Meet the MISFITs: Dig Inn / by Ann Yang

Taylor Lanzet and Kristen Barnett are the dynamic duo behind sustainability and supply chain at Dig Inn — everyone's favorite vegetable celebrating restaurant. We talk about Dig Inn's farm, the multiple definitions of sustainability, and their initiatives to reduce food waste.

You can find two MISFIT flavors: Straight Up' OJ and A Better OJ in twelve of their restaurants in NYC.  Read more about our collaboration here.

MISFIT: Friends Hi! Can you both please describe the mission and vision of Dig Inn?

Taylor: Dig Inn’s mission is to serve as many vegetables to as many people as possible. We want to support the community that we are a part of — whether that's the farmers we source from or the teams that serve our food or the backend teams that work to make our restaurants run.

Kristen: The way we envision serving mostly vegetables is multifaceted. 1. We want to serve more vegetables, 2. We want to express what we think the food system should be and 3. Bring those things to life with really amazing recipes that highlight really amazing vegetables and encourage Americans to shift their pallets toward more vegetable forward dietary habits. By making that accessible and delicious, we are also incentivizing the right partners who share that same vision of making vegetables tasty, accessible and of the norm in our eating habits.

 

MISFIT: I love the idea that vegetables are the center of everything that you guys do. Can you guys explain why you think a vegetable forward and plant based diet is meaningful for our food system?

Taylor: It’s meaningful because in many ways it’s radical and not the norm. Specialty foods, which include fruits and vegetables, make up less than 2% of what’s grown in our country — that’s a really small percentage! Most restaurants in our country are not planning their meals around fruits and vegetables, let alone sourcing from local and regional farmers and partners that they know. So, in many ways, it’s radical to center a meal around vegetables because we want that 2% to grow. In our eyes, if that number is growing then more and more people will be buying vegetables and cooking in their homes. Maybe they are eating celeriac for the first time at Dig Inn, and then are comfortable enough to recognize it. For me, that’s a lot of why it’s so meaningful. We want people to be comfortable in our restaurants to try new things. We want people to feel more comfortable walking into a grocery store or farmer’s market, seeing an array of fruits and vegetables, and then filling their carts with a larger proportion of those things.

Kristen: What we focus on is changing daily habits. One way which we bring that to life is how we engage our customers in our rollouts. Our rollouts focus on the new vegetables that we are featuring in the dishes — they are seasonal, local and what is available at the time. We aren’t necessarily unveiling a new protein every roll out. What we are doing is really putting the focus on the vegetables and making those the stars of the meal and hoping that they garner excitement from our guests.

 

MISFIT: I think that the kale, curry delicata squash is universal. I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t like that. So that definitely resonates. Can you two talk about what having your own farm means for Dig Inn pushing this mission forward?

Taylor: Our farm is really the centerpiece of the food future we are building. And it’s funny, because depending on which angle you approach it from, the beginning of buying our own farm was really an effort to become better partners to the farmers we currently support. The challenges our farmers face day to day — we don’t really understand yet — and we wanted to go deeper and really experience what those challenges are from the point of view of being a grower ourselves. That being said, the most important thing for us to articulate throughout this process, is we are in the business of keeping other farmers in business. Gosh, I say that all simply because we do not want to vertically integrate and build our own supply chain. And in no way can our farm support the scale that we want our business to grow to. Simply, our farm, will be our home and our hub, where we grow food to complement our menu. We will start with speciality heirloom varieties, herbs, flowers, and trialing some forgotten vegetables varieties — our forgotten friends. Trialing is really exciting because we can then go to one of our growers and say, “Hey we have been testing out a specialty summer squash that we want to build into our menu. Will you give it a go and grow it for us?” Visioning a farm in this way, is really then about setting up systems to collaborate with other farmers and push the conversation around farm to table, because we do not just want to be one restaurant, we have 14 and are growing. Our farm will also be a training tool for all our team members. As a team member, the experience of growing and harvesting the same sweet potatoes that you’re serving in a restaurant, will make you more knowledge and passionate about the food system. Thus the educational programming of the farm will be centered around Dig Inn team members coming to the farm — because the good food movement is not just about growing food — it’s about growing farmers and training people.

 

 

MISFIT: Farming is obviously a really visceral and physical activity. Can you talk about what it was like to set up the farm? MISFIT is based in DC, and Dig Inn is based in NYC, and something that we often talk about here is the divide between rural agriculture and city life. There is a certain nostalgia attached to nature and farming that is hard to understand fully if you live in a city.

Taylor: You touch on a really good point, which is that farming is romanticized. And there is this idea that goes back to Wendell Berry, it even goes back to Thomas Jefferson, and his vision for an agrarian country. Working with the land is something that people cherish so much, and it’s a knowledge that is often passed down through bloodlines. So the process of looking for land was really interesting because as a student of food systems, the actual knowledge of recognizing what good land means — what’s sloped and needs to be leveled, how to stick your hand in the soil and know it’s black gold, when soil is too rocky — all this knowledge was never passed down to me in the traditional way. So, we had to go to experts — the farmers. I spent so much time learning from others who told me what to look for in land and the types of things that I needed to think about. I probably talked to 50 landowners and visited at least 20 properties. Of course, at first, I was like holy shit I don’t know what I am doing, but this is really fun. But then I started to get the hang of it, and sorta felt like a local real estate expert. I was just assessing land and collecting as many details as possible. It’s a lot like dating. Every piece of land is different. I kept trying to figure out what we absolutely needed in a farm, and then what types of things we could live without. So, similar to dating, right? And then you find land that meets all of your original criteria and it’s happy ever after.

 

MISFIT: So moving to a more personal note. Taylor, Kristen, what is your role and what does your day to day look like and what makes you passionate about your job? What brought you to Dig Inn?

Kristen: Starting about what makes me passionate about Dig Inn and what brought me here. I had a pretty serious health issue a year and a half ago. I had chronic lyme disease. I decided to leave my old job and in my healing process I actually decided to step away from Western medicine and the cocktail of antibiotics I was supposed to take and actually heal myself largely through dietary change and alternative remedies. So basically in three weeks I converted my diet into this crazy raw vegan diet and was drinking all of these insane green juices, wheatgrass, you name it. And in a month I made a 60 percent recovery which is pretty much unheard of related to how sick I was. I basically had this come to Jesus moment where I decided that I wanted to work for a company that shared my values. I made a list of companies that shared my values and Dig Inn was top of the list. I had been eating our food for a few years at that point, and I then found a job at Dig Inn. It has been great in the sense that I do strongly believe that Dig Inn is providing a model and a path forward where you can do vegetables at scale and make healthy eating more palatable than what it currently is or what it is often seen as. That’s what currently motivates my work every day is that I am actually living out a solution to what I see as a really big problem in our country where everyone is basically incentivized to eat crap all day. So that makes me really excited. In terms of my day to day, I am a Supply Chain Manager, so I am basically working with the culinary team as well as our restaurants and our supply center to find supply for all of the food. So that can be anything from calling our growers, making sure they have enough for the next week to send to us, to designing our projections for our menus, doing recipe costing, conducting analysis on recipe performance, doing a lot of supply chain coordination as well, understanding the logistics of our supply chain and understanding how to bring new products in like MISFIT juice, or you know a really cool variety of squash, and seeing how we are able to actually incorporate that into the system we currently have to set up.

Taylor: A huge part of our impact is our purchasing power. For example, if McDonald’s decides to bring on cage-free eggs, all of a sudden, the entire market shifts. I wanted to work with a restaurant that was actively trying to increase their purchasing power in a way that aligned with how I think food should be grown, purchased, and consumed. It’s really encouraging to see how many people are inspired by Dig Inn — and I really hope we are capturing these people who are starting to think about their food in a more thoughtful way. The most important thing we can do is continue to do our work to the best of our ability, so our guests can continue to trust us. I want everyone to be able to walk into Dig Inn and have certainty that the Dig Inn team has figured out how to source the most ethical, tasty, and nutritious food. On the day to day, I wear many hats, but my official title is Sustainability Manager. At a high level, I would say that I am most concerned with how we think about and use the term “community.” Sometimes I feel like I am a community defender; I am actively trying to figure out all the ways our decisions affect our farmers, our team members, and the community nonprofits we work with. Some days I am upstate in the Hudson Valley playing with soil and other days I am sorting through our compost at Dig Inn.

MISFIT: Can you talk more about some of the nonprofits that you guys work with?

Taylor: Waste occurs at every level of the food chain—from farm to retail. We work holistically to redirect mostly vegetables away from landfill and towards people in need. First through purchasing — we buy food that would otherwise go unharvested or uneaten because it is imperfect. At the R&D level, we always look in the pantry before planning recipes —if we can recycle something, we do. For example, we have a side made almost entirely from discarded broccoli leaves. At the operations level, we plan ahead, only cooking and preparing batches of what we need to make it through our lunch and dinner service. The last level, which is specific to a quick-service concept like ours, is very much about the marketline. This is relevant to our operations because if you walk into a Dig Inn at 9:30 PM, you want to see all the options on a full marketline, meaning you don’t want to walk into Dig Inn and only see half of the menu items —especially if you really want that kale and delicata squash! So it’s this constant struggle, to show bounty, because as consumers, and as Americans we love seeing options. In May, we started working with Rescuing Leftover Cuisine. They redirect food from restaurants that would otherwise be thrown out and bring it to organizations, either homeless shelters and/or food pantries directly near by. The majority of food that gets donated to homeless shelters and food pantries is baked goods and pastries. You know, it’s really easy to put baked goods into a plastic bag and send it to a homeless shelter. If you are homeless and/or hungry you still have a right to healthy, delicious and nutritious food. This is why packing up our food and sending it to organizations like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is so important — because the quality of food we are sending is incredible. We are sending wild salmon and antibiotic free meats, local kale salads, roasted sweet potatoes, and even avocados. In the past 6 months we have donated over 25,000 meals. And while that is inspiring in itself, the other half that has been really rewarding is the overwhelming positive response from our team members. I’ve had open and honest conversations with team members — some of who shared that family members have been food insecure, and that a program like this is so important because good food should never go to waste. Right now we are donating end of day food at half our restaurants and our goal for this year is to scale this to every restaurant. Ultimately, it’s the biggest paradox of the food system — hunger and food insecurity is growing, yet so much food is wasted — and we are grateful to the nonprofits that partner with us to help run this program.

MISFIT: Can you talk about any other sustainability initiatives you guys have going on and your vision of sustainability for the future?

Kristen: We have been working really hard on setting forth a value chain strategy. Basically, a value chain is like a supply chain but reoriented in a way in which we can achieve certain sustainability goals. Some value chain initiatives for us are using our purchasing power to purchase more ugly fruits and vegetables and wasted food. We have set forth our menu for 2017 in conjunction with the culinary team to identify key opportunities to intentionally use wasted food.

Another component of that is setting forth a “no-no growers list” — which basically sets a standard for what growers we absolutely will not purchase from based on their labor practices, pesticide usage and other factors. Basically things that go against our core values. We are working on developing that list and giving it to our distributors so we are protected from partners that do not match our value system.

We are also looking at expanding our relationships with diverse farmers in terms of working with more female owned and operated farms and people of color. And help them get access to resources and scale up accordingly.  Resolving to work with more diverse famers is something that we are really excited about for next year.

Taylor: In terms of creating sustainability across the system, our supply chain is definitely a core focus for us. We have also really stretched ourselves to think about all the other ways sustainability touches the business. For Dig Inn sustainability really means — sustainable relationships with our growers, sustainable practices in our supply chain like sourcing wasted food, and sustainability in our people focused restaurant teams. Internally we focus a lot on  building out our restaurant teams so anyone can envision building a career with us. Empowering teams and individuals to think about Dig Inn as a place where they can learn enough to maybe one day, open their own restaurant. This means exposure to labor modeling, how to build a P&L, target food costs, and how to build a value chain. On the operational side, we are really nailing down sustainability initiatives around our packaging, proper waste management systems, and increasing the amount of food we donate.  I believe that if we are doing our jobs right, then sustainability will percolate across the company — so sustainability touches and leads conversations in every department as we grow.

MISFIT: Can you guys talk about the culture of Dig Inn and how you think about scaling that culture?

Taylor: As we’ve grown, we have worked really hard to create a uniform culture, one that is the same if you are a cook in a restaurant or a designer on the support team. Most importantly, we want to build a culture that shows we are all in this together. This is part of why we are the “support” team, not corporate. First, our goal is to support the restaurants. If we are not doing our job in supporting them, then the business is not doing well. We are getting better at this, everyday, and 2017 will mostly be about making that seamless integration of our culture a priority. Our chef driven restaurants will really help us get there — because we want a novice cook to choose Dig Inn over culinary school, because they can get the same culinary training here.  

MISFIT: Who are your heroes?

Taylor: First and foremost, we are obsessed with Misfit! We think you’re the shit. Kristen and I are constantly talking about how impressive your team is and how embedded your mission is in your business model. We are truly inspired by what you guys have done in terms of building out a company that is tackling food waste.

I am really inspired by people working in the wasted food space because there are so many connections between access to nutritious food and wasted food. Big fan of Imperfect Produce and their efforts to help consumers purchase wasted food in a really scalable way. Also in awe of Karen Washington and the work she is doing for racial justice and equity in the food system. On a similar note, People’s Grocery in West Oakland, brings attention to the fact that so food injustices can be traced back to questions of racial equity and access to opportunity. And, on a more personal level, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Hillary Clinton.

Kristen: Taylor and I share a lot of role models because what else do we talk about in that corner of the office. Jordyn Lexton of Drive Change is one of my heros — they are using food as a context for training people and empowering people. She has a really powerful thing that she is doing. She is taking formerly incarcerated youth, signing them on as fellows in their program and setting them up to work in their food truck. It’s one of the top food trucks in New York City. They are using food as vehicle. What really gets me excited is seeing people use a private sector approach, and using a really good business model to impact really large change. I think taking the idea of a food truck, and using it to do something so much more, it’s a really cool project.

Taylor: Yes, I totally ditto that a million. To add on one more point — I am most inspired when people use fixing the food system as way to address other social problems. Be it waste, minimum wage, immigration rights and farmworker advocacy, or our criminal justice system. For me, when you are viewing these issues through the lens of the food system, and/or vice versa, people can understand it in a much more meaningful way, and potentially be more inspired by the intersectionality of it all.