Todd Darling

Todd Darling

28 June, 2012
Clean food guru
Owner of Homegrown Foods and co-owner of Posto Pubblico
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Homegrown Foods, an organic grocery delivery business in Hong Kong, is the brainchild of Todd Darling. Tood is also co-owner of Posto Pubblico, a restaurant in Hong Kong’s Soho area well-known for offering dining experiences with fresh and local ingredients. We spoke with Todd to find out more about this new venture, and his goals to make clean and healthy food mainstream for Hong Kongers.
 
Ecozine: What inspired you to create Homegrown Foods?
 
Todd: I suppose it has been the restaurant journey. I wanted to develop a restaurant process that embodied community and some of the social ideals that we have. The idea was to create a restaurant that is based on local, premium clean produce. Throughout that journey, and in developing relationships, I realized it was difficult to buy clean food in Hong Kong. That was the inspiration behind Homegrown Foods. It was so difficult for me to get produce for my restaurant, so it seemed like a great idea to bring clean food to a more prominent position in the marketplace. I feel like I’ve achieved that goal through this business already.
 
Ecozine: Where do you source produce from?
 
Todd: We have a farm that we lease ourselves, and another that we contract out – which is essentially our farm too, in that we take 80% of the supply. All of the food is grown by local farmers. They love it, and are excited because we are paying them a fairer price than what they were getting before.
 
Ecozine: What’s special about the people who work for Homegrown Foods?
 
Todd: A lot of the farmhands come from China or the New Territories ,with experience in conventional farming, so they are happy to be working in a farm without any hazardous materials and where the quality of the product is more important and pays higher wages. As a farm owner, you have to make sure that you offer incentives about the product, not about who can pick fastest because we don’t want damaged products. Our managers come from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from a conventional farmer who switched to organic 10 years ago to one that was in an entirely different industry before coming to us. We have a Japanese gentleman running the farm in Sheung Shui who has an agricultural sciences degree, and has worked in Kenya where he studied farming in sand substrates, which is pretty practical for Hong Kong.
 
Ecozine: Did you have any farming experience before coming to Hong Kong? What are major challenges that you faced at first?
 
Todd: I’ve got some experience working on a farm in Europe that didn’t produce much, but it was more of a social enterprise. When I came here, I didn’t have the same intentions. As someone who was born in Manhattan and grew up in New Jersey, I found a position working for PURE managing a restaurant and health clubs. Immediately, there were language barriers and cultural differences in how people do business – particularly the way a farmer and a businessman do business. There was a learning curve. Also, people’s perceptions of what is truly “clean” and “healthy” food vary widely. For instance, people shop in the wet market thinking they’re buying fresh food, but it might be food that is not likely clean.
 
Ecozine: Have you seen any changes in consumer demand in recent years?
 
Todd: After the last financial crash, there has definitely been a return to richer values as opposed to richer pockets. People realize that the decisions we make are worth a lot more. For example the decision to buy a t-shirt from a company that employs 6-year-olds in Indonesia and that cleared a forest to build the factory – do we really want to wear that t-shirt? People have really started to question that. We always want people to ask as much as possible, “Where does this food come from?” Many restaurant managers don’t even know that, and it’s scary because food is something that you are ingesting into your body. It’s like asking a doctor, “What’s inside that pill?” and they don’t have the answer! Food is something that people buy a lot more of than clothing, and something that you’re buying three to five times a day, especially if you eat out. Choosing the right food is voting for a better way of life for yourself and your children.
 
Ecozine: How do you plan to change people’s mindsets about clean and healthy food?
 
Todd: It is really about getting people to taste local premium clean products, assuming they can afford them. Food, at the end of the day, is about nourishing our bodies. People who buy junk food are just taking 30 dollars and throwing it out the window, and not even getting a “real” hamburger out of the deal. It’s also about getting people to understand the value of food. The product is inefficient from production to distribution now, but as more people continue to buy, demand will increase, and more production sources will necessarily be created; then prices will come down. There are arguments that clean food can never feed the world, but with 1.5 billion starving, where’s all the food going now? If the energy and subsidies were to go to farmers and not processed junk, this could happen.
 
Ecozine: Have you worked with schools to do education about organic food?
 
Todd: We’ve invited about 150 children recently to the restaurant and the farm, so that they can see how food is grown and cooked and actually taste the food and compare it with junk food which is pretty much empty, hollow matter without nutrition. Getting kids to understand this is very important.
 
Ecozine: What about supermarkets that are expanding their organics sections? How does your business differentiate itself from them, and what are your own plans for expansion?
 
Todd: I think supermarkets are doing great by stocking shelves with organics but I find them impersonal. For me, I like my purchasing decision to be leveraged and give money to people who care. 80% of the things you can get in a grocery store are sold in a can, plastic packaging, or a jar. I applaud the consumers who vote with their dollars, because that’s what changes the market: demand. And the more people who change, the more we can really change the world. China will definitely be important in our expansion strategy. With the demand that China has, it will be a big impact already.
 
For more information on Homegrown Foods, visit http://www.homegrownfoods.com.hk/

By: Ecozine Staff
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