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March Producer of the Month

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PRODUCER OF THE MONTH: VT Dinners PDF Print E-mail

January 2017
by Sabine Rhyne 

Businesses grow out of conversations all the time. But not all businesses grow out of a deep need to link the bounty from local farmers and producers with the full lives that we all lead today. Speaking with Natalie Pelham, the current owner of VT Dinners, was most symbiotic. Like the Co-op, VT Dinners wants to maximize the use of local foods, make interesting and inspirational taste combinations that can fit into many alternative diets, educate customers about the products made with those foods, including transparent price analysis, and generally offer better alternatives for people with busy lives.

Nathaniel Brooks and his wife Ariel recognized the need for good, healthy, local frozen dinners for those times when there simply wasn’t enough time or energy to cook. With Hans Estrin, who many of us know for his tireless work on behalf of local agriculture and production for years through many organizations, and Jamie Barbeau, owner of Vermont Seasons and director of Food and Nutrition at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, they launched VT Dinners. Some of this alchemy at the beginning also involved an unused kitchen up at the former Austine School, which included a large walk-in freezer. Within nine months, Natalie Pelham joined the team, to take the business from direct-to-consumer to wholesale, enabling stores like the Brattleboro Food Co-op to carry their products. Almost immediately, Nathaniel and his wife moved to the Boston area due to the calling of a job opportunity, and Natalie stepped in as the sole partner running the business. This happened at a critical time: they were just deciding how big to grow, and in what directions, so Natalie jumped in feet first, with lots of experience behind her as a small business consultant. “We were just on the edge of making this leap, and I saw so much potential,” she said. ”I wanted to follow it through!”

So, follow she did, with a strong marketing sense, a graphic design talent, and a love of cooking. Natalie grew up in New Hampshire, spent her college years at Bennington, then moved to Brooklyn for a few years, but moved back to southern Vermont, in part to attend Marlboro College Grad School’s program in Managing for Sustainability. She works with Steven Donovan, a kitchen professional with nearly 30 years’ experience, to make the dinners.

Natalie did a lot of market research at the Farmers’ Market, with lots of conversations with potential customers. “It’s astounding how many people need different options, like gluten-free, dairy-free, no grain, lots of different requests!” So, her creativity tickled, she began to experiment with recipes to make some of their dinner options attractive to alternative diets. Things like the Luscious Lasagne, which is made without wheat, but with sweet potato, zucchini, and squash, cheeses, and homemade tomato sauce. It is now one of their best sellers. Some of their choices, like the Mac n’ Cheese (paired with garlicky kale), will always be available, having received great feedback since the beginning. Others are experiments, which are somewhat dependent on demand, like most products, but also on the availability of local produce. This, as we all know, means that lots and lots of meals might get made in a three or four-month period, but not in the dead of winter. Recently, she developed a pad thai with spaghetti squash, of which High Meadows Farm had a large supply, which allowed for a fun way to present a traditional noodle dish. She will occasionally try “limited editions”, like the roasted ratatouille with quinoa, limited by product and space.

As a retail outlet, the Brattleboro Food Co-op requests steady supply of local products, so as to not disappoint customers seeking the product on any given day. But in a local business that specifically relies on the supply of local produce, or some other local product that is equally seasonal, this is sometimes a challenge. We will be trying a seasonal variety slot in our freezer section for VT Dinners, for the customers who might want to experience a limited edition that changes over time.

The work of a small business such as this one is complicated indeed. First, there are the parameters of the local product, which they source from a 100-mile radius. Then, there is the challenge of production, sometimes quite lot of it over a short time period. This also includes the challenge of figuring out proper yield, price, ingredients that make sense for cost and availability, but are creative. There is the freezer capacity, a walk-in large enough to store a season’s worth of Enchilada Pie, for instance (made with Vermont Bean Crafters’ black beans, Mi Tierra tortillas, etc.). And finally, there is the juggling of the products that are steadily available versus those that are more limited. And how to grow such a business?

Natalie is considering expanding the offering to include a soup line. She is also weighing the distribution plan. Could they replicate their production in other areas or states, using the same regional sourcing parameters around a new hub? “We need to grow slowly, to continue to grow our root system, before we branch out.” And by the way, that formerly unused kitchen is now humming quite well, partly growing into a small commercial kitchen for others who are making items that require freezer capacity, and Natalie manages that kitchen too, now called the Winston Prouty Kitchen, since her business is the founding anchor tenant of the space.

Natalie’s creativity will continue to shape VT Dinners, along with the help of a supportive and well-placed advisory board, which includes Hans Estrin, Jamie Barbeau, Richard Berkfield, and Deb Bailey. “I love to cook!” she said, “and I find it very fun to substitute interesting things, to explore options. Flavor palates, you know, like to talk to each other, so sometimes you find really delicious combinations that are completely unexpected. It’s so exciting!”

Come and meet Natalie at the Brattleboro Food Co-op and sample some of the VT Dinners that are waiting for a spot in your freezer on January 14th from 11am-1pm and January 16th from 4-6pm.