Take it with a pound of salt

Luc and Pika Roels in front of the oven at Pika’s Farm Table, Lake Katrine. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

There’s a knock on the door of Luc Roels’ modest office at Pika’s Farm Table on Neighborhood Road in Lake Katrine. An employee enters bearing a small cup of orange-colored  soup (carrot with ginger). Roels puts a spoon into the hot liquid and carefully tastes it.

“Needs more salt,” he says.

He tastes again. “Put in a pound of salt,” he decides.

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A pound of salt? Is he kidding? No. The batch is being prepared in a 60-gallon container equals 500 pounds. That’s a lot of soup, and it requires a lot of salt.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Ulster County food manufacturing. As of the second quarter of 2018, Pika’s was one of 29 food manufacturers employing 473 people in the county. According to the census data, an additional 30 firms employing 283 people worked manufacturing beverages. That’s 756 workers in those two categories, up from a few years ago. Instead of widgets and bolts, when you think of local manufacturing maybe you should think of soups and beer, bread and chocolates. Food and beverage making constitute almost a quarter of the total local manufacturing workforce of about 3300. Nationally, also, employment in food manufacturing is growing faster than employment in other kinds of manufacturing.

If what Pika’s Farm Table does is a long way from what you or I cook on the family stove, it’s also a considerable distance from what those folks who make millions and millions of containers of food every day do. The Roelses say they don’t find the temptation of connecting to a “big guy” in order to grow fast very attractive. Instead, “We can afford to grow organically.” That attitude’s true to Pika’s Farm Table’s roots: “We make it the way grandma made it.”

That means cooking a mix of low-volume higher-margin activities and high-volume low-margin activities. It means delivering Pika products to stores in person as well as working with distributors. It means doing farm markets (Troy, Pleasantville, Callicoon and Pakatakan) as well as doing business with markets (Emmanuel’s, My Town Market Place in Rosendale) and large urban food services (FreshDirect, MetLife Stadium, Babeth’s Feast). It means doing co-packing for smaller specialty producers (scones and Irish bread mixes for NellieGavin in Greene County, Italian pasta sauces for Grandpa Pete, brownies for Savvy Girl and key-lime pie for Late Bloomer Farm in Orange County). And it’s likely soon to mean adding a café and tasting place to the hulking brick 7000-square-foot former Boar’s Head manufacturing facility and loading dock on Neighborhood Road.

Roels explains what he’s willing to do and what he’s not in terms of cutting costs. He’s obviously thought about the subject a lot. “What you’re up against is price, price, price,” he laments.

He’s eager to cut costs through adding equipment and doing things more efficiently (a larger oven, a machine that makes portions, larger refrigeration capacity). But he’s not willing to degrade food quality or to cut corners in terms of freshness for the sake of cutting costs. Everything’s always made from scratch. Grandma wouldn’t have it otherwise.

Around 1999, Luc Roels had a job in packaging and Pika Roels worked for a Manhattan art gallery. They decided they “wanted a different life” and moved to Big Indian, where they still reside. They started a family.

Luc had developed a software program for packaging companies and tried to make a business out of that. Pika made quiches for her new neighbors. Around 2003 her friends were urging her to turn her Belgian-style cooking (both Luc and Pika were born in that country) into a business. To do that, you need a kitchen, they said.

They learned food production at the Hudson Valley FoodWorks in Poughkeepsie, where cooking space was available by the hour. “We made 80 quiches in one day, we got better at it,” said Luc. They geared up eventually to a 1500-quiche daily capacity. They learned from some of the other tenants, and taught others.

The Foodworks eventually went belly-up, and the Roelses looked at a variety of locations in 2011 and 2012 before they came across the Boar’s Head place, where they became tenants. By this time their products included quiches, soups, appetizers and waffles. Their customer base, both large and small enterprises, had expanded considerably.

More recently, their landlord wanted to sell the building. The Roelses bought it for $425,000. In September, the Ulster County Revolving Loan Fund agreed to loan Pika’s Farm Table $100,000 for seven years at a four percent interest rate. “The purchase of the building will not result in new jobs,” explain the notes of that meeting, “but builds the foundation for future job creation as the business grows.”

There was good news in December in regard to the expansion project. The annual state regional development grants included $110,000 for the conversion of the building’s storefront into a café and retail location for Pika’s Farm Table and other local food companies. Renovations and upgrades to the production facility “will increase efficiency, production capacity and food-safety efforts.” According to Luc Roels, the Empire State Development award is a four-to-one match, with four dollars of other investment for every dollar of state funding.

It’s been a long road to the different life Pika and Luc Roels sought in moving from the New York City area to Big Indian. Their children are now growing up. Their 18-year-old daughter is a freshman at Cooper Union, their 16-year-old son a student at Onteora High School. Both help out in season at the farm markets in which their parents participate.

Pika’s Farm Table is negotiating the balance between food production on one side and  the retail/hospitality business on the other. Nationally and locally both, employment in food manufacturing is growing faster than employment in other kinds of manufacturing. That trend’s likely to continue, perhaps even to accelerate.

Within food manufacturing, moreover, revenue In the past decade at the top 25 U.S. food manufacturers has grown at 1.8 percent compared with 11 to 15 percent growth for smaller companies. This is a startling contrast. If Pika’s Farm Table can align its business with these changes in consumers’ core values, it is likely to do well.

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