In the Zone: Zone 7 acts as matchmaker to farmers and chefs

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story by Liz PachecoThirty-seven floors above Philadelphia, Zone 7 founder Mikey Azzara is talking local food. He’s at R2L restaurant in Liberty Towers, overseeing the delivery of potatoes, greens and herbs to Chef Daniel Stern. Azzara and Stern spend a few minutes chatting, mostly about the difficulty Stern once had in sourcing locally. Some farms would deliver directly to R2L, but Stern often did pick-ups himself—neither option ideal for the farmer or chef. Thanks to Azzara, this has changed.

“I’ve always just loved that connection between the farm and the chef,” says Azzara, explaining the passion behind his business. Today, Zone 7, his New Jersey-based food distribution company, connects area farmers with restaurants and markets in Philadelphia, New Jersey and, most recently, New York City.

Zone 7 was founded in Spring 2008 after a dinner at the home of Mark and Judy Dornstreich, owners of Branch Creek Farm in Perkasie, Pa. At the time Azzara was outreach coordinator for the New Jersey chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) and a garden teacher in Lawrence Township schools. He had also recently launched the Lawrenceville Farmers Market. At NOFA, Azzara introduced farmers and chefs, but found they had trouble developing successful partnerships. So, the Dornstreichs asked Azzara to personally lead a new venture to strengthen those ties.

With support from the Dornstreichs, Azzara soon had a business plan and even more importantly, a truck. “We started with 10 the first year—the 10 best farmers [in New Jersey] that I knew,” says Azzara. From there the number grew to 20, then 30. This past year they worked with 50 farms—about 15 in Pennsylvania and 35 in New Jersey. “We’re just looking for good growers,” explains Azzara. “A lot of times it’s word of mouth. [If] we need more cauliflower, we’ll ask the growers themselves, ‘Do you know anybody else that has good cauliflower?’"Zone 7 operates year-round and delivers produce, eggs, honey, cheese and other farm products. After his stop at R2L, Azzara helped unload bunches of greens and cases of hydroponic tomatoes at the Reading Terminal Market’s Fair Food Farmstand. Other deliveries that day would go to Nomad Pizza, Triumph Brewery, White Dog Cafe and the Food for All Collective, among others.

“There is great value in the ability to sell the product and [provide] the distribution,” says Azzara. If farmers try to deliver themselves, they need an in-house sales employee, a delivery person and a truck. Zone 7 continues to grow, both because of demand and Azzara’s own passion to create chef/farmer partnerships. “The first day I was farming back in New Jersey, the farmer said, ‘Why are you so into this chef thing?’” recalls Azzara. “[Because] they want it, and we have it.”

For more about Zone 7, visit freshfromzone7.com