Pig ear tacos are not the first food one might expect to encounter upon entering the vast warehouse and offices of Limehouse Produce in North Charleston. It's Saturday during the PGA tour's visit to Kiawah Island, however, and chefs across the Lowcountry are scrambling to restock their coolers before the night's rush. Company founder Jack Limehouse responds in turn, picking up a generous supply of lunch provisions from a local Mexican tienda for the several dozen employees scurrying around the complex on Ashley Phosphate Road.
For years, Jack and his wife Andrea operated their business in West Ashley, not far from family land at the foot of what is now the Limehouse Bridge across the Stono River. Limehouse Produce was founded in a Market Street storehouse by Jack's father in 1940 and passed down to him in 1972. Andrea came to work upon their marriage in 1979. In 2007, with their business still steadily growing, they opted to expand into their current digs, just a quick hop up I-526.
Even if you've never personally done business with Limehouse, you've probably seen their trucks making daily deliveries across town. And you've most certainly eaten their produce.
Limehouse Produce, however, isn't necessarily selling the same sort of "local" as a 20-member CSA or a roadside stand on Johns Island. Supplying more than 800 clients across four counties, Limehouse strives to carry every type of produce that a chef might ever ask for. In the case of avocados, that means looking to Mexico. Iceberg lettuce? There's a regular truck leaving from Salinas, Calif., that stops only to change drivers, arriving from the West Coast to the Limehouse loading dock in 48 hours flat.
At the same time, the company commits itself to buying everything that two local farms can produce. Rosebank Farms on Johns Island, owned by Jack's cousin Sidi, can count on Limehouse to buy anything they don't sell at their roadside stand. Wadmalaw's Thackeray Farms is one year into a similar arrangement. Beyond those two, Limehouse regularly purchases bulk quantities from countless other regional farms that make produce available to them.
All in all, Limehouse Produce buyer Weston Fennell estimates that about 15 percent of the produce they sell is grown in South Carolina.
Readers devoted to the buy-local movement may encounter that statistic and think, 'That's not enough!' But consider the competition — in a restaurant world where national conglomerates like U.S. Foods and Sysco control the supply chain, a local company is out-competing them in the Charleston market, even at corporate establishments like P.F. Chang's and Applebee's.
One Big Garden
Fennell came to his job with Limehouse three years ago from FIG, where he worked as a sous chef for Mike Lata. In search of more stable daytime hours within the culinary profession, Fennell took over the daily task of balancing the warehouse's incoming and outgoing stocks, combining a love of numbers with his passion for food. Through FIG, Fennell had cultivated relationships with local farmers that transferred over to his new role at Limehouse.
"Buying produce for a seasonal restaurant is very similar to buying it for a big company, with some distinct differences," he explains. "We kind of have a set menu, so you've got to have the same stuff for most of your customers, year-round. We're merging the idea of local with the country's various food seasons."
Despite the necessity of sourcing food from faraway locales, Fennell sees his job as a constant opportunity to educate customers about where their food comes from. For example, restaurants that hand-cut their french fries always notice when the mid-summer shift from Burbank to Norkotah potatoes occurs, mirroring the harvest season in the Northwest. Although the two potatoes look similar, there are subtle differences in the way they cook. To Fennell, the calls he receives each year when the shift occurs are a chance to emphasize the seasonality of produce.
Whenever a particularly exceptional new crop becomes available, Fennell e-mails his clients, sparking conversations that guide his purchases of everything from Wisconsin red potatoes to New York cabbage. His passion for both quality produce and the people that cook it translates into his purchasing decisions at Limehouse.
"I look at the country as this big garden. I'm trying to close that loop between where it comes from and where it ends up, in a meaningful way," explains Fennell. "Food is not just nuts and bolts. Certain kinds of things really thrive in certain areas. Squash, peppers, cucumbers — those really thrive on the East Coast and can be sourced closer to home."
Fennell's kitchen background guides all of his purchases. Whereas national suppliers have been sourcing Hass avocados from Peru, Limehouse pays the extra $2 per box to buy the Mexican variety. The richer oil content makes a difference, he says, citing the guacamole at Taco Boy as a prime local example. On the other hand, not every item Limehouse carries is "special," and Fennell is equally open about explaining why that is to his customers. It's all about supply and demand, and his knowledge and honesty help to shape that process and alter the "demand" in incremental ways.
"Coming from a restaurant gave me a base level of knowledge that would be the hardest thing to teach or train somebody," says Fennell, who took over his duties from Andrea, who managed the buying for a quarter century. "There's not a week goes by where I'm not passed some jewel of wisdom from her and Jack."
Arriving at Limehouse with the ability to distinguish between romaine and green leaf lettuce, or a Gala and Pink Lady apple, eased the transition for Fennell. From day one, he could walk through the massive 32,000 square feet of cooler and storage space with a familiarity and distinct knowledge of every box of fruit and vegetables.
"It would take a long time — maybe forever — to teach somebody all of that stuff if they didn't truly care about it," says Fennell. "Food is still my root passion for everything I want to do."
Still, the sheer enormity of the Limehouse operation sometimes forces Fennell to think in numbers. The company brings in a dozen trucks per week, each carrying 43,000 pounds of food. That's just over half-a-million pounds of produce passing through their warehouse on a weekly basis.
When considered on that sort of scale, it's fairly amazing that a tiny local operation like Chucktown Chicken eggs is there sharing shelf space with crates of Chiquita bananas, or that a chef can order a small Zip-Loc bag of basil, cilantro, or parsley at midnight and have it in the morning, without having to purchase an entire crate. Even with big orders, Limehouse incorporates a level of personal trust not found in bigger companies.
"You can't call up just anybody and say, 'I want 300 boxes of strawberries,'" Fennell says. "We develop relationships based on respect and an appreciation for our standards and expectations. I feel like I get a lot out of nurturing relationships with vendors so that I can trust them with big numbers. You can't get on the phone each time and ask, "So how sweet are the carrots?" but sometimes you do really have to drill people and have them send you pictures of their produce before you buy it."
Charleston's isolated geography, away from major interstate routes, certainly helps, but personalized service has allowed Limehouse to be competitive with national providers, whose prices Limehouse often beats. And because produce needs replenishing much faster than proteins, the business with the fastest response time often wins.
"Running a restaurant is a tough business. All day long, the food has to end up on the table, and at the end of the day, it comes down to the diner who chooses to go out and pay for a plate of food, and whether they're happy with it or not," says Fennell. "There are a lot of people who are accountable for that down the line, including my decision of when, where, and whom to buy from. That's what I get energy from — that ultimate accountability. I convey that to our customers in a way that they trust me, because they know I've been there. It diffuses some situations that could otherwise be tough."
Each night, dedicated staffers at Limehouse work the graveyard shift logging the voicemails of chefs placing their end-of-the-night orders for the following day's menu. A fleet of 30 Limehouse box trucks makes twice-daily stops at restaurants across the Lowcountry, as well as delivering to the Air Force Base, Naval Weapons Station, and the Marines on Parris Island. Over the summer, Limehouse even began a new initiative providing food to Charleston County Schools' summer program.
During the Lowcountry's growing season, these and other customers like MUSC are serving local produce, perhaps without even realizing it. Although all the press goes to high profile restaurants like FIG and Husk, the actual amount of produce they purchase and serve is fairly inconsequential to the larger market, beyond inspiring others to do the same.
"It's little bites of this and little tastes of that, and a lot of that doesn't amount to a hill of beans," says Fennell. "When you start talking about really utilizing everything that a farm can produce and making their business profitable, you have to think beyond just fine dining restaurants. They might grow 200 boxes of tomatoes or 2,000, and we've got to find a home for all of it. Those are the ideas that are changing the picture for local produce in a market like Charleston."
When it's all added up, the 15 percent of Limehouse Produce's purchases made within South Carolina include two dozen farms and nearly $2 million annually. That's the sort of "big local" that can build something sustainable for our state's farms.