In today’s episode, we speak with Donna Merten, an award-winning architectural designer, real estate developer, and food systems strategist.
Donna is currently the Chief Forager and co-owner of the FED food truck in Boulder, CO and is passionate about bringing back artisanal culinary practices and reducing food waste. She is also turning restaurant methodology inside out and seeking to create a whole new way of working with local food.
Listen as Donna talks about getting back to old farm practices, building sustainable local food systems, and relearning how we approach food and eating.
Watch the podcast episode:
Get the latest episode of The Ultimate Dish delivered right to your inbox every week.
Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with Chef Donna Merten, an award-winning architectural designer, real estate developer, and food systems strategist. Within the last two decades, Donna has owned and operated a local food hub, catering business, meal plan service, juice bar, and a sustainable design and construction company. She is currently the chief forager and co-owner of the Farm Eats Direct, or FED, food truck right here in Boulder, Colorado.
Join me today as I chat with Donna about her entrepreneurial spirit, and how she builds sustainable food systems that not only produce great, quality meals, but also offer amazing culinary experiences for the boulder community.
And there she is. Good morning, Chef. Can I call you Chef?
Donna Merten: Yes.
Kirk Bachmann: Awesome. I love it. Thanks for being here today.
I’ve got so many questions. First and foremost, though, how’s the summer going?
Donna Merten: Summer has just been an explosion. We have been growing so much this year, and it has been an absolute blast. We’re doing farm dinners. We’re working with farmers. We’re going to music festivals, breweries. It’s really fun when you have a food truck because you can kind of go where you think it’s fun that day. So it’s one big party all summer.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it! And it’s been hot.
Donna Merten: It’s brutal, and we’re literally in a black box in the food truck. We’re almost in our own little oven sometimes. I feel bad sometimes, because the guys behind the grill, they get it hard. What we started doing is wearing Camelbaks in there because we don’t have…
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, that’s brilliant. That is brilliant. Oh my gosh! Why didn’t I think of that?! Chef’s Camelbaks. I absolutely love that.
Donna Merten: You don’t have time for drinks. You have the thing right here. It’s been awesome, because they stay hydrated. I have lots of Gatorade and stuff for them. When you get super-slammed, you just don’t even have time to get a drink of water.
Kirk Bachmann: You’re just pumping. I remember back in the day when I was behind the grill, you’d find the largest bain-marie, whatever, just fill it with ice and just pour it.
It’s been hot in the kitchens, too. You have to balance it. Okay, I get that it’s 80 degrees in the kitchen. We’ve got five ovens on. Hydration is super, super important, fans, and circulation. I can imagine driving around in a black box, like you say. Oh my God.
Can I just say right off the bat how appreciative…people are going to figure out the story here in a minute. I’m so appreciative of the work you do. You know, when you sit back and you think about how serendipitous life is – you meet people sometimes at the most interesting moments. I’m going to take us back a few months. Because of the really tragic Marshall Fires at the end of last year, beginning of this year, I had the chance to meet you. I met Chef Greg Jake Plummer. “Who’s this hippie with the freakish large hands bringing all these mushrooms into FED?” Just amazing. Brandon and others in the circle that you run in, and now we like to think we do.
Also a formal thank you. Just read the really amazing article on you and FED in 5280. Really great local magazine. You mentioned us. The opportunities that you and your team present to our students are so absolutely appreciated, so thank you for that.
You probably knew that there was a school here in Boulder. Being the person you are, very connected to education – which I’ll get to in a minute – that Wow! I need to provide this opportunity to others who are entering our industry. Was that part of the plan a little bit?
Donna Merten: You know, it was because I have been a student all my life in the universities. I’ve got three degrees and a Master’s degree. All kinds of stuff. I’m always going back and teaching and mentoring at the university, at CU right now. I just love working with students in general, and I love teaching. I think it’s an important part for me as part of FED to perpetuate and move this forward.
One of the things I really love about working with students is they’re super open-minded. They’re like sponges. We’re trying to create a whole new way of working with local food. Basically turning the restaurant methodology inside out. It’s really hard sometimes when people have had a lot of training, or they’re set in their ways, it’s really challenging to bring them in and say, “Guess what? There’s no rules. There’s no structure. This is a totally different way of doing things.”
But I want to bring in a new generation of chefs who are learning this through your school and what you’re teaching, too. I think it kind of ties together for me.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s contemporary. It’s relative. It’s real. That’s the vibe I felt when I was with you guys. You know what? It’s about the food. It’s about being kind to each other. “Hey, I’m behind you. I’m next to you. What can I do? What can’t I?’
I couldn’t believe just for the short period of time I was there with you guys how many people just stopped by. Even Jake, arguably one of the most famous people in the state of Colorado. So humble. Didn’t say anything. Everybody’s just about the food. Let’s scramble. Andy from Moxie. Everybody was just into it. Is that sort of the vibe?
I’m going to paint the picture. Boulder is a super cool community. We love it. To the west are the mountains. To the east are beautiful communities and Lafayette and Louisville, Superior, so on and so forth. You go south, you hit Golden, Colorado, which is amazing. You go north you hit North Boulder. You’re kind of in the mountains. That’s sort of where you guys are, since 2020ish. How has the community welcomed you into that area of North Boulder?
Donna Merten: It’s been amazing. I tell my crew all the time. “We’re always making new friends everywhere we go.” Because we’re generally at cool events. The events keep getting bigger and bigger, so I feel like we’re touching more people. I feel like we are so integrated in this community because we are a voice for the farmers. We’re telling people what all the farms are doing. Where the food’s coming from. But we’re also nourishing the community, too, with this super healthy food. I think that we have a community that is so appreciative of that.
I really didn’t even notice how many friends we had, honestly, because we see them so sporadically until the Marshall Fire occurred. We were calling for help. Usually I do a lot of donating events and charity work and nonprofit. I love to give back as much as I’m getting. I feel it’s a really good balance for me. To see everyone come together: the most fascinating part is that a lot of the behind the scenes where we made 1800 meals that week and we got them out. A lot of it was we had over 50 volunteers or more, because they were on the truck too. We had countless farmers coming in. They were coming in through the snowstorm, a foot of snow, all night. That’s probably a part a lot of people didn’t see. Props to them. They would just come in and drop hundreds of pounds of meat off, no questions asked.
Kirk Bachmann: So beautiful. Yeah.
Donna Merten: They are so passionate about what they do. We put a lot of heart and soul into what we do.
Kirk Bachmann: I can remember, too, jumping into Andy’s truck. People are familiar with Moxie. They have their places and their people. Slowly but surely the next day, later that afternoon and then Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, people just start trickling in. Andy was putting some stuff on social.
Donna, can I just tell you, standing there next to his truck, and we had all the lasagnas and salads and stuff. Simple food. Simple, simple, beautiful food. The appreciation was amazing. Absolutely amazing. We did a video. Andy was so kind. We got up into the top floor of Moxie there and reflected a few weeks later. We reflected on that whole experience. It was super heartfelt, getting emotional, thinking about his words. How people like you and Andy and Bobby and others in the community, you always constantly, consistently put others in front of you. That is what Boulder is all about. That’s the theme today, too. Giving back.
I do want to talk about you. I want to talk about education. Big part of who you are. You have a Master’s degree in sustainable food systems. Makes total sense to me, and I wonder if a lot of people are like, “What is that? What does that mean?” So I imagine that you had been thinking about that for a long time. You grew up on a farm, right?
Donna Merten: Yes.
Kirk Bachmann: Many generations of farmers in the Indiana region there. What was that like? It’s a hard life. You probably knew that right off the bat. But it’s a fulfilling life. So walk us through that. You’re a little girl. You’re a farmer. You’re going to be a farmer no matter what. Take us back.
Donna Merten: It was an amazing world to be in because my mom was fourth generation. My grandmother – she’s my hero. I’ll tell you how this all goes full circle. She was actually what they called back then a private cook. She was the private chef for the Kahn’s hot dog family at the time.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh wow!
Donna Merten: She was where I actually learned all my culinary skills from. We’re talking old school classic farm, rustic, French.
Kirk Bachmann: The best. The best.
Donna Merten: Everything. Her having a farm, too, that she ran, with cows and chickens and vegetables and all that. My mom was on the farm. We were visiting all the time. My mom checked out from the farm and went to the city. Then we lived in the suburbs, but we always were back on the farm.
It was hard work. Every time it was a vacation to go, and it was fun, but it was always shucking corn or picking peaches or whatever is in season. I was exposed to all these amazing things, but as a kid, I was like, “Do we really have to butcher chickens today?” My uncles are pulling snapping turtles out and making turtle soup, all these things. At the time, I was thought, “This is kind of cool, but it’s hot. We don’t have air conditioning.”
But one of the main things I really took away from that whole experience was nothing was ever wasted. They didn’t even have trash service. You either burned your trash or the scraps went to the pigs, or you ate them or you canned them. There were all these places that food waste went. Wasting anything was never an option. Even if you burned trash, it ended up being heat for the house. I think that really stuck with me.
I was totally into it. I grew up my entire life eating fresh food off a farm. Even when we moved away and went to the suburbs, my mom would compost in our yard in the suburbs. I was so embarrassed. “Why are you doing all this?”
Kirk Bachmann: Why are there so many cans in their yard?
Donna Merten: We’d have chickens in the backyard and the neighbors would complain because of the chickens. I felt totally out of place a lot of the time because I was in this farm world most of the time. As you get older, you totally rebel.
“I’m so getting out of this.” I traveled around the world. I became an architect. I was a real estate developer for a while. I was so anti-farm. But the whole time I always found myself cooking and going back to my grandma’s recipes. Honestly, even just working in restaurants, because I just love the vibe of restaurants. It’s so much hard work. But the work ethic of a farmer is very similar for chefs, I think.
I ended up going full-circle after 20 years of being a wheeling and dealing real estate developer and doing 200-acre projects. All my projects were sustainable. We did high end, we did straw bale homes and net zero energy. The whole concept of sustainability has always been in my blood.
I think when the housing recession hit was when I pushed the reset button, too. My company crashed because of the recession. I was building houses. At the time, I literally told myself, “If this does not work out, I am going to become a chef. Period. For the rest of my life, and that’s it.” And it happened.
I ended up going back and working on farms and doing farm dinners and kind of testing that whole world again. I was so happy to be outside all the time. At one point, I just realized, “I’ve gone full circle back through my grandma’s entire life.” Her being my hero.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s in your DNA. One thing I have to comment: you just made a very, very important comment. You were talking about being a chef and you were talking about being outside all the time. I think we have to marry the two. Chefs should be outside at the farm, understanding where their food comes from. I absolutely love that. That’s the message.
Donna Merten: I think it’s really critical. I take all my staff out to the farms all the time. I make sure every week I go and keep in touch with the farmers. I think just being on the farm for a few moments is to see how hard they work. To pick up the produce. That was the whole premise of FED. I want to know exactly where everything comes from every day, and not just have it shipped across the US.
That whole pivot point of the change that I went through ended me up at CU to get my master’s in sustainable food systems. For me, it was the next step. When I first went, my goal was to integrate my architecture and real estate development knowledge. How do I start to create future food complexes and grow on buildings and inside buildings? As I was in the program – it’s a phenomenal program. It teaches about global food, local food, food distribution, supply chains. All these integral parts that are so important to a chef to understanding how our food is grown, what’s happening in the future, what are all the technologies and all these things.
But at the end of the day, I found myself studying about global food systems a lot. One of the things that kept coming up to me as we were talking about developing countries and how the farmers work and how they operate. I kept coming back to the concept, “What about in Boulder County?” When you study globally, every local farmer has the same issues. When I brought it back to a local level, I was like, “How can I take all these worlds that I’ve been in and conglomerate them into one? And move this whole mission forward.”
Kirk Bachmann: Just to back up a little bit, I love the connection to architecture. There are so many correlations to being a chef, constructing images. You start with a black canvas. I, too, tried to study architecture in college and even in high school. I could just could not get the drafting thing down. I’d rather do it with food.
To go back a minute to the farm. Obviously, it’s in your blood. You came back to your roots, pun intended. I love that. Are there some specific principles that you either learned or didn’t even realize you learned from your time on the farm – five generation’s worth – that informed and drive your work today? You started to touch on that a little bit.
Donna Merten: There are quite a few things that do. First and foremost, my mindset is Nothing goes in that trash can. It’s a really hard concept to get. That’s the premise. Everything that comes in, we’re going to use. There’s 50 different ways we can use that, because I keep remember how my grandma was. Is it a stock? Does it become a ferment? Do we break it down even further? How do we use the stems? How do we use the leaves? I think there are all these critical foods that are being missed because they are being chopped off and, I feel, almost mindlessly thrown in the trash can.
How do we rethink that the way a farmer would think? This whole plant needs to be used. This whole animal needs to be used. That’s where we come from. The whole premise behind what FED does is I call the farmers and say, “Hey, you bring us what you have. That’s what our menu is that day.” It’s completely reversing the whole concept. I feel like it’s the only way we can really start to work with farms instead of trying to revert the other way.
But going back to your question, I would say I learned old school farm practices on fermentation, canning, how to use meats.
This is a really fun story which you will appreciate. One of the farmers had a ton of these organic laying hens. Everybody was like, “What are we going to do with these? They’re too tough. We can’t cook them. We have no idea how to do this.” I ended up calling my uncle on the farm and asking him. We’re talking five generations of knowledge. “How do we make a tender laying hen?” I remember as a kid eating roosters that would just melt in your mouth.
Most cases, it would just be like, “Let’s just not use these. Let’s pitch them. Let’s boil them down and use the stock.” It was amazing.
He said, “No, you’ve got to get acidity in there. You’ve got to get tomatoes and tomato juice.” We actually end up layering the entire plan of laying hens with Lazy J‘s pig farm had a ton of lard across the top. We braised it for 24 hours. I tell you, we sat there and ate two hens. We would have eaten the bones if we could; they were so good.
I think, for me it’s so critical to bring back some of these artisanal practices. One of the really important ones for me is fermentation. My chefs, they crack me up all the time. They say, “God, you put ferments on everything! Everything is fermented!” One of my chefs, he’s Italian, Chef Greg. He had a heart attack because I put ferments on his pasta. I thought he was going to have a coronary. We’ve moved past that!
To me, really trying to express and figure out creative ways to use things – everything. The other day we had pig heads come in. We’re all boiling pig heads and scraping meat off and using that. It’s so rewarding to me to use every part of everything.
Kirk Bachmann: I love the full circle and the fact that you reached back out to your uncle for practices, fundamental techniques that have been around for a long time. Sometimes we get over our skis and forget how simple [it can be.] “Oh my gosh, it’s tough. Add acid.” Gosh, that makes sense. We’re using long, slow cooking. I absolutely love how you brought that into the conversation.
Speaking of which, Donna, so many students will listen to the show. I think you see the taglines all the time: sustainability. Eat local. Compost your food. Could you walk us through from your perspective? A master’s degree in sustainable food systems. I’d love to get your take on what is an ideal – in Donna Merten’s mind – sustainable food system. It could look a lot of different ways.
Donna Merten: It could, but I think to me, number one is enhancing our local food economy by getting actual money back to farmers. The reason I say that is because a lot of times you hear about farmers giving X, Y, and Z away. They already have so much on their backs. They’re strained in the financial steps, and the land, and they’re fighting nature and all these things. We’ve got to start physically giving them money back for their food so they can grow their food economy.
That’s what we do. A lot of my farmers are on farmers’ subscriptions. Every week, they know they are getting X amount of money from me. They can bring me whatever they want, but they know they have a fixed amount that is coming in every week from me. It enhances what they do.
Right now, about 40 percent of the food produced is left on the field and considered a financial loss because it is seconds, and it’s imperfect. My goal is, “What if we take that 40 percent? What if we can utilize that?” We’re chefs. We’re super creative. We know how to work with food. We know how to process it super fast.
I think we are a very essential link for sustainability in the food economy because we have the tools and the power. How do we start getting them money back? That was my first goal.
Last year we captured over 40,000 pounds from farms. This year it is close to 80,000 because we are just blowing up. We just added a second trailer. We’re doing another really cool project. I’ll talk about that in a second. I’m always on the move!
Kirk Bachmann: Can I tell you, I love the passion. I’m just going to sit back and listen. Unbelievable.
Donna Merten: That’s the first part. We’ve got to start thinking about not just taking food from farmers. Even if it’s seconds, giving them money back. That grows the whole food economy. I’m going to get very geeky on you for a minute. From a Master’s food economy side of things, you start to create community resilience within your community because you’re utilizing all the food. Plus, it’s the most nutritious. It’s coming in fresh every day. It’s organic. They’re working with soil regeneration. They are doing all these things in the background to help the environment already, so I feel like as chefs, if we can help perpetuate that.
One of my biggest things, from studying food systems and being a chef, is that we’ve got to change the way we do menus. We’ve got to change the way we look at things in restaurants, food waste. All these things have got to be turned on their ear.
I’ll tell you, the last two years have been pretty challenging to be like, “Okay, everything you’ve learned as a chef, forget it. It’s not going to work in this kitchen if we want to work 100 percent with local food.” Right now on our truck, 95 percent of what is on our truck is local and within ten miles. If you can imagine trying to figure that out. Industrialized food is very streamlined. It’s very easy to access. But the problem is, I feel in restaurants we establish these menus, and then we have these menu items. Then we prep for those menu items. If they don’t sell, then maybe we have a special. Still, the food doesn’t get utilized properly.
But when you start to be like, “Okay. This is the food I have in my restaurant today. This is how I have to be agile and use what I have.” Then you’ve got to have a really talented chef who knows flavor profiles and can’t just fly on recipes. We’re on the fly all the time.
I remember Greg and I sometimes we would literally load the food truck up with food and we are talking about what the menu is going to be on the way to the event.
Kirk Bachmann: I absolutely love that. I’m just going to interject really quick because it’s such an enlightening conversation. We think about our namesake, Escoffier, if you go back 100 years, there weren’t any printed menus. Maybe the king on occasion had a favorite, but it was what was grown, what was picked, what was brought in. What did we make sure wasn’t poisonous before we served it?
Escoffier years ago, from an academic and accreditation perspective, we sought a patent on the concept of farm to table in the vocational education space. We spend a lot of time trying to really make students understand what farm to table means. I love the conversation of you and Greg driving to an event saying, “Hey, so what should we serve?” Because in a small, small sort of way, we do the same thing here. Students are used to traditional education where the teacher says, “We’re going to have a test tomorrow. Here’s what you should study. Be ready.” In our world, it’s “We’re going to cook tomorrow. We will decide on the ingredients tomorrow.” Maybe we’ll go to the farmers’ market. We want you to put a production sheet together. We want you to critically think at that moment. Not overnight. If you want to braise, that’s great. I just don’t know if I’m going to provide you or find a product that lends itself to braising. Maybe it’s sauteing.
In many ways, Donna, you’re validating what I see in the kitchens here every day, and I absolutely love that.
I want to give a plug to CU a little bit, too. I love that we have a research university of this greatness here in our local community. I’m just super interested. I have some friends who have earned Master’s degrees in food anthropology, for example. They went to the University of Texas. They were really interested in anthropology, but they wanted to tie it to food somehow. So they built their own master’s journey. “I’m going to go to Oaxaca. I’m going to study food. I’m going to learn how to cook.” Yadda, yadda, yadda. Does CU actually have a specific track for someone who is interested in sustainable food systems, or is it part of a larger science degree? Or did you sort of create this? Is this your degree?
Donna Merten: No. I was in one of the first tracks of a Masters of Environment program, which is a brand new program that they started. I think it was back in 2016 was when they started. I came in 2017. I was waiting for them. They had a specific Master’s in sustainable food systems, and all you do is study food, where it comes from, what supply chain distribution, the whole philosophy of food.
Kirk Bachmann: Are you getting chills? I’m getting chills just hearing that. All they do is study food? What?!
Donna Merten: All we do is study food systems, where it’s coming from and how do farm works on a grand scale, globally and locally. Then we get down into philosophies of it. It’s phenomenal. I recommend it to anyone who really wants to. It’s the way of the future. We’ve got to really start focusing on our food and our systems. It’s essential.
To tie that in to all the things I did: most of your life you’re like, “How does my life even make sense right now? I’m an architect and a real estate developer. Now I’m a chef with a food truck. I don’t get it.” Now, it’s starting to all –
Kirk Bachmann: Come together.
Donna Merten: I’ve told everyone there is no way on earth – because I’ve been an entrepreneur for twenty years – that I could do exactly what I’m doing right now without my twenty years of entrepreneurial experience and all the stuff I learned. I feel like I’m pulling from it all the time from different resources.
Kirk Bachmann: It was meant to be, every step of the way. It’s like a book; the chapters make sense as they come together.
I wanted to come back. So many incredibly comments that we’re letting slip by, but I’m writing down because they’re so important. You mentioned the resilience that a community can put together. Brilliant, super important. The importance of nutrition, organic nutrition, the environment.
We took a group of students and some others – we took somebody from the Boulder Chamber of Commerce – this past weekend on Saturday, we took a group of maybe 40 people up to Wellington, Colorado, where one of our chef instructors has an 80-acre farm that he operates with his family. Literally. His wife Amy is a scientist at CSU. They’re just living it. He’s taught for us for over a decade. He’s an amazing human being. But one thing that was really interesting, in pure layman’s terms, as simple as possible, he talked to our students this weekend about how – and it’s almost so simple that I kind of giggle a little bit – about how his unique breeds of cows are wandering around, dropping nutrition everywhere they go. Then these birds come in, following the nutritional track, if you follow my drift. What are they looking for? They’re unknowingly cleansing the nutrition by pulling out larvae and other ickies. Then that nutrition goes back into our soil. Then, over here, by the way, I’ve got several bees that are doing their thing. By the way, I’m trying to grow some cover crop over here. I’m irrigating in this certain way over there. I’ve heard it several times from Chef Steven but it’s just this amazing circle of life. They don’t eat anything that somehow, some way, didn’t come from that farm. My family doesn’t eat any eggs if they don’t come from Chef Steven’s three daughters chickens, who are all named, on the farm.
Excuse the passion. I get wound up. Do we need more literacy around [the importance of] everything you’re talking about? This resilience piece is really resonating with me. How do we better educate our community – let’s just start with Boulder – that this is really important? Do we need to get in front of our congresspeople? Or do I just piggyback on what you’re doing?
Donna Merten: Honestly, I call it luring instead of lecturing. I just have people try our food. Then I explain where it came from. And they’re like, “This is freshest food I’ve ever had in my life.” Then you can start to educate them. Now it’s not just you telling them. You can talk all day if you want about sustainability and local food, blah, blah, blah. But if you hit someone’s palate and it makes a memorable experience? I have people who come back that say, literally, “I am addicted to your food. I think about it all the time. I’ve thought about your salad from last year.”
It’s so funny. This is one of the really interesting things we do. We take the five-star dining experience, and we put it on a compostable plate and offer it right out of a truck.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it.
Donna Merten: It’s the same techniques. It’s the same flavor profiles. But we are so into color and diversity. What I’m trying to do on my place it to teach people about the ecocycle, biodiversity. You’re talking about on the farm. Yeah, you need sprouts and you need your microgreens. I always tell my staff, “Make the plate look like a forest floor. Forget the side salad, just slapping the lettuce on. We have to be as passionate about how we compose this as how passionate the farmers are about growing it.”
I have a funny little clip for you, a story. I go and get a lot of the produce myself because I just want to taste it an understand it. I just laugh, because I’ve never seen so many cool bugs in my car all the time as when I go to an organic farm. Because there is so much biodiversity.
It’s teaching people about the whole food system, too, and the importance of animals on the property. If you go to Golden Hoof Farms. I love going there, too. They’ve got the pigs and the sheep together. Then the chickens come in and eat the poop. All these things. Then you see all these toads, and there’s flowers, and there’s birds you’ve never seen before.
Kirk Bachmann: And they’re all supposed to be there. They’re all supposed to be there, for a reason.
Donna Merten: We need to get back to that. I kind of try to take that experience and put it on a plate. I just feel like it’s the only way. We’ve got so many followers now and we’re growing so much. When I started it, it was really great. One of my business partners was always like, “Donna, it’s just one plate at a time. All you have to do is make every plate exceptional.”
I tell my crew all the time, “Every plate that goes out is our reputation and it’s got to be exceptional because we are representing the farmers.” That is something that is so critical to me, and it’s so important that everything is fresh and amazing. Each plate.
Kirk Bachmann: I just how you just connected that to the farmers as well as your own brand. That’s beautiful. Really quick story of our friend Eric Skokan. He was speaking at graduation a few years ago. We were at CU at Macky. He was a little late. I was a little nervous. “Where’s Erik?”
He comes in late. He’s got mud on his shoes and stuff. He leans over. “Sorry! The pigs got out this morning. I had to go run.” Then he leans over and says, “What should I talk about today? Where do you want me to go?” As Erik would. He didn’t have a written speech.
And I said, “Talk about the pigs, Erik. Talk about the pigs.” And he did! It was absolutely brilliant.
Cant we talk a little bit about FED? You’re a chef. You prioritize sustainability. You’re a real estate developer, designer, architect, entrepreneur. It all comes together now, as we’ve said. I think you had a venture called Farmstand some time ago, brick and mortar operation. You pivot to this mobile experience. Can you connect the dots? How did that come up? Fast forward to FED today. Feel free to be an evangelist this morning about FED, because it’s important.
Donna Merten: The Farmstand was my first iteration of how to start to capture seconds and support local farmers. I was just starting school at the time. I was so passionate about it. I was working with Richard over at Riverside, off of Broadway and Arapaho. We were trying to think of really innovative ways to get seconds to the public.
What I found – it’s kind of a lessons learned on that – I was in a fixed brick and mortar locations trying to sell seconds with Boulder rent. It just didn’t work. The problem was it was just seconds. People didn’t really get it until the next phase. In order for local systems to work effectively, it’s got to be mobile. You’ve got to have access to the farms. You’ve got to be able to connect rural farms to urban food deserts, or whatever it is. So I started to think, “What if everything’s mobile? Maybe I need a mobile commercial kitchen. Then I can start making amazing food. Then I can start teaching people what amazing food tastes like.”
Because a lot of them aren’t even educated on that part. Having these super fresh meals. That was my starting point.
Then at CU, it was kind of interesting, they had a new venture challenge in the business school. I do a lot of work in the business school, too, because of my entrepreneur background. That was a phenomenal experience. We ended up winning. FED ended up winning. That’s where FED was born. It became the whole concept, and it grew out of this business competition. We ended up winning the Presidential Sustainability Award at CU for the project. Then I ended up getting investors.
They were funny, too. My investors were like, “Well, Donna. We could talk about this all day long, but if we don’t get a truck, we don’t have a business.”
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it.
Donna Merten: So that’s where it evolved. “Let’s get a truck. Let’s see what happens.” That’s kind of how it evolved. The thing a lot of people don’t realize is FED is a template for a franchise model that we’re trying to do across the US. The goal is to start one in Boulder. We have a new trailer in Lyons now. Our concept’s growing. Then we put one in Denver.
What we do is we start to create connected food systems around that. All the farms within a ten to 20 mile radius around each node would go to that truck. If you can imagine, it starts to create this entire local food fabric across the US when you start with trucks. That’s the vision. We know we’re totally on point.
I don’t even think I’ve been able to talk to you since our latest thing, which I was talking to you about earlier. We actually moved into the old Hewlett-Packard complex. It’s in Loveland. It’s 400,000 square feed. The kitchen is 2000 square feet, has 10,000 square feet of seating. It used to support 4000 employees, the kitchen did. Five walk-ins, four loading docks. We’re partnering with two other chefs to share the kitchen. We’re going to create a food court there. I’m going to be working on creating a whole new future food complex there. Growing outside. Also, having a centralized distribution processing center, a real one, for all the farmers to come to one spot and dump their seconds. We will process there. We will distribute there. All my trucks will land there. That’s kind of my next big thing that’s going on.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s unbelievable. I know the building you’re talking about. It’s that mycelium network of mushrooms under the surface. You’ve got to be so excited about that.
I’m super curious. I was going to ask about a franchise model. Not to put you on the spot, Boulder’s pretty special. Austin, Texas is pretty special. The Carolinas are pretty special. Do you go to more welcoming communities, or do you identify communities that need you and maybe don’t even know it?
Donna Merten: I think we just start going into every community, honestly. You have to adjust.
Kirk Bachmann: Wake up, America!
Donna Merten: FED’s on it’s way!
Kirk Bachmann: Here we come!
Donna Merten: It’s funny now, because people know what our mission is and what we’re doing. Every community has farmers, and they want to support their local farmers however they can. We’re kind of that connector to get the ball rolling, literally. Bringing in the truck.
At first when we started, everyone talks about local food. “Yeah, is this going to work?” Blah, blah. It kind of sounds like white noise after a while. So many people have tried. “What makes you different?”
I say, “You know what? Just try our food.” That’s all I tell people. “Try one of our burgers. See what you think. It came from your farmer three miles away.”
Kirk Bachmann: Truth be told. I have one more question for you about it. I was reviewing. You did an employer spotlight for us not to long ago where you get online and tell everybody – our students anyway – about FED, which we greatly appreciate. One thing I noticed is that you share your mission, your North Star, your vision all in one. Can we hear the mission for FED?
Donna Merten: Yeah. My mission’s pretty simple, actually. It’s just to support local farmers, mitigate food waste, and be a conduit to connect farms to the community. It’s pretty simple.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. And it’s right to the point. That’s the best mission. Just tell people what you want to do. Absolutely love that.
I’m not going to let you slip away until…The name of the podcast, Donna, is the Ultimate Dish. So in your mind, what is the ultimate dish? Hardest question of all.
Donna Merten: I’ve got to say it’s one I just created for the Five Kingdoms of Nature dinner that we did. I kind of created on the fly because I got a bunch of mushrooms in from Jake Plummer.
Kirk Bachmann: On the way to the event?
Donna Merten: It literally was a couple hours before. I was like, “What mushrooms are you bringing?” And he brought me all these oyster mushrooms. I ended up roasting them and making a cashew cream mushroom roasted tart.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh no! Oh my gosh.
Donna Merten: It was a sprouted coconut crust. I did a roasted mushroom with honey and cinnamon and cashew cream tart. Then I made a red algae vegan caramel for the top. That is like my masterpiece.
Kirk Bachmann: And plant-based to boot.
Donna Merten: All plant-based, all my natural local honey, local mushrooms, local everything besides the algae. Actually, I found someone’s growing algae in Longmont now, spirulina. So cool.
Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable. Speaking of cool. You are. So is FED. I’m going to text Jake when we’re done here. He’ll get such a kick out it. He was on the show a couple of weeks ago. Also just unbelievably humble and surprisingly talkative. I’m not going to lie. He’s got a lot to say.
Donna Merten: You talk to him about mushrooms. I have him in my phone as “Jake the Mushroom Farmer.” He’s so fun to work with.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I’ve got some other ideas, so I’ll reach out. Thank you for everything you do for Escoffier. Thank you for everything you do for our community, on behalf of my family and my friends. And thank you for just being you. Keep it up. Hello to Greg. I will certainly be in touch. Come see us again, okay?
Donna Merten: Okay. Thank you so much.
Kirk Bachmann: Thank you so much. You’re amazing.
Donna Merten: Thanks
Kirk Bachmann: And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.