Farmers' markets are in demand--and loyal customers are thrilled that there's a plethora of outdoor venues in this region that sell fresh, organic produce and artisanal foods throughout the spring and summer months.
Unfortunately, though, the markets are open on certain days and only for limited hours. Realizing that local `foodies' need convenience as well as tasty organic foods, a new company called Graze (www.grazedelivered.com) recently started delivering all-natural dairy, meat and chef-prepared meals from 29 Vermont farms and artisanal food producers to homes in Fairfield County.
Co-founder Christy Colasurdo, of Westport, said the company's mission is to support small farms by bringing grocery staples -- fresh milk, cage-free eggs, yogurt, cheese and grass-fed beef and other pasture-raised meats -- to Connecticut families who regularly purchase these products at retail stores or farmers' markets.
"We bring the farmers' market to you," Colasurdo said.
Every Monday morning, two trucks deliver grocery orders and prepared meals placed by the previous Thursday to residences from Fairfield to Greenwich.
Julianna Doherty, Graze's co-founder and owner of Barnum Hill Farm in Bristol, Vt., said Graze provides convenience, flexibility and a high level of customer service by allowing patrons to maintain a standing order for every Monday, change it weekly or suspend the service, if needed.
The focus is on helping people in Fairfield County get easy access to the farm-fresh foods that her family enjoys every day, Doherty said.
In 2006, Doherty and her husband Steve Konczal moved their family to a 60-acre property in Vermont to raise their four children in a bucolic environment. They soon realized that although there were some award-winning artisanal cheese farms in the area, many small farmers were almost bankrupt because the region did not provide a large enough market for them.
"We had the luxury of purchasing our food at all of these wonderful farms that other people don't have access to," she said.
Begun in September with a client base of about 30 families, Graze now delivers to several hundred clients through word of mouth or the company's website in an incredible "grass-roots' story," Colasurdo said.
The partners said they will strive to maintain a high level of personal customer service as the business grows.
"We and our drivers know who are clients are and what they're all about," Doherty said. "We want to keep it this way."
"People who leave us telephone messages are always surprised when they get a return call from one of Graze's founders," she said.
The partners are expanding Graze's facility in a commercial space leased at a mixed-use development in Bristol called BristolWorks!, where workers pack orders. A chef and prep team prepare the meals out of a professional kitchen in Vergennes.
Weston patron Jennifer Roh raved about both Graze's food and service after getting a basket filled with cheese, all-natural crackers and chocolates from the company after giving birth to her second child.
"The Graze staff is like dealing with a family grocery and farm stand," she said.
Roh said the availability of Graze's prepared meals have been a "lifesaver" during these first weeks home with a newborn and a 2-year-old. Her weekly order consists of "family favorites" such as chicken soup, mini-muffins, yogurt streusel coffee cake and the organic fruit pack.
Graze also offers a weekly "Dinner for Mom and Dad" on its website. Recent choices include two-serving entree of Misty Knoll Farm chicken made with Parmesan, lemon and asparagus for $16 and a "Kids Meal" of Asian chicken sesame noodles that serves two for $12. Graze is also able to accommodate special food requirements, such as vegetarian, gluten-free and Paleolithic.
"Our prices are reasonable and the portions are generous," Colasurdo said. "We offer a great value and free delivery. Our signature staples, like our pasture-raised meats and our oversized eggs, are the real draw."
Colasurdo said that Barnum Hill Farm's grass-fed Angus is a top-seller because of "super tender" cuts of meat. The Misty Knoll Farm free-range chicken, raised "out in nature with access to sunshine and fresh air," is also a popular order, she said.
Other items include Misty Knoll bone-in chicken breast for $9.50 a pound, a 40-ounce sirloin steak for $28 and 8 ounces of aged cheddar from Vermont Cheese & Creamery for $8, according to the website.
"It's a fact that Vermont really does have, per capita, some of the best cheeses anywhere," Colasurdo said. "We've cherry-picked some of the premier specialty cheeses made at local farms so customers know their getting the best cheddar, the tastiest bleu."
Graze's selecting the cheeses might be a drawback for the business since many consumers prefer to hand-pick items themsleves at farmers' markets, said Kevin Coupe, editor of Darien-based MorningNewsBeat.com, an online news and information service for retailers.
"If they do a good job of picking out things for their customers, then this will work," he said, adding that escalating gas prices may present another challenge. "The economy seems to be coming back but it could still be difficult for companies selling premier products to get that traction right now."
Nonetheless, Graze, which employs 10 workers, is "a labor of love" said Colasurdo, a professional journalist who has written about the farm-to-table movement for regional magazines since sending her son Charlie, now 11, to farm camps five summers ago.
"I had to find farm camps that he could go to in the summer and we joined Sport Hill Farm's CSA in Easton," she said.
Doherty said she put up the funds to start Graze, although she declined to state what start-up costs were.
"The business is really starting to cook, and we have such growth potential," Colasurdo said. "Our mission is to support the small farmer. The more we grow, the more amazing farms we can bring into the fold."
For information, visit www.grazedelivered.com.