuming cycle that could be avoided if the company bought it all from a national supply chain. But like other healthy fast-casual chains that have blossomed across the Philadelphia region in recent years, Honeygrow was founded on a pledge to buy local when possible — even as the company's growth has made that more challenging.

Honeygrow CEO Justin Rosenberg opened the first store in 2012. The company has since undergone rapid growth, and there are now 34 Honeygrow and Minigrow stores in 10 states.

At the height of summer, he said, the company buys up to half of its ingredients from local suppliers. Rosenberg estimated it could reduce expenses by as much as 20 percent by using a larger supply chain.

"But then we'd be the same as anyone else," he said. "Everybody always wants to make more money, but cutting costs isn't always the right way to do that."

Nicole Marquis began the chain HipCityVeg in 2012 with the foremost mission of serving plant-based food, followed closely by the goal to source locally when she can.

"Expansion does make sourcing locally more difficult," Marquis said. In the next year, HipCityVeg will grow from four permanent locations to eight. "But we spend so much time building the relationships with these farmers and learning their stories, that in the end I think the customers see that, and they depend on it, and they appreciate it. So, ultimately, it's good for business."

Rosenberg envisioned Honeygrow as a fast-casual chain with made-to-order salads and bowls of stir-fry made from fresh, mostly healthy ingredients. After the first store opened in Center City, Rosenberg realized the noodles weren't right and embarked on a quest that took him to countless Japanese ramen shops in New York before someone finally gave him the name of a major supplier: Sun Noodle, a family business with locations in Hawaii, California, and New Jersey.

Sun Noodle's factories produce more than 250,000 servings of noodles a day, supplying all ramen shops in Hawaii and most of those in New York City, said Kenshiro Uki, vice president of operations and son of the founders. But when Rosenberg approached him about collaborating, Uki had just opened the 37-year-old company's East Coast outpost as a two-man operation.

Uki's team had to design a noodle for Honeygrow that could withstand heat from being cooked twice: first in boiling water, then shocked with cold water and fired in a wok with sauce and vegetables. Uki drew inspiration from Japanese yakisoba dishes, adding egg whites and water to prevent sogginess. And as Honeygrow succeeded, so has Sun Noodle's East Coast factory. The Bergen County facility now employs 90 people and runs 22 hours a day, five days a week.

"Three to four years ago, we were having a hard time keeping up," Uki said. "We learned a lot about efficient methods of product scheduling by focusing on Honeygrow."

HipCityVeg works with a vendor that offers choices when buying local is possible, Marquis said. Understanding that local isn't automatically better, she said, a number of considerations factor into those decisions.

All leafy greens served in HipCityVeg stores are organic, she said, because lettuce tends to be sprayed heavily with chemicals. Some local ingredients, like apples, depend on seasonal availability, and tofu from Fresh Tofu Inc. in Allentown is available year-round. Some popular ingredients, like bananas, will never be available locally. The compostable packaging used in HipCityVeg stores is triple the cost of plastic, but to Marquis, that's nonnegotiable.

"Every day we could make decisions that are purely profit-driven," she said. "And it is a difficult choice, sometimes. But at the end of the day, my team and I do this for a purpose."

Sweetgreen, a D.C. chain known for seasonal salads, was founded in 2007 and now operates more than 75 locations in eight states, six of which are in Philadelphia and the suburbs. A representative of the company declined to comment for this article. However, Sweetgreen has sourced ingredients from some local farms and companies, including Fresh Tofu Inc.

Founded in 1984, Fresh Tofu has flourished as the meat-substitution market skyrocketed, growing from a six-person operation to a team of 23. The organic, non-GMO tofu is made from soybeans that arrive on trucks from the Finger Lakes region of New York in shipments of about 45,000 pounds every two and a half weeks, said company president Mark Amey. Every 3,360 pounds or so yields about 6,500 blocks of tofu that are packed for delivery within a day of being manufactured.

Companies often discover businesses like Fresh Tofu through the Common Market, a food distributor with offices in Philadelphia, Georgia, and Texas. Unlike large food distribution corporations, the Common Market is a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting local farmers and sustainable food to clients. Common Market's Mid-Atlantic branch, in Philadelphia, distributes food from more than 200 producers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Its customers include restaurants, schools, and hospitals.

Honeygrow has worked with the organization almost since the beginning, and has worked to maintain that relationship through its expansion, said Katie McCrea, an outreach coordinator for Common Market's Mid-Atlantic team.

"You can save so much by going through a larger distributor," McCrea said. "This has to be something you really want to do, and really want to prioritize. It's just so much easier to just place one phone call and order everything you need."

For the Kirchenberg goat farm in Berks County, the partnership between Common Market and Honeygrow has been instrumental in turning a hobby into a business. After owner Zimmerman began making cheese a decade ago, he heard that Common Market was looking for raw-milk products.

"The timing was right," Zimmerman said. "Twenty years ago, it might not have worked."

In addition to selling to small stores and restaurants, Zimmerman and his family members also make cheese for farmers who bring in milk from their herds who don't have the equipment to turn it into cheese. In total, the farm produces about 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of cheese per week. About 20 percent of the farm's cheese goes to Common Market, which then distributes it to customers that include Honeygrow.

At Honeygrow stores, Zimmerman's cheese is one of the most popular add-ins for customized salads, said Jen Denis, chief brand officer for the company. Zimmerman knows he will have to expand his operation soon to keep up with demand.

"We had no idea what we were getting into," he said. "Looking back, I wish we'd have built the operation three times bigger."