Jack of one trade: Food hyperspecialization

12-economy-jason-foscolo-by-julie-oconnor

About a year ago, Jason and Lisa Foscolo, a couple with two small children, Henry and Penelope, were looking at property north of Poughkeepsie. They were disappointed. Most of what they saw was too suburban for their tastes.

They had been told to look for an area called “Redcliff,” or something like that. Late in the afternoon they found themselves in Red Hook. They liked the town.

“It spoke to me in five seconds,” says Jason Foscolo, who is nothing if not decisive. “We called the broker, who thought she was through for the day. She showed us around.”

Advertisement

The Foscolos had been living in Southampton on Long Island for several years. The Hudson Valley seemed a better fit for them, more rural, with occasional farms and farmstands on quiet country roads, and a lot of open space. The commercial districts in the hamlets seemed quaint, and they were told the schools in some of the communities were of good quality.

Jason Foscolo, a lawyer and principal of The Food Law Firm, LLC, felt that Red Hook had been successful in retaining its agricultural quality while other towns were losing theirs. That was important to him. That’s why he bought a home here.

“I went to law school long before I knew why I wanted to be a lawyer or how I could ever make a contribution to the trade,” he explained. “It took a ten-year personal journey to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’d always loved food, and when I was about 34 I figured a way to smush together the thing I am passionate about with the legal career I chose prematurely. I had to put the passion first and mold life and career around it.

“This is the long way to answer your question,” he continued. “We moved to the Hudson Valley for the food. My practice is national, so I didn’t need to move here for professional reasons. People are real cool and creative, it’s beautiful here any time of year, the restaurants are fantastic, and I can stop by any one of four farms in my neighborhood to buy ingredients for a great dinner. I really can’t ask for anything else in my life.”

 

In 1788 Adam Smith famously described how a single pin maker’s job was made more productive when broken up into 18 highly specialized tasks. Productivity gains achieved by dividing tangible work into ever-smaller parts performed by ever-more-specialized workers was the secret of the Industrial Revolution, and it is turning out to be even more important in the digital age.

Intangible knowledge work turns out to be even more easily divisible into parts. As a July 2011 article in the Harvard Business Review marveled, “Consider how much more finely work can be diced when it produces intangible, knowledge-based goods and the information involved can be transported anywhere in the world nearly instantaneously and at virtually no cost.” The article was called “The age of hyperspecialization,” meaning the breaking of work previously done by one person into more specialized pieces done by several people.

Knowledge hyperspecialization changes the nature of entrepreneurial opportunity. It allows the combination of specialized parts in new ways. New combinations can often respond nimbly to changes in the marketplace. Communities of hyperspecialized knowledge workers can be formed to complete tasks for enterprises that don’t know how to or can’t afford to complete them in-house.

And guess what? All industries offer such opportunities. It’s just a matter of finding them and being willing to take the risk of pursuing them. The economic future of the Hudson Valley will be determined by how well our entrepreneurs do that.

 

Jason Foscolo was stationed in Japan for three years while serving as a judge advocate in the Marines. “The Japanese have an over-the-top dedication to perfecting the foods they eat,” he told a food blog called Gastrognome in 2011. “My time there definitely triggered my obsession. After that I knew it was only a matter of time before I figured out how to use my preexisting career as an attorney to make the shift into food.”

After his honorable discharge from the Marines, Foscolo got LL.M. in agricultural and food law from the University of Arkansas School of Law, at the time the only law-school program of its kind in the United States. Perceiving that farmers and food processors needed an advocate who understood how the food laws could help them do business better, he “decided to start my own gig.”

All but one of his associates at The Food Law Firm have attended the same law school. Many food attorneys work for Big Food, which he says “still pumps out moderately safe food at a good price point, but the products they make are beginning to lose their character and their relevance” compared to the products from the new breed of food entrepreneurs Foscolo represents. The Food Law Firm is a part of the pioneering effort to reorganize the food industry around hyperspecialization built around quality. The innovators in such an industry, he figures, need a lawyer on their team.

Smaller firms in an industry previously dominated by a few larger competitors — an oligopoly — are frequently at legal risk, particularly in an industry where regulations need to be quite detailed. The laws are written to favor the big guys, and outfits like The Food Law Firm have to push back. “When something’s regulated well,” Foscolo says, “the rules are clear.”

 

If knowledge workers don’t need to locate in a specific place “for professional reasons,” they can, like Jason and Lisa Foscolo did, move anywhere they want. Geographic flexibility is an important aspect of the hyperspecialization of knowledge workers. Techies can gather in Kingston, artists in Woodstock, and foodies in Red Hook. Or they can never set foot in any of those places.

Jason Foscolo sits at a table at Daughter’s Fare and Ale, a resolutely foodie eating place on South Broadway in Red Hook which “happily sources” its vegetable and proteins from five local farms and is recently “privileged to announce a partnership with our friends at Brooklyn’s finest brewery, Other Half.”

Hyperspecialization has led to many industry affiliations for The Food Law Firm. Its food marketing and public relations professional, the Gita Group out of Manhattan, is headed by a Marist College graduate who serves on the communications board of her alma mater. It is connected through a number of publications to allied food and farm organizations, including those at Cornell University. It utilizes a number of modest-sized services in the foodie network of which the firm is a part.

As a recent arrival to the Hudson Valley, Foscolo is not yet connected to all parts of the extensive local agricultural universe. Up to now, he’s been mostly a consumer. He represents a handful of local clients, “guys I can have a beer with.” He hasn’t yet met the folks at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, he says, or some of the people in the world of food distribution.

Jason Foscolo has an entrepreneurial mind. If he sticks around, he’ll find his place in the local universe.

Post Your Thoughts