The Drop-Off: Z Food Farm & Nomad Pizza On 7th St. In Philadelphia

Brion:How many people do you deliver to?
Dave:There’s two ways to look at it: who orders every week versus who orders every other week. It’s probably like, depending on the week, 8 or 9 restaurants. There’s Sbraga, Fat Ham, Nomad, Fitler Dining Room, A Kitchen, Bardot. The reason we have a connection with Bardot is because one of the chefs from Fat Ham went there. Pumpkin on South St—he’s been shopping since the first year we started doing the market. He would shop and he’s ordered here and there.
Brion:Tell me about your dad’s contribution
It’s awesome. He delivers for me. Let me add the fact that he does that is amazing. He’s basically the best dad ever, so let’s get that on record. His mission in this whole operation is to help which is fucking priceless and I couldn’t possibly be more lucky to have that. A, he’s an amazing father. B, he cares about the farm. C:Delivers shits—yeah, yeah, yeah, he’s great.
Brion:At what point did he get involved?
Dave:From the very beginning, even when I was interning for Matt. There was a brand new market in Lawrenceville, NJ where the farm is, and Matt gave me the responsibility of running it. I was like, I can do this market with my station wagon. So I had to make two or three trips to the farm. The first week it was slamming busy—in the weeds as the restaurant folks call it, even though they stole that saying from farmers. The second week at the market, my parents came to see how things were going and they realized it was a shit show and were like, oh, we can help you. Starting in 2005, both my parents started doing that market with me every Sunday in order to help me out. For the first four years, my mom did every Rittenhouse market until 2014 when I finally started having more people help me out. So both my parents have been very intricately involved in the operation.

Alan & Dave Zaback at The Rittenhouse Farmers Market.

Alan & Dave Zaback at The Rittenhouse Farmers Market. courtesy of ZFF. Pumpkin Reaper by dmote.

Brion:How did you finance the farm?
Dave:The people I pay rent to…it totally goes back to the whole relationship thing. I lease land from the same people that Matt [Conver] at Cherry Grove Organic Farm leases land from. So, I connected with them through interning with Matt. I had subsequently gone on to manage somebody else’s farm. And the land became available and they contacted Matt and he recommended me and we worked out a lease. Basically, they gave me a small business loan to start the farm and my parents gave me a small business loan as well. I have since paid back the business owners, which was contractual and I’m in the process of paying back my parents.
Brion:I’m guessing that your arrangement with the landowners isn’t that common.
Dave:I think that’s very uncommon, which is awesome because they’re so committed to having the land be productive.
Brion:What was your starting acreage and where are you at today? And how has your staff grown?
Dave:Starting acreage was 4 and we’re at 8-9 acres. Started with one employee in addition to myself. 3 full-time employees now. I love them, they’re amazing.

Brion:What has the timeline been for the growth of the farm?
Dan: Every years it’s been gradual. It was four and then it was five acres. Every year, it’s been a little bit. Steady growth from four to nine acres. There wasn’t a leap.
Brion:It seems like you have more options this year from last year.
Dave:I will dispute you on that.
Brion:I guess I’m just coming to the market more often then.
Dave:Yes. What I think you’re noticing is that as the farm has grown and has gotten more efficient and better, we have more of everything at the market. But one of the things we’ve been known for since the first year is….Do you know who Steve Poses is? Frog? Old school Philly restaurant…it doesn’t exist anymore. Point is, old school Philly, now he’s running the catering at the Franklin Institute [through Frog Commissary Catering]. Before that, he was running one of the first really nice restaurants in Philly besides Le Bec.He was the one who encouraged us to start growing shishito peppers. In our first year, we had lemon verbena and shiso and he had never seen anyone else at market that had those things. He realized, hey, these people are into trying new things and he was like would you be interested in trying shishito peppers and I was like fuck yea, I’ll try shishito peppers. So guess what, the next year, I was growing them. Now, it turns out that every farmer is doing it. At the time, it was hard to find a commercial supplier for seed. So, we were one of the first people at market to have shishito peppers.

Everyone has them now. From the very beginning, we’ve always grown new and interesting things. We just happened to have expanded and are able to put on a bigger, more beautiful and elaborate display. While I dispute your statement that we’re just having new things, I will confirm that we’re really coming into our own as far as having an awesome, rocking display. It’s putting everything together at the same time. Instead of just having interesting things here and there during different seasons, we’re really trying to put it altogether. So we can just rock out the market—which is the goal. I’m very visual. Obviously, the quality of the produce is important. The nutrition. The freshness. But it’s also very visual. You want to put out a display that’s beautiful so people are welcome. That’s the whole point. You want to bring people in and get them excited about food. And now that we have so much stuff, we’re able to do that.

Last weekend at the Rittenhouse Square farmers market. courtesy of Z Food Farm.

Last weekend at the Rittenhouse Square farmers market. courtesy of Z Food Farm.

Brion:One of the major reasons that I’ve been going to farmers market at Rittenhouse on Saturday much more in the last two years/two seasons is because I’ve looked forward each week to not only seeing the display you have but also seeing what’s the new thing or things that you have as the farm season progresses.
Dave:Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Basically, one of my core missions coming from the anthropology background and coming from the food politics background—the theoretical shit we talked about—is that food is fundamental to our existence. Yeah, we have to eat. But can it be exciting?! Right, so that’s my goal—to help make it exciting. One of the ways to do that is to grow really good things and to present them in a way that shows that you care. If you just grow food to grow food that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you grow food that’s great and then try to bring it to the people in an exciting way, then maybe people will get really excited about it and they’ll try things that they haven’t tried before. That’s my whole mission.
Brion:That ties nicely back to what you’re doing with these chefs and restaurateurs. They see the quality and the passion that you bring.
Dave:They love it. And I love working with them too. They inspire me to be even better. As much as I push myself to bring it to the market, they inspire me to try to be even better at growing great things. I want everyone to be happy.
Brion:You mentioned the drive you have for growing the best product.
Dave:Every delivery I make to a restaurant, I want them to be happy. Every product that I sell at the farmers market, I want people to be happy. How I motivate myself is through the fear of failure. If I get compliments in the mean time, it’s icing on the cake. I’m always looking for new seed sources, new varieties, new everything. That’s what it comes down to. How do I keep people happy.

Brion:So every year it’s about improving your process and making every season better?
Dave:Correct. And there’s many facets to that. Find new varieties. Talk to chefs. I gave the example of Steve Poses and shishito peppers. In 2011, you couldn’t find them. I get it, they’re everywhere now. It’s constant communication. Every winter I meet with the people at Elements. Mostly, just to recap what happened the previous year. Also, what are we looking for in the next year. But also, you should try growing this new variety of whatever it may be. It might be a pepper, it might be a tomato, it might be some weird Asian green. It’s all about constant communication. What can we possibly do that’s better or different or delicious. Basically, it comes down to delicious. Because I’ve tried interesting things that are different, such as a couple varieties of tomatoes that were really pretty tomatoes. But they didn’t taste that great, so I won’t grow them. I always want people to suggest new things to me. If it works, that’s awesome because everybody gets to enjoy it, not just the person that suggested it.

Brion:How much does that communication with chefs inform what you do?
Dave:To me, in my head, that’s the most inspiring part. I grow 300 varieties of vegetables. The idea of trying a new variety excites me. On the big picture, probably not huge. But it’s more in terms of inspiration/how do I set myself apart from every other farmer. If I grow one thing that nobody else grows, it might not make a ton of money, but I’ll be the one person that grows that so then they’ll come to me and they’ll also buy their kale from me which everyone grows at this point. It keeps me excited about farming and vegetables and it keeps the customers excited. If it keeps them excited then they’ll potentially keep coming to me instead of somebody else.

The owners

Excerpts from my separate phone conversations with Nomad owners Stalin Bedon & Tom Grim. Bedon worked as a manger for Grim at his previous business, Thomas Sweet Ice Cream in Princeton. 

Brion:How did you first get in touch with Dave Zabak?
Stalin:That’s a story all in itself. My wife was an organic farmer. So I was part of the organic farmer community. So they’re organic farmers and they have organic farmer friends and they all know each other. When I first opened the pizza truck, I knew 6 organic farmers who were eager and happy to share their bounty with us.
Brion:How long did you wife work on a farm?
Stalin:She worked many farms. She worked for Spring Hill Farm in Hopewell, NJ for two seasons, I believe. Or maybe it was one season, and she worked at Northstar farm for another season.
Brion:Does she work on farms now?
Stalin:No, she’s a mother, so she’s raising organic kids.

Brion:Can you talk about why it’s important as an owner to work with organic farmers.
Stalin:It’s not only organic farmers. It’s just local farmers in general. I mean, I guess you can just say organic farmers—but it’s just because of the taste. The fact that we can get a better product that is local and helps our local economy. And we know where it comes from. We know the farmers personally. I’ve known David from Z Food probably for ten years. I knew him before he started his farm.

We all benefit from it. We benefit our local community and customers. It’s a win-win. Our local community gets fresh produce where we know where it comes from and we support our local farmers and that supports our community, so the money stays right here.

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