Virginia and the “Creative Food Economy”

Evrim Dogu stands in front of his bakery Sub Rosa, which is still under construction.

by James A. Bacon

Evrim Dogu had a simple idea: He wanted to start a bakery that used locally grown and milled grains for his bread. But as he researched his business plan, he discovered that simple didn’t mean easy. The consolidation of grain farming, milling and baking into industrial combines serving national markets has left little local infrastructure to support artisanal bakers.

A century ago, every Virginia county had a mill, says Dogu, a spindle-thin man with heavy stubble and a mop of unruly hair.  Some had 20 or 30. Now there’s only one stone mill in the state that grinds grains in small amounts but it can’t produce enough for the bakery he has in mind. Rebuilding that infrastructure to serve the burgeoning locally owned foods movement won’t be easy. “A miller will laugh at you if you come to him with 5,000 pounds [of grain]. …A lot of knowledge has been lost.”

But Dogu is forging ahead, even if it means milling the grain himself. Thanks to a Supporting East End Entrepreneurship Development (SEED) grant from the Bon Secours Richmond Health System, he’s acquiring a mini-stone mill from Austria that will allow him to grind wheat, rye and corn on the premises of his Church Hill bakery. Meanwhile, he’s been reaching out to Virginia farmers willing to supply grains according to his demanding — some might say fanatical — specifications. When he opens, Richmond foodies will be able to buy bread for which the grain was grown, cleaned, milled and baked locally.

The locally grown food movement is catching on nationally, and the Richmond-Charlottesville region is in the forefront. In a trend that parallels the consumer shift from national beer labels to locally grown breweries (see “Hoist a Mug to Win-Win-Win Economic Development“), an increasing number of Virginians are seeking out locally grown wines, cheeses, meat and produce. It part, the shift reflects a quest for food that is tastier and healthier. In part, it represents a backlash against standardized products produced by distant corporations. Many Richmonders like to know the people who are putting food on their table, and they like supporting local enterprises.

From a regional economic development perspective, the locally grown food movement is a healthy trend. As Urbanist Jane Jacobs argued in “Dark Ages Ahead,” import replacement — the local manufacture of products formerly imported from outside the region — can really boost a metropolitan economy. An additional reason to encourage locally grown foods is that they appeal to members of the so-called “creative class” who propel economic progress in the knowledge economy.

Writes economic geographer Richard Florida: “The demand for higher-quality food – both from individual consumers and from restaurants – is already leading to a tighter, more organic, higher-quality food supply chain. Adding creativity, so to speak, to food production will increase its value; we’ll pay more for it, and that will make this kind of food production economically more viable. Who knows? Perhaps the economics will someday enable the remaking and reuse of declining ex-urbs as centers of more vital, higher-end, creative farming communities.”

Such considerations are probably far from the mind of Evrim Dogu, who is driven by a passion all his own. The son of a successful Northern Virginia restaurateur, Dogu came to Richmond to attend Virginia Commonwealth University. (Dogu, by the way, is a Turkish name and the “g” is silent.) After graduating in 2006, he swore off the restaurant business, where he’d been working since age 14, because he wanted to teach. But the food bug bit him and he started baking artisan bread for Richmond-area subscribers, using his father’s wood-fired ovens in Northern Virginia.

Now he has set the bar higher. It’s not enough just to grow grains locally. He wants to use “heirloom” grains — grains that trace their genetic heritage to Virginia’s pre-industrial era. That means persuading farmers to switch from the super high-productivity seeds distributed by industrial combines to the likes of Turkey Red, brought to the United States by Mennonites from the Ukraine, and Triumph 64, a modern grain whose genetics haven’t been altered in 50 years. “Part of the challenge,” he freely concedes, “is convincing people to grow these things.” But he’ll do what it takes, including spending all day with the farmer cleaning the seed.

It’s a tough business, says Rick Grossberg, managing director of The Farm Table, a 750-member co-op that distributes locally grown produce in the Richmond area. Despite all the work it takes to produce, locally grown bread does not command a large price premium in the market. But, he says of Dogu, “If he’s going to mill his own flour, he’s the only one I know of who’s doing it. That’s very cool.”

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  1. DJRippert Avatar

    “Richmond-Charlottesville region”

    Nice try, Jim. Attempting to have Richmond glom onto a cool city like Charlottesville? I think not!

    The Washington-Paris Region

  2. OK, call it an axis. Call it whatever you want. The locally grown food movement is gaining a lot of momentum in Richmond, just as it is in Charlottesville and the northern piedmont.

    There’s a lot more cool stuff going on in Richmond than outsiders would imagine.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Do you think that bread would taste good with some Mumbo Sauce? I bet it would.

  3. erikahowsare Avatar

    As a former subscriber to Evrim’s bread service, I’m here to testify that it is The Best Bread I’ve Ever Eaten. Fanaticism matters! He and his former partner in the subscription service, Rick Easton, truly are artisans–with no inflation of that trendy term. I wish him much success, for the sake of his customers’ taste buds as well as the local economy and the planet.

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