by Gail March Yerke
When renowned Chicago chef Gray McNally found it difficult to source his preferred vegetable and herb varieties for his restaurants, he found a unique solution: he started his own farm and grew them himself. It was 2015 when he and his wife Jodi founded Vintage Prairie Farm in Burlington, WI, about 80 miles northwest of Chicago. When asked how his wife reacted when he wanted to buy a farm, McNally replied, “That was actually the second surprise. Before that, I decided to go to culinary school and become a chef. She was already used to big shocks when we decided we were going to buy a farm.”
While McNally was always interested in culinary arts, it wasn’t his first career path in life. His formal education began at St. Andrews University in Scotland where he graduated with honors and a master’s degree in economics and international relations. Upon returning home to Chicago after graduation, he decided to attend Le Cordon Bleu’s famous culinary arts program. He then continued on to gain experience at some of Chicago’s nationally recognized, award-winning restaurants including Spiaggia, BOKA, one sixtyblue and Ria at the former Elysian Hotel. What started out as a need to source vegetables for his own restaurants evolved into a business model that today serves 18 restaurants in the Windy City. In addition to his agribusiness, he is partner in two other Chicago restaurants.
Early Days at the Farm
McNally reminisced about his grandfather’s home and large vegetable garden in Upstate New York. “We would spend a lot of the summers with him and I would help in the garden there,” he recalled. That, it seems, was the extent of his horticulture experience when they began Vintage Prairie Farm. “I didn’t know anything about farming when we started this, so everything was a learning experience.”
One of the biggest challenges was the weather they experienced during their first years of farming. “In the beginning we had major flooding because of the Midwest’s 100-year rain events,” he said. “We then did everything we could to protect us against major weather events, whether it was too much or not enough rain. We learned how to build hoop houses and set up irrigation. Now we’re set up with our infrastructure and irrigation system so that we can handle Mother Nature a lot better.”
Deciding what to grow and how to grow it was the next hurdle. “It was just a lot of research both online, getting publications, seed catalogs and talking to local farmers that had good seed saving programs.” With the help of his farm team, McNally grows a chef-preferred assortment of vegetable and herb varieties for their customers. They grow their crops using the principles of natural pest control, biodiversity and sustainability.
He said his busiest time of year is springtime, when greenhouse space has been maxed out along with the barn’s indoor growing room. “It’s still pretty cold outside in the beginning of May in Wisconsin and we’re just getting to the point of last frost. We’re getting ready to put everything out into the fields,” he explained. “Somewhere around the second week of May you have full greenhouses with plants that need to be put outside into the fields and that just takes a lot of labor. It’s a big crunch.” He continued, “Once you get over that transplanting crunch and you take a breather, it’s more maintenance and plant care until harvest time. It’s then busy again through the end of October.”
Family always helps out during the busy season, but McNally depends on the help of his two full-time farm managers throughout the year. He quickly found that living 80 miles away from your farm can be a challenge. He now often combines workdays and stays overnight at the farm to save commute time.
At Vintage Prairie Farm, each manager oversees specific areas of farm production. “Our head operations guy, Robert, does everything top to bottom, from seed planning and planting to managing labor and organizing deliveries to restaurants,” he said. “Dre is in charge of the whole farm market side of things.” Dre (Andrea) coordinates the product harvest, loading trucks and sells at the weekend markets throughout the summer. Besides the two managers, the farm brings on three to five additional staff throughout the growing season.
At their Sunday market in Greenfield, WI, this past autumn, Dre Groh explained how they promote the markets through social media and their website, featuring what’s new from the field each week. “Some of the more popular items here are our mix of red and green lettuce, heirloom tomatoes and peppers,” she said. Their Carnival squash and Pinnacle spaghetti squash are also in demand. “Some of my personal favorites are the mini squash varieties. They’re very flavorful and good for single servings,” she added. Vintage Prairie Farm participates in two southeastern Wisconsin markets every weekend.
Groh said it’s early February when she helps begin their seed starting under grow lights in the barn. During the summer months she enlists help washing and boxing the produce destined for the farm markets. Vintage Prairie Farm has seven acres of production including four greenhouses. Some crops are grown under cover to facilitate early and late season availability.
She said that as product is sold out and fields cleaned up, their work load slows down about late November. The staff takes off time for the holidays and returns in January to tackle winter projects. Besides working at the farm, Groh also attends horticulture classes at nearby Gateway Technical College.
Serving the Windy City Restaurant Trade
Like many other hospitality industries, restaurants have been impacted by COVID. “We were shut down for a long time in Chicago in the beginning and we are now back up to 100% capacity indoors for our restaurants,” McNally said. “Staffing has been a big issue these days. Cost of goods is going way up as well.” He added that it’s been difficult in the restaurant industry trying to keep the staff safe and the customers safe too.
In season, the farm provides weekly produce deliveries to 18 restaurants in the Chicago area. Committed to growing heirloom varieties, some of McNally’s personal favorites include the Hungarian Heart tomato and Lemon Spice Jalapeno pepper. “Herbs are supplementary, with about 90% vegetables for our product mix,” he said. Tarragon, chives and thyme are frequent additions to their restaurant orders.
Their business model caters to the busy weekend restaurant trade. McNally sees that a product availability list is put together on Tuesdays, sending an email blast to all of their Chicago chefs. Orders are then returned by Wednesday evening. Thursdays are big harvest and packing days at Vintage Prairie Farm and the restaurant deliveries are sent out on Friday mornings. Weekends find them at farm markets and Monday is farm project day.
They’ve come a long way since their first delivery. “The first restaurant we supplied was GT Fish and Oyster. I remember making that delivery with coolers on the back of a pickup truck,” McNally said. “It’s hard to bring consistent product and volume doing it that way.” Today, orders are shipped at peak freshness using their own vans, harvested less than 24 hours before a restaurant receives it. With his partnership in several restaurants, farm management, weekend markets and restaurant deliveries, McNally said that he is “no longer in the kitchen.”
Tips From a Chef
Asked what he would tell growers interested in selling to their local restaurants, McNally’s advice was simple. “Reach out to the local chefs you think might be interested in supporting a farm like yours. See what their enthusiasm level is and gauge the market,” he suggested. “If the chefs are excited, bring them some samples. Read their menus.”
He said he always looks at their accounts’ menus. “If they are only buying lettuce and peppers, for example, and I see eggplant on the menu? I’ll say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to try our eggplant.’ Do your homework about what product people are using and get yours in front of them. Restaurants are looking for consistency. They want to be able to know that you can deliver a good salad mix every week, for example, so we strive to do just that.”
McNally is not your ordinary entrepreneur. From his education abroad in economics to culinary school and becoming a respected chef to starting his own farm, it will be interesting to see what he does next.