Q+A: Lynn Cheney of Lettuce Be Local
Photos by Ken Rivard
Lynn Cheney (aka Lynn Stromberg) has long been in the driver’s seat for Worcester’s burgeoning local food scene. For the past seven years, she and her truck have logged hundreds of miles every week, ferrying produce straight from farms to restaurants, breweries and schools. With her dad as a backup driver Lettuce Be Local, started as a one-woman operation to help small farms in the region sell their produce while building appreciation for locally grown products among Worcester-area consumers.
Starting with 10 farm clients and one restaurant in 2012, Lettuce Be Local now works with 120 farms (there’s a waiting list to join) and about 50 area restaurants, breweries and schools. Last fall they launched a Local Box, which allows individuals to order products online then pick up their orders on Wednesdays or Fridays at one of seven locations throughout the Worcester area. Two part-time employees assist with the online branch of the business.
I met with Lynn recently at Lettuce Be Local headquarters in Sterling to discuss her journey from locavore to entrepreneur.
EDIBLE WORCESTER: How did Lettuce Be Local develop from an idea to a business?
LYNN CHENEY: A lot of things came together at the right time. I was working in the hospitality industry, reading and learning about the importance of eating locally grown food. I was shopping regularly at the Holden Farmers Market and getting to know the farmers who I bought from. They were telling me how hard it was for them to sell to restaurants. At the same time, chefs I knew in the industry were telling me how difficult it was to find reliable sources of local ingredients. Then I was laid off and started thinking, could I bridge the gap and connect restaurants and chefs with farmers? I told a farmer I had this crazy idea; could I buy produce from her and sell it to a restaurant? She immediately handed me a case of tomatoes.
Another aspect of your business is farm-to-farm sales. How did that come about?
I was doing a pickup at a farm that also had a farm stand. I overheard a customer asking for peppers, but the crop at that farm was still a couple weeks away from harvest. I knew that a farm just a few miles away had a bumper crop.
‘Tell your customer to come back in a couple of hours and we’ll have it," I said to the farmer. One more example was a farmer who was growing a cover crop; I knew a farmer who wanted to buy the cover crop and another who could harvest it.
Now, I do quite a lot of farm-to-farm aggregation to aid farmers who have CSAs and/or farm stands. Occasionally, farmers will ask my advice about what to plant. Even though there’s a big demand for kale, for example, not everyone should be growing kale. I’d rather highlight what every farm is really good at. If you love to grow squash, then go for it. I want to help enhance their successes and show customers that there’s such abundance available in Central Massachusetts. The aggregation of farm-to-farm helps keep the money local while appealing to customers who require a one stop shopping for their goods.
In the seven years since you started, what’s been the biggest or most important change in the local food scene in Worcester?
The momentum. I’m excited to see people investing in the city and the significant growth in the number of new restaurants and breweries. People from outside Worcester are now looking at it as a place to live and start a business. That’s huge! There’s a whole slew of young professionals who are in love with Worcester and are supporting its growth. We need more retail businesses in addition to all the new restaurants. People will drive here to eat, but they’ll stay to shop.
As you’ve grown your business you’ve been a facilitator, a connector, an aggregator and a CEO; what role do you like best?
I love the visits to farms, restaurants and breweries. We get down to the nitty-gritty, and I can see the excitement of these makers and learn their stories. These are people who are passionate about what they make. I also get to know who has the best tomatoes, the best berries.
With access to such a variety of local ingredients, how do you use them in cooking?
The majority of the food I eat is raw! I literally do not have time to cook. When I’m picking up at a farm I’ll buy an extra pound of carrots, tomatoes or a couple of quarts of strawberries for myself. I eat them as I’m driving.
You’ve received many awards: the 2015 Women in Action Inc. Award; the Corridor Nine Area Chamber of Commerce 2015 Champion of Education Award and its 2013 President’s Award. In 2015, you were listed in Worcester Business Journal’s 40 Under Forty and last year, you were noted as one of the Business Journal’s 50 Most Powerful People in the Central Massachusetts business community. What has been the most meaningful award you’ve received?
I was dumbfounded to receive the recognition as one of the Power 50, but when I thought about it, I was so gratified that the Business Journal recognized that what I do is valuable to the economy of Central Massachusetts. The editor wrote that I play as important a role as the executives of companies like TJX and Hanover Insurance. I was so humbled; I’m just one person trying to change the world.
What’s a misperception people have about Lettuce Be Local?
People think my business is huge and financially successful. Unlike the conventional food industry, I’m not a middleman who makes money at the expense of people who produce the food. I’ve always been concerned about the struggles farmers have. It took four years for me to make a very small salary and then in the last two years I’ve put it back into the business. Only in the last six months have I added two part-time employees: one to handle online postings and social media; the other to pack boxes for consumer sales.
What changes would you like to see in the Worcester food scene?
I’d love to see more mid-range restaurants take the leap into sourcing ingredients locally. It’s not about being trendy. It’s about quality, integrity and passion. All chefs are makers; whether they’re creating the best dishes or a new, sour beer or introducing better food into a school system. I can promise them if they just give it a try, I can walk them through the process of using local produce. It’s not difficult! We’re online, and mobile friendly. Everyone’s pushing the hot button issues. A chef will request a specific ingredient, and I’ll ask, "How do you want your specific local ingredients, organic or clean grown? [That is, grown with organic methods. Sometimes it’s even better than certified organic, but the farmer doesn't want to or can’t afford the organic certification process.]"
What’s been the biggest surprise along the journey of Lettuce Be Local from concept to successful business?
The community I’ve built. Farmers are the hardest-working people I’ve ever encountered, but they have been so generous with their support. When I went through a difficult time, the support I received from them humbled me.
This story appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Edible Worcester.