Get to Know the Panelist: Piper Fernwey of Bon Appetit Management Company

Introduction and questions by Nicole Pierron Rasul

As the Community Programs & Sustainability Support Manager for Bon Appétit Management Company, Piper Fernwey works with institutions across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to get local, sustainable food on the plates of Bon Appétit’s clients. She is based at Denison University, a Bon Appétit client, where she has tackled a number of institutional challenges to succeed at serving record amounts of local food in the Granville, Ohio university’s dining halls.

A pioneer in the food industry for its humane, socially and environmentally responsible sourcing practices, Bon Appétit commits to sourcing at least 20% of its food from local farmers and artisans working within 150 miles of each Bon Appétit dining program.

The company credits its success in navigating the myriad layers of barriers that frequently plague institutional food service programs to chef-driven from-scratch kitchens, adaptable menus based on seasonal availability and one-sided contracts with local producers.

With her innovation, positive energy and commitment to the locavore philosophy, Piper has been a key reason why Bon Appétit’s program at Denison University has succeeded. Piper recently sat down with us for a Q & A on her work at the university and beyond.

To hear more from Piper, register to attend “Our Regional Food System” on October 27th. The event, which is sponsored by Edible Columbus, the Seasoned Farmhouse and Gallerie Bar & Bistro, will feature a panel discussion and lunch that will bring together producers, artisans, chefs, restaurateurs, institutional food system managers, distributors and consumers to continue and deepen the conversation on using food from local producers and artisans on the plates of more central Ohioans.

Tickets, which cost $25, include a three-course locally inspired menu from Chef Bill Glover of Gallerie Bar & Bistro. Learn more and register to attend here.

Why is a commitment to serving local food important to Denison University? 

We believe that we have the potential to make a big impact in the local food marketplace in central Ohio through the 31,000 meals served weekly at Denison University. The University has a goal of eventually sourcing 70% of its food from local and responsible sources. 

Bon Appétit’s local food initiative—Farm to Fork—started in 1999. We pride ourselves on the fact that we have been committed to local, sustainable sourcing since before it was hip.

Our definition of local food is more than just geographic. Vendors must be owner-operated and there is an income cap to participate, which ensures that we are supporting small family businesses that contribute to a just food system.

How has your organization tackled some of the institutional challenges in the current local food marketplace? 

Luckily, by working for Bon Appétit, a leader in this realm, we see challenges in the local food distribution marketplace as an opportunity to inspire change.

Through our Farm to Fork program, Bon Appétit has committed to things like one-sided contracts with our producers. The contracts say that we will buy a certain product, at an agreed upon price, for as long as the producer has that product available. With a concrete financial commitment from the university, the contracts have enabled some producers to grow in scale to meet our client’s needs without taking unnecessary risk.

One of the biggest obstacles we have faced has been getting students to embrace some of the foods we serve in our cafeterias as, due to our sustainability pledge, we have to be innovative in the way we use food in our dining programs.

For example, at Denison University, we have committed to buying whole chickens from local producers, which means that our chefs have to creatively use each part of the chicken. We have found that, in general, students have been trained to ask for only grilled chicken breast, but for every chicken breast there’s a drum, thigh and wing that needs to be consumed as well. It has been a challenge for our chefs to menu the different cuts to get students to change their eating habits and eat other parts of the chicken.

What's a local food success at Denison University that you are proud of? 

We’ve made a lot of headway on the local food front and I have two successes that I am actually very proud of.

The first is our local cereal initiative, which took some time and effort to achieve buy-in on from our student population.

We purchase a really great puffed grain cereal, which is made from local grains and puffed at an Amish mill. Originally, our students weren’t interested in the cereal. Many of them found it foreign compared to the neon, sugary options from their youth.

However, I took a photography class to the mill and, through the photos taken in that class, I was able to give students a clearer picture of how the cereal was being produced, which they found intriguing.

Initially, the cereal was covered in honey, however, we have since partnered with a local farmer to use strawberry syrup and beet powder as the coating agent, which has also been a positive change as the taste and color now align more to what students prefer and expect.

The recent launch of our local soda machine was also a huge win for our dining services. We think it’s the first of its kind in the U.S., as we custom built a soda machine on top of a refrigerator to accommodate soda syrups without preservatives in them.

We offer eight flavors in the machine: four from Simple Products Syrups, based in Millersburg (the syrups are made from ingredients grown on the owner’s farm) and four from Rambling House Soda in Columbus. The sodas are free of corn syrup, preservatives, and any other artificial ingredient.

We debuted the machine at an all-campus picnic last year and at a welcome back picnic this semester and students have been really excited about it!

We didn’t want to compromise the integrity of these great local sodas by asking the providers to put a preservative in, so we found a company who didn’t think we were crazy for wanting them to build a soda machine on a refrigerator. Rather than the bag-in-box soda syrups being meters away from the soda machine in a back room, fed to the machine through a series of tubes, all of the syrups (and even the pumps) are underneath in the refrigerator.  We even had it designed to accommodate reusable plastic jugs, so we didn’t have to waste expensive and disposable bag-in-box materials.

What do you hope is accomplished from the "Our Regional Food System" think tank on October 27th? 

I hope that we’re able to connect some dots for people, including those working in the food system every day.

The panel discussion will feature a number of experts who know the ins and outs of sourcing based on their specific needs or place in the food system. However, a lot of times we don’t see the other side of the issue, for example, as an institutional buyer I may not anticipate some of the barriers or challenges that a producer may face.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to discuss and potentially solve some of the food system challenges in our region just by gathering together in the same room and learning from each other’s perspective and experiences. 

Learn more about Bon Appetit's sustainability initiatives and events at Denison University here. 

Our sincere thanks to Piper for taking part in the event panel and for answering some preliminary questions. Attendees may also submit questions prior to or at the event for our panel.