Flavors: A Fresh Take on Local Bounty from the Produce Depot
Casey Anderson of the Produce Depot is bringing a fresh new take on local. In the old downtown Billings Alliance space across the street from the Babcock Theater, Anderson set up a small retail outlet in November of 2019. This expanded his solely wholesale business to restaurants. Here in this space, customers came in and bought fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs on Wednesdays and Saturdays beginning at noon. At first, Anderson charged fixed prices for different sized bags, later charging customers by the pound. Eager clients lined up outside before he opened, swarming in and quickly buying up his products.
The COVID Pandemic altered his business. After gaining momentum in his wholesale business and popularity in his retail offerings, everything shut down. Customers could not come into his retail space and restaurants went into a very uncertain period.
Anderson acquired the business five years ago. “I purchased this business in Whitefish. This gentleman had created this really cool concept for providing fresh food and produce for the local community,” Anderson shared. “I liked what he was doing including supporting local agriculture as well as trying to help the local businesses and community have access to fresh food.” Encouraged by his success in Whitefish, Anderson started up branches in Big Sky and Bozeman before coming to Billings.
His business was “predicated on having a centralized location where I could provide access to our entire inventory to chefs on a 24/7 basis.” In the rear a small warehouse space is a large cooler filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. Those items that do not need refrigeration remain stacked in boxes at room temperature. Anderson attempts to sell produce at its best, ripening items such as avocados and kiwis so they can be used soon after purchase.
He provides a key code for access into the building. On the honor system, the chefs write down what they take and are later invoiced. Anderson believes the advantage of this system is, “It allows the chefs to order on the light side, and have good control of their inventory because they know if they run out or if they get in a pinch, they know we are just right here.”
Hiland’s Golf Club Executive Chef Dirk Frickel saves time purchasing from the Produce Depot. Frickel said, “I am used to leaving my home Laurel in the morning and stopping by Swanky Roots to grab my greens and microgreens, but with Casey carrying all of those things and distributing them, it has made my life easier by not having to take twenty, thirty minutes out of my way to stop at Swanky Roots.
“Casey is definitely capable of getting things you cannot find in grocery stores or items that take two weeks to get from bigger vendors,” Frickel added.
Executive Chef Nick Steen of Walkers Grill said, “Casey has been game changing for us. The struggle for Montana is the access. We have not had access to the different produce, ever.” Steen, two-time semi-finalist Best Chef of the Northwest and Best Chef Mountain for the James Beard Foundation continued, “He sources from different places that get products here more efficiently. It just gives us so much more flexibility.”
During the COVID Pandemic shutdown, Anderson’s retail business changed. Instead of allowing shoppers to come in and select their own produce on Wednesdays and Saturdays, he started a CSA option where he would fill bags with 50% fruits and 50% vegetables. Though customers could order online and receive a one-time bag full of produce, savings came with subscribing for a weekly pickup.
Jake Hammerle who came in to pick up a one-time bag shared that he and his wife have been getting produce ever since the Produce Depot opened. “We have used new recipes from the internet. We get some surprises in our bag that I have to Google and learn how to make them.”
For Julie Alexander, who came in with her daughter Makayla to pick up their weekly bag learned about Romanesco Cauliflower, cooking it with pasta.
Nancy Rahm, who is the sole volunteer at the Produce Depot, offered her services when Anderson was dropping off her order just south of Roundup. Rahm comes in weekly to fill and distribute bags. She said, “Bok choy was new to me. I found a recipe for stir-fried bok choy and mushrooms, which I expanded to include onions and bell peppers.”
Currently, Anderson is planning on expanding his business and moving it to the corner of 2nd Avenue N and N 29th Street, where he is establishing a cooperative where a variety of vendors can sell their wares under one roof. Customers can sit down for a cup of coffee, enjoy a pastry and purchase produce, seafood and meats. Anderson said, “This will be a centralized location for consumers.”
With people eager to get out and chefs ready to cook for hungry customers, the Produce Depot will bring new fresh items to our tables.