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Wen-Jay spoke with us shortly after opening her first retail store in conjunction with the existing CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) segment of her business that has delivered fresh food online to the New York City area since 2011. The new space located in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn (N.Y.), is replete with an adjacent café that offers a casual dine-in menu from Wen-Jay’s childhood fare. As a second-generation Chinese-American she favors dishes like scallion pancakes and dan dan (meat sauce) filled, Sloppy Joes. The menu at Local Roots Market & Café is Chinese food inspired, utilizing seasonal fresh ingredients made from the same locally sourced produce that fills the company’s CSA boxes. Adding a kitchen to her repertoire allows Wen-Jay to share some of her fusion style home-cooking with the neighborhood.
Before she founded Local Roots NYC, the AmeriCorps VISTA program was Wen-Jay’s first foray into local food production where she built resources for community members to start their own CSA’s. From there, she went on to work as Orchard Liaison at Red Jacket Orchards, creating partnerships with other small businesses and working at their farmers market stands. To make her business part of a regenerative economy, she served as a cohort at Good Work Institute. Long before Wen-Jay’s deep commitment to the food industry, she was part of New York’s DIY music scene, playing in multiple bands, planning shows and tours. Today, Wen-Jay is a rockstar boss and public speaker on food matters, who is quickly becoming a serial entrepreneur. We still see her flair for show business on Local Roots’ Instagram whenever she introduces seasonally harvested produce with her signature humor. A chuckle is reason enough to give the company a follow if you’re not local to NYC!
The Local Roots brand is keen to feed people through its network of community and farmers. Prior to opening the store, Wen-Jay’s sole focus was weekly harvest distributions through the creation of CSA boxes assembled in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Now she diverts some of that attention to her new store. When asked how she chose its location, she told us she has lived in Carroll Gardens for 15 years and was familiar with the neighborhood. However, after learning that foot traffic in Williamsburg, N.Y. far outpaces the neighborhood her store is currently in, Wen-Jay is already entertaining the idea of opening a second store. The vision for her first store is the belief that, “every neighborhood and town needs to have a hub. I want to be the home for creativity and community building, and we’re starting to see that when we have events.” Wen-Jay was excited about, “people’s delight when they see how beautiful the space is — because when you build something, the architecture, the interior design, all of that creates a very special environment — everything we did was intentional and planned.”
What sets Local Roots Café apart is resourcefulness — a willingness to substitute, resulting in innovative interpretations of traditional recipes. Therein lies the paradox: Wen-Jay’s menu is unheard of among naturalized citizens who embody long-standing culinary traditions from their lives prior to arriving in the U.S. She talks about her interaction with family as a case in point: “When my mom cooks Chinese food, she says, ‘Oh, I can’t use your produce because I don’t know how to use kale.’ I’m often told, ‘You can’t do that’ because it’s just ‘not done’. I hate that mentality. So now I tell my mom, ‘You know what? I made fan tuan (sticky rice wrapped around fried cruller, preserved meat and veggies). Instead of using pickled mustard greens, I pickled kale and it tastes just as good.’ This is an example of how everyone needs to start thinking outside the box. It’s the only way you can have a menu that’s 90% sourced from local ingredients. I think restaurants and chefs are trained to do things a certain way that restricts them from being able to source locally.” True to her word, Wen-Jay has no qualms about replacing the famous fried cruller — that normally goes in a fan tuan — with a croissant, at Local Roots.
CSA’s, in part, give more flexibility to local farmers. To help us better understand the value proposition the CSA model offers consumers, Wen-Jay explained the rigor in selecting farms. “We choose farms within five hours of the city. For most of the year, it’s farms that are within two hours of NYC but in the wintertime, we have to go a little further because there’s a scarcity problem with produce in the Northeast that time of year. Locality is the main factor, and from there, we look at the farms’ sustainability practices.” Those practices include criteria that must be met depending on whether a farm produces vegetables, meat, or eggs, since various standards for proper care ensure customers are getting the most nutritious and flavorful foods possible.
She underscores the care suppliers take with their output, “Some farmers will deliver three times a week to make sure everything’s fresh.” Her company then handles the logistics of supplying New Yorkers, “We organize based on how many customers we have per neighborhood and portion out bulk boxes accordingly. For home delivery boxes, we package assorted items to make individual farm boxes.”
With the new retail extension to her business, we asked Wen-Jay about the challenges and rewards of opening a new store in 2021. Her response, “Starting a business seems like the easy part, it’s running the business that’s hard. The most challenging thing for me has been combining the two parts of our business so they both communicate fluidly.” Due to the seasonality of CSA produce, staff must stay abreast of knowledge on new items, all while updating prices in the point-of-sale (POS) system weekly. In terms of completing leasehold improvements in her new retail space, Wen-Jay credited working with a team she trusted. “It’s a very structural process because you can’t change something once the plans are in motion.
I worked with a family friend that I grew up with, and I really trusted his standards. I didn’t always need to be there. If it wasn’t for that, it would have been far more stressful.” She discussed difficulties presented by the permitting process. “There are a million challenges when you open during a pandemic. The Department of Buildings took forever to finalize permits. We got our lease in 2019 and didn’t start until 2020. It took us a year to renovate.”
Wen-Jay cited a slower global supply chain and increasing costs that contributed to pandemic related delays. This was compounded by local compliance measures required on the work site. “Renovating during a pandemic is expensive. You can’t have as many people doing construction because of social distancing, so you have to eliminate crew.” We asked what else was adding to her expenses, Wen-Jay responded, “Within the service industry, there’s a massive shortage of laborers that you’ll see across the board and all these physical spaces are currently having to limit their hours and workdays.” This affects the amount of product that is available for sale, compared with pre-pandemic levels. She’s already seeing the effects. “One of our farmers had to cut a delivery day, because there wasn’t anyone to drive.”
Wen-Jay expressed concern about passing costs on to consumers. “The supply problem is driving up costs, but consumers don’t necessarily understand the inner workings of the price hikes.” A solution that came to mind for Wen-Jay was looking to companies that have begun to replace labor with technology, like self-checkout options. In terms of whether she would adopt this, she said she was thinking about it but, “Our space isn’t that big, but it’s not super tiny. It’s really thinking about the size of the space you have and how small your team is, then trying to find ways to streamline. Customer service is very important to me, which means telling a story about our farms, but maybe having people take their own orders on an iPad will give the staff more opportunities to personally connect with visitors.”
While she doesn’t want to lose the human warmth and connection that’s integral to her original vision, she also understands she must keep in step with real-time demands in the pandemic era that on the one hand creates frustrating bottlenecks, but on the other, light-hearted ingenuity and innovation.
Conversations with Diara Fowler & Jess Lo. Written by Diara Fowler & Jess Lo. Edited by Eugenia Macias.