Connecting Farms and City Restaurants, This New Produce Supplier Puts Flavor First

Pink radicchio grown in the Veneto for Natoora’s London clients. Photo credit: Facebook/Natoora.

What if a major food distributor and a boutique farm stand got together and had a love child—one that featured all of the strengths but none of the weaknesses of its two very different parent purveyors?

To the delight of chefs in London, Paris and—as of March—New York, this seemingly fantastical hybrid does in fact exist. Natoora is a produce company that combines the convenience of traditional wholesale delivery with the exceptional quality of smaller, grower-focused operations. Flavor is at the forefront, and so are individual relationships. Farmers receive yearly visits and work directly with Natoora’s produce buyers to plan out the next growing season based on chef demand.

Natoora originated a decade ago in London, where it currently makes around 500 deliveries per day. From the beginning, founder Franco Fubini wished to create an alternative to the wholesale model that most restaurants in London, New York and other large cities are beholden to. Typically, trucks from all over the country meet at a central hub (in New York’s case, Hunts Point in the Bronx) to distribute bundled produce sold under various brand names.

Natoora, however, does things completely differently. The majority of its products never lose their attachment to a specific farm, providing traceability and transparency back to the individual grower. “We can tell you why our carrots taste so good because of the growing practice of the farm they came from,” says Kate Galassi, director of purchasing and farm partnerships at Natoora in New York.

Galassi, who has been a produce buyer for nearly a decade, usually finds new farm partners through word of mouth. “There’s a community of people who will say, ‘Hey, I found this awesome cranberry grower, are you interested?’” she says. “Relationships develop organically.” Before agreeing to go steady with a new grower, Galassi researchers the farm and often undertakes a trial shipment or two to ensure the entire operation is truly “outstanding,” she says, including in terms of flavor, logistics, growing practices and environmental friendliness.

Usually, this level of attention to detail and obsession with excellence comes with a trade-off: most boutique suppliers deliver just two or three times per week. One of Natoora’s strengths, however, is that it also provides the convenience of larger operations. Chefs can place an order at 11:00 p.m. and have their items by 8:00 a.m. the following morning.

Around 70 New York City restaurants currently shop from Natoora’s curated list of 120 items, which includes unusual and heirloom varieties, many of them “center of the plate vegetables,” Galassi says.

While chefs are reassured that they are getting the best of the best, quality does not come without some costs. For starters, products are literally more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts. Natoora is also less flexible than conventional wholesale sellers. In the case that a product runs out, “We do our best to have backups, but oftentimes there aren’t any because what we’re selling is really great,” Galassi says.

Indeed, it’s a testament to the quality of Natoora’s produce that, despite the occasional hiccups, chefs still seem more than happy to remain loyal. Clients currently range from Temple Court and the Breslin in Manhattan to Leuca and the Four Horsemen in Brooklyn.

As for the more than 50 farms and handful of high-end distributors that Natoora sources from, they have plenty of incentive to sign on with the company. Rather than act as a platform that charges a commission on sales, Natoora buys products outright and then resells them, in the same way a grocery store does. “That means we take 100 percent of the risk,” Galassi says. “If we don’t sell something and we have to donate or compost it, we eat that loss—not the farmer.”