WORDS BY BRIAN KNOWLES / PHOTOGRAPHS BY KATIE NOBLE
How does a small taco joint offer food made with local ingredients at an affordable price? In the case of Comida Mexican Taqueria in downtown Salem it’s all because of a garden, a two-acre garden in New Durham, New Hampshire, to be exact.
Thanks to the hard labor of Comida owner Renny Waldron’s parents, enough produce is grown to cover almost all the restaurant’s needs from late June to early October. Everything at Comida is made from scratch daily. This includes up to six salsas, the marinades and, of course, their mole-poblano sauce.
Renny is the son of a retired New York City chef, so it was no surprise that shortly after graduating college he went to work in a restaurant, as a bartender at Ole Mexican Grill in Cambridge. It was there that he began his love affair with Mexican food, absorbing everything he could from chef Erwin Ramos. Chef Ramos mentored Renny over the years in the importance of using high-quality products and to this day Renny lives by that advice.
Growing up with a backyard vegetable garden, Renny learned how much healthier and tastier something is when picked that day compared to something that is shipped thousands of miles to sit in a warehouse. Two years ago, when Renny knew he would be opening his own Mexican restaurant, he and his parents decided to greatly expand their garden to its current size. Last summer up to 250 tomatoes a week were harvested, enough so that not one tomato needed to be purchased. But the garden grows a lot more than just tomatoes, several varieties of peppers, corn, rhubarb, cucumbers and cilantro.
Renny estimates that over the course of the summer the noncertified organic garden saves him thousands of dollars. Even though his food costs drop 10%–15% in the summer because of the garden, they are still higher than the average restaurant, but their food waste is next to nothing. This savings is what allows him to spend a little more to purchase high-quality local products that he does not have grown for him. He buys what he needs when he needs it, often supplementing with trips to a local farmers market. By purchasing only what he needs for the next few days, Comida throws almost nothing away, which is a huge factor in the bottom line and keeping prices low.
Another way Renny is able to save money is by picking up product himself instead of having it delivered. Shipping charges can add up to a large amount of money over the course of a year. Renny, who lives in Cambridge, stops to pick up the locally made corn tortillas and the fresh-baked bolillo rolls. About the only thing he does get delivered is the grass-fed beef, pork and free-range chicken, which are delivered by the farms that produce them, unless Renny is planning on being near the farm when he will pick it up himself.
As we all know, living in New England offers a challenge to sourcing local produce. Even though Renny works closely with local farms like Green Meadows in Hamilton, even they cannot grow year round. He is looking for a solution to meet his off-season needs. One option he is looking into is hydroponic farming. He has been able to locate a farm in Maine that has the ability to grow some of what he needs year round even in the coldest days of winter. But Renny is not sitting around waiting for others to solve his local produce problem. As we speak he and his father are building a greenhouse that will allow him to start the seedlings earlier in the season and thus start harvesting in April, giving him two more months of free produce and helping him bring his food costs down even more.
So for Renny and Comida, it’s all about balance. Yes, they spend more money on local meat, but he saves money by growing his own produce for half the year. Renny says his customers deserve a high-quality product at a low price even at a taco joint in Salem, and he is only able to do this because of a garden.
Brian Knowles is always in search of the best things to eat in the greater Boston area. Whether he is eating at a family owned restaurant in East Boston, attending a festival in Jamaica Plain or shopping at a farmers market, he will find it and share it. Brian is the editor in chief of www.thegringochapin.com and writes about ethnic eats for Examiner.com. He can be reached on Twitter (@thegringochapin) or at email@example.com.