Good Food is Good Business: An Interview with Karen Karp

From foodtank.com, by Marisa Tsai
Good Food is Good Business: An Interview with Karen Karp

Karen Karp is the Founder and President of Karen Karp & Partners, a national food and agriculture consulting firm that inspires, provokes, and generates food systems innovation. Since its founding in 1990, the New York-based consultancy has excelled in developing cross-sector collaborations between corporations, government agencies, small businesses, nonprofits, educational organizations, and philanthropic partners. Karen Karp & Partners has worked with a diverse clientele including Slow Food USA, American Dairy Association, the Sustainable Food Lab, Sysco, the James Beard Foundation, and Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. Karen sits on the board of Food Alliance, is a member of Vistage, and hosts a monthly podcast series, How Great Cities are Fed.

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Karen about her work and how she connects the dots between diverse actors to develop sustainable, innovative solutions to food system challenges.

Food Tank (FT): Can you talk about how you first became interested in food and agriculture and what inspired you to make your transition from art to food?

Karen Karp (KK): My earliest memories of food include warm summer months, growing up on Long Island, and my father returning from his day on the farms with large brown shopping bags in each arm filled to the brim with sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

My father was not a farmer, but he worked with farmers, and I think he considered himself one in some ways, though we didn’t grow food at home. When he was 16, he began working in his grandfather and father’s fertilizer, feed, and seed company, Morris Karp & Sons. He was a partner when they sold the company in the 1960s and then went on to become a real estate broker focusing exclusively on agricultural and industrial sales on the east end of Long Island. The corn, etc., was delicious but the powerful experience to me was realizing, "This is what farms smell and taste like."

But there was plenty I didn’t like about my father’s work life: cold, dark visits to farms in the winter, making deals, leaving his young daughter to wander around barns or sit at a kitchen table with the farmers’ wives. I wanted to get the hell out of Long Island, as I had sights set on college and art.

Throughout college, I worked in restaurants as every art student does, and I enjoyed the socialness of it. Waiting on tables or managing restaurants created a comfortable platform for me to talk with strangers, something that I had never really been comfortable with.

When I graduated from Parsons School of Design I was training to be a master printer—lithography. I had an opportunity to work in a 400-year old lithography studio and needed to learn Italian and earn money, which I did by continuing to work in restaurants and becoming a manager of a hot place in Soho that served the likes of Madonna, Jim Jarmusch, Isabelle Rossellini, and Bob Dylan. The club scene in what would become Tribeca was just beginning, and we were two blocks away.

Sadly, the owner of the Florence lithography studio passed away, and with him went my opportunity there. I was getting pretty good in Italian so I continued working in the restaurant, made prints and sculptures at home, and for six years regularly traveled alone to Italy to learn about food and speak Italian.

I got hooked on food, cuisine, and understanding culture through this lens. Traveling in Italy in those years enabled me to also think about the political impact of things like food and art. I had been asked to describe my drawings in a political context when interviewing at an East Village art gallery in 1982, and I wasn’t prepared. Italy helped me pull those elements together—art, cuisine, culture, and politics.

At the end of the day, the social and energetic world of restaurants won over trying to be a master in art. I gave myself fully to this SoHo restaurant and helped the owner open six more restaurants in about as many years. By 28, I was the general manager of this group of restaurants, and I saw some writing on the wall that told me it was time to devote my work time to (food) things of more value—society, politics, and the art of food.

I had two paths to choose from: go to work for Danny Meyer, as a manager at his then-only restaurant, Union Square Café, or go to work for a consultant because they work on new things all the time. I didn’t know at the time that Danny would go on to work on so many new things, but he did give me sage advice as he was offering me the management job and simultaneously telling me I shouldn’t take it—he told me, "You are an entrepreneur. I don’t know and you probably don’t know what you want to do as an entrepreneur, but I don’t think you’ll be happy doing anything else, and I don’t think it will take you long to discover it."

So I worked for the restaurant consultant for about 18 months, learning who I wanted to be in those kinds of relationships (with clients, to the industry, etc.) And then—in 1990—I hung out a shingle (as they used to say) and went into business.

My first clients were other consultants who sub-contracted parts of their projects they didn’t know how to do or didn’t like to do (business plans, staff plans and operational manuals, technical and legal and construction-oriented precision). Within 18 months I was exploring the nonprofit sector (specifically anti-hunger groups, which was a longstanding interest of mine) and soon realized I had skills to offer this sector.

Thus, the foundation of cross-sector, sustainability, triple bottom line focused work upon which our company has been built was formed.

FT: Your consulting firm, Karen Karp & Partners, hosted a webinar titled "Future of Food Philanthropy," which was the second part of a series of topic-focused events: "Salons, Webinars, and a Publication." Food Philanthropy was the first topic of these future-oriented food conversations. Can you tell us a bit about how philanthropy is driving change in our food system?

KK: Mission driven funders are working in the areas of health, sustainable agriculture, economic development, food security, and education. These areas not only intersect with our food system, they are the cornerstones of it.

As there has been a growing awareness of the pervasiveness of, let’s say, opportunities that the agriculture, food, and health sectors have to shift the dynamics of the environmental, social and financial health of society, philanthropy has had a very important role to play.

There are so many tools or products that philanthropists and, increasingly, impact investors can use to leverage the great work of activists, advocates, non-profit service organizations, advances in sustainable agriculture techniques, and at the intersection of food and health (planetary, animal, and human health). It’s a very ripe time to capture this energy and these intersecting interests, to address and advance the pressing issues of our time.

Yet my experience is that, as with any sector, the philanthropic sector—and I mean this broadly, as above—hasn’t found its feet, hasn’t established the alignment I see as possible and I believe it wants in order to leverage the political, social and economic momentum around food. My hypothesis is that progress can be made toward that by starting at the human, personal level with people who have a vision and sincere intent but who may have hit obstacles—bringing them together to be exploratory, to inquire about their day-to-day.

I am beginning to understand the power I have to curate a group of individuals, connecting the dots between what I have heard and seen them doing, to design and facilitate a certain type of conversation that is, according to some who have participated, now a necessity (we can’t see anymore see it as a luxury).

I have always been clear that multi-sector collaborations between government, philanthropy, and the private sector provide resources and opportunities that would not be possible without each other--this is a critical role for philanthropic contribution.

FT:  Could you share some of the other topics of upcoming Future of Food webinars? What do you hope to achieve through these conversations?

KK: Upcoming topics we are considering (with late September being a target for the next series) include:

  • The Future of Food & Health
  • The Future of Food Education
  • The Future of Big Food

I am also in the process of planning two additional salon events for clients: the first will investigate the way that nutritional profiles of some of the big food brands’ products are shifting, and the significance and credibility of those shifts; and a second will be something along the lines of exploring the newly bubbling idea of aligning Corporate Food Business and Food Company Foundation goals, products, and programs.

FT: Your podcast series, How Great Cities Are Fed, offers a historical perspective on a variety of urban food issues. Why is it important for people to learn about the background and history of factors shaping our modern food environment?

KK: Our podcast series is inspired by and based in part on a 1929 book of the same name, written by Walter Hedden, a Port Authority economist. He wrote the book after completing an assignment to understand how the great cities of America—New York most prominently, along with Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston— would manage their food supplies should a then-impending national rail strike take place.

Great Cities was the first—and by many accounts—the last comprehensive look at how, specifically, New York City’s food supply works. The rail strike never happened, but Hedden thought the topic was important for food security and the social concerns of feeding the urban marketplaces that had grown so rapidly in the 50 years leading up to the publication of the book, and to understand how to plan for the future.

The book is surprising to modern day readers in some ways because it illustrates that so many of the things we think of today as new problems in the food system are actually long-standing and deeply entrenched.

So with our podcast, we like to start from the point of view of the book, and then bring in other experts to discuss the same topics Hedden covered—our episodes align with the chapters in the book—from the perspective of addressing those same challenges today.

Exploring this history as a background to the way our cities are fed today provides really crucial context for thinking about how we can learn from history as we are developing new systems and innovative approaches.

FT: How do you convince businesses that good food can be profitable?

KK: It’s interesting you used the word ‘convince’. That’s a word with very different meanings depending on where you are. In the UK, for example, it’s a word that can convey more of a process over time, a process of learning together to arrive at the stated goal. Here in the US convince really does mean try to get people over to your side – and that is not the way we work.

One of our most treasured (and rewarded) methodologies at KK&P is to build change out of the foundation and current strengths of our clients’ organizations, cultures, and their existing operations.

There is a tendency, among activists and some consultants, to want to blow it up and build from scratch. We don’t think that is the most powerful or attainable approach. And it is particularly unachievable with large organizations that, by virtue of their size (which is a dynamic of great complexity as well as potential impact) have the potential to shift the needle so far with even the smallest, incremental changes.

We help businesses acquire the knowledge they need to understand resilient agriculture and healthy, delicious food, working with them to create and implement strategies that seek to meet their goals starting from the baseline of how they currently operate today. That will mean change, and sometimes significant change. But because we build it from within, we don’t have to convince them. They see that it can be profitable, and they own it.

FT: Your firm has been involved in developing food curricula for a number of culinary schools and institutions of higher education. Has there been a shift in food education from that of 20 years ago and what does that mean for the future of our food industry?

KK: Twenty years ago is an interesting benchmark. In the 1980s we saw Julia Child help to elevate culinary education and develop a new generation of chefs based on classic French cuisine. The James Beard Foundation put chefs on the map through their annual awards, the Oscars of food. The Food Network and other food media elevated the concept of the celebrity chef and helped build a US-wide foodie culture.

As Americans (including chefs) with rising incomes began to travel abroad more, they saw and tasted things they wanted to eat at home. In Europe, in particular, the food experience is integrated with the history and culture of how food is grown and produced. People brought this inquisitiveness back home, and there were two places to continue to explore it: in their favorite restaurants and in their farmers’ markets, which by then were on the rise again across the US.

Culinary professionals of all kinds—not just chefs, but of course including chefs—have become leaders in seeking to improve agricultural practices in order to have unique, delicious, diverse food and to change the eating experience in America. And this, in turn, has become a widespread movement across demographics and geography. The first food revolution in the 1980s led to the current food movement, which seeks to roll back the commodity-driven, cheap processed food culture, align with flavor and experience, and make delicious, innovative and healthy food available to all.

Our work with culinary schools, community colleges, universities and agriculture schools is looking at how people in the US are eating and want to eat today; incorporates educational philosophy and approaches for the next generation to understand our food system; and incorporates training for jobs that support sustainable agriculture and healthy food (which in turn spurs local job creation and economic growth).

FT: What kind of projects are you and your firm currently working on?

KK: NWACC

The Northwest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) sought our help to envision the growth of their culinary arts program. We developed a strategic plan that is designed to help the school and the local community train students to meet both the rising demand for foodservice jobs in the region and the desire of employers to hire graduates that are prepared to work with farm fresh produce. At the same time, we were working on a food assessment for the region and saw that the region was well suited for livestock production but that few chefs were prepared to implement a whole animal program in their restaurants. The strategy—which has moved into an implementation phase with a building currently under construction—includes a kitchen dedicated to whole animal butchery and charcuterie as well as facilities for preserving the harvest through dehydration, fermentation, and freezing. We have been working closely with the school to implement new curriculum, design facilities and create strategic partnerships including creating a nursing and culinary curriculum in “culinary medicine” under license from the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine (Tulane Medical School).

Oneonta

In Oneonta, NY, we’re working with Otsego Now, Otsego County’s industrial development agency (IDA) to develop the concept for food and beverage oriented redevelopment of a site downtown. We’ve spent a lot of time speaking with stakeholders in the food, beverage, and agriculture sectors in the region, as well as getting to know the community of Oneonta, to identify a mix of programming that would respond to the needs of entrepreneurs while also contributing to the fabric of downtown Oneonta as a destination. We recently wrapped up our first phase of work, recommending a mix of educational and business support services to nurture the quickly growing craft food and beverage sector there. We’re now moving into more nitty-gritty program development, speaking with potential tenants, and working up designs and business models. We’re working with a terrific team of collaborators on this project – Elan Planning and Design, a community planning firm; Hugh Boyd, an architect with deep experience designing food-oriented spaces; and Delaware Engineering.

JBF

We’ve co-produced the James Beard Foundation Food Conference since its inception in 2009. The conference is an annual gathering of food professionals and experts from a diverse range of sectors, including culinary (of course), agriculture, policy advocates, healthcare, and corporations, to name a few. This year’s conference is called Now Trending: The Making of a Food Movement, and it will explore how trends drive movements – and vice versa – and whether we actually have something that we can call a food movement. One of our attendees’ favorite things about the conference is how we bring in people from outside the food world to challenge our thinking. Last year, for example, we had Dr. Ellen Stefan, Chief Scientist for NASA, and Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture & Design at MoMA. This year we’ll have Tim Gunn of Project Runway fame and several other great people, including the recipients of this year’s JBF Leadership Awards.

Thundermist

KK&P was hired by Thundermist Health Center, a federally qualified health center with three clinic locations in Rhode Island, to conduct a needs assessment of healthy food access in Woonsocket, RI and to develop a plan for beginning to meet those needs. This assessment is part of Thundermist’s participation in Woonsocket’s Health Equity Zone, a program of Rhode Island’s State Department of Health aimed at identifying and targeting health inequities in eleven communities in Rhode Island. For the needs assessment, KK&P conducted community member focus groups, a community survey, and interviews with a variety of community organizations, as well as analyzing secondary data sources. Through our research, KK&P identified assets, challenges, and gaps related to healthy food access in Woonsocket and created a three-year plan with recommendations to improve access for all Woonsocket residents, particularly low- income populations. The strategy has three prongs and included action items such as grocery delivery services for customers using SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps), integrating nutrition and health services, and creating a hub in Woonsocket for programming, employment training, and social services related to food.

Bolthouse Farms

In 2014 we were hired by Bolthouse Farms to work as brokers for their growing line of healthy, kid- friendly foods into the institutional food sector. Starting in New York City, where 1.2 million children attend 1,600 schools and consume more than 850,000 meals per day, and where KK&P had strong relationships from building a successful local food procurement strategy several years earlier, we worked as liaisons between NYC SchoolFood’s food technology and procurement departments and Bolthouse’s production and marketing departments to tweak the product formulas to meet nutritional, taste and other quality (Kosher, e.g. for dairy) standards. The purely technical pieces were relatively easy, but the final test is with the kids. Their thumbs up or thumbs down response to the product and how it tastes is what gets new products into the schools. Bolthouse veggie snackers passed, but not without some flavor tweaking to meet these young and diverse palettes. NYC SchoolFood is part of the National Urban School Food Alliance, and was the test market for Bolthouse’s products. As they say, “If you can make it there...” The ultimate goal is to offer public school students (in New York and nationally) healthy and delicious meals while keeping food costs low.