This article first appeared in The Alt on June 27, 2017.
Gordon Sacks is a busy man. As the owner of 9 Miles East, he works to provide “local food to busy people.” That’s the motto. CSA, catering, pop-up events, a workplace wellness program, a subscription service, and a fine-tuned home delivery process all serve the overarching goal to “grow very safe, very healthy vegetables and make them available directly to customers through a very short supply chain.” Demand is growing, which keeps him moving.
Sacks and I agree to meet on a Saturday morning at the farm. There’s no signage at the road, but as I drive up the path, between greenhouses and rows of vegetables, I spot the 9 Miles East vans, which I’ve seen around town.
A red farmhouse watches over the 29 acres, but it’s clear when I arrive that all the action is in the gray barn behind the house. A commercial kitchen takes up one side of the barn while storage and industrial coolers take up the other. I peek into the kitchen, where employees are fast at work preparing boxed meals for future delivery. Sacks greets me with a firm handshake.
“Let’s go talk as we water some vegetables,” he says, guiding me back down the drive toward the greenhouses. Like a farm-to-screen version of an Aaron Sorkin scene, we chat as we make our way to the cucumbers. Sacks is open, eager to talk about 9 Miles East’s programs, the land, the business growth since 2004. He’s passionate about making healthy, safe, farm-fresh food accessible to a wider base of customers, particularly those who may be too busy to get to the farmer’s market.
In the first several minutes of conversation, it’s obvious to me that he’s savvy and creative in a way that has served the business well. Off-hand, I mention that an entrepreneurial disposition seems to be a prerequisite these days. “Farmers were the original marketers,” he says, noting that perhaps things haven’t changed that much. “They had to figure out what to grow and where to sell it.”
Sacks takes me through the cucumber house, where rows and rows of yellow flowers are blossoming on the vine. “Cucumber beetles are the biggest threat,” he notes. “They’re attracted to yellow for obvious reasons.” Then he points to a string of bright yellow contact paper, which looks like caution tape. This serves as a beetle catcher. “It’s like Hotel California over there,” he jokes, as he spies a beetle and plucks it from a leaf. We continue talking as we walk between the rows. He picks up a hose and starts watering seedlings in an adjacent greenhouse.
Sacks went to school in the Hudson Valley, spent some time in New York City, and then moved to Saratoga County. As a customer, he enjoyed the restaurant scene, the farmer’s markets, the access to food sourced in Saratoga and surrounding counties. “But not everyone has time to go to the farmer’s market,” he says. “What about those people? What about the people who are too busy?” With that question in mind, 9 Miles East was born.
He breaks down the business model to its most basic point. “It’s Econ 101. I could take garlic to the farmer’s market, but that same farmer’s market will have farms selling garlic. So, it’ll only drive down the price,” he explains. “Instead, I thought about how I could reach more people – the people who were too busy.”
The business started with a CSA model of sorts, but instead of boxes of vegetables, which other farms were already expert at providing, he utilized the commercial kitchen to offer prepared meals (lasagna, soup, salads) with high-quality ingredients sourced from 9 Miles East farm or other local providers.
“Where are the busy people?” he asks. “At work, of course.” So, he began to serve businesses directly, finding his target audience where they spent most of their time. This strategy has worked – 9 Miles East now serves 150 businesses in the Capital Region, as well as more than two dozen in the Boston area. The farm has 32 employees.
In addition to the workplace wellness program, which offers healthy “Go Boxes” and “Go Bags” for year-round delivery to businesses, 9 Miles East offers home meal delivery. Unlike big, national meal kit companies like Blue Apron or Go Fresh, 9 Miles East’s chefs do the cooking with local ingredients, and the meals are delivered in reusable coolers, which cuts down on the waste that you’ll find with companies like Blue Apron.
Sacks is always looking for ways to reach new people. “We’re the top of the funnel,” he notes. The farmer’s market die-hards, the local foodies, those dedicated to the farm-to-table life – they’re already served. “Right or wrong, there’s a perception that locally-sourced food is elitist and expensive.” Sacks seeks to offer new entrance points.
Every Friday and Saturday evening from 5:00 to 8:30, 9 Miles East offers pop-up dinners at Saratoga Apple in Schuylerville. These casual events are designed to serve a broader audience. Without the formality of a restaurant, these pop-ups offer a farm-to-table experience for visitors of Saratoga Apple, families, and curious customers who receive healthy meals with high-quality execution. It doesn’t hurt that the meals are paired with some terrific local beverages from Saratoga Apple.
Pizza is another way in. Sacks, who already had the delivery trucks, started offering a fresh, healthy, and convenient approach to getting your pizza fix. With local flour, yeast, and ingredients, 9 Miles East offer delicious sourdough crust with cheese from Cappiello Dairy (Schenectady) and vegetables from the farm. They also use other ingredients from West Wind Acres Farm (Charlton) and other local producers. In some ways, it’s a way to “sneak in” some healthy ingredients and make the whole movement more accessible, but it’s also just fun. “Show me another place where you can order a pizza and a bag of cucumbers, which were harvested within 24 hours,” he says with a smile. The pizza delivery is increasingly popular. In the summer, he notes, he has customers order pizza for pick up from as far away as Troy. They drive up, grab the order from the farm, and have a picnic or bring it to Saratoga Apple.
The term “farm-to-table” is evolving. In its truest, most literal form, it describes a dinner on a farm, with a table, and food prepared from ingredients right on the spot. For many, it is also a term that describes relationships between restaurants and farms. But, businesses like 9 Miles East have begun to stretch the term and wrap it around the trappings and demands of modern life. The delivery channel is different, yes, but the goal is similar. 9 Miles East brings the farm to you.
The front page of the website reads, “9 Miles East Farm is a diversified farm and food business focused on expanding the market for local food by serving customers whose needs are not met by the current food establishment.” That’s a mouthful, best summed up by the slogan “local food for busy people.” If the success and expansion of 9 Mile East’s current programs and events are any indication, demand is growing. After all, there’s no shortage of busy people who are looking for healthy food options.
Photos by author