The Arbiter of Good

Sara Deseran | November 24, 2014 | Story Profiles

In order to be seen over the crowd of culinary sophisticates attending the judging of the Good Food Awards, Sarah Weiner is standing on a little platform covered in fresh olive branches. She looks as if she were born of them—her lithe frame, flawless pale skin, and dark, curly hair loosely piled on top of her head give her a wood-nymph quality that's enhanced by her girlish, slightly squeaky voice. “A special welcome to the honey committee!” she trills into the microphone with genuine enthusiasm.

Five years ago, with the help of her business partner, event planner Dominic Phillips, Weiner, 34, launched the awards to celebrate the most righteous of specialty food products manufactured in the United States. The competition demands that entries evince what might be called the artisanal holy trinity: They must be “tasty, authentic, and responsible.”—that is, made with local, organic, seasonal ingredients, a nod to tradition, and ethical business practices. They also have to taste really good.

This year, with a record 1,462 entries in 11 categories—everything from craft beer and preserves to chocolate and cured meats—the tasting process is a bit of an ordeal. The 185 judges, who hail from across the country, are all crammed into the former San Francisco Chronicle building in SoMa. Blue Bottle is on hand, doling out iced coffee to rouse minds and palates for the eight-hour tasting marathon. Fresh-faced volunteers in plaid flannel circulate among luminaries like June Taylor, the lauded Berkeley-based jam maker, cookbook author Alice Medrich, and Nell Newman of Newman’s Own Organics. Their presence speaks to Weiner’s powers of connection, something that’s not particularly surprising when you know that her former boss was Alice Waters.

It also speaks to the growing importance of Weiner’s brainchild: For upstart food makers, winning a GFA can be a game changer. The national press alone can result in a big spike in sales, and this year a select group of winners will be sold in Williams-Sonoma’s catalog and some of its stores. “Olympic Provisions in Portland started in a 900-square-foot kitchen, with one employee,” says Weiner. “In 2013, [Elias Cairo, Olympic’s owner] won his first GFA and was placed in Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco. He started getting calls from around the country. He now has a 37,000-square-foot kitchen and 25 employees.” Fruition Chocolate, based in Shokan, New York, had a similar upturn in business after winning awards for its bars in both 2013 and 2014. “After winning the first time, our inquiries for new wholesale accounts at least doubled,” says Fruition co-owner Dahlia Graham. “Plus, as soon as there was a link on the Good Food Awards site, the traffic on our site just continued to grow. It’s one of the top online referral sites that we have.”

Raised by hippieish parents in St. Louis, Weiner was, she says, a “save-the-rain-forest kind of kid.” Following a postcollegiate scholarship to culinary school in Italy, she worked for Slow Food, where she met Waters, eventually leaving to become her assistant.

Weiner conceived the idea for the Good Food Awards in 2008 during the Slow Food Nation extravaganza at Fort Mason. In the wake of the event, which drew a crowd of 50,000, Weiner, who was Slow Food Nation’s content director at the time, began to imagine the food artisan equivalent of the James Beard Awards. Although consumers were increasingly concerned with making the right choice, “there was nothing out there to indicate that a product fit your values and tasted good, too. Sure, there’s Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa, but if it tastes horrible, you’re never going to buy it again.”

Oddly, taste is often the missing ingredient in the $200 billion specialty foods industry. Add the fact that food artisans are often scraping by, and it’s clear why so many fail—and why Weiner’s award can be such a force for good. Dafna Kory, the owner of Emeryville’s Inna jam, won a GFA in 2013 for her Fresno chili jam, which she had been delivering by bicycle. “It resulted in national exposure,” Kory says of the award. “It was like night and day.” Today you’ll find her preserves everywhere from gift boutiques to SFO’s Terminal 2. Still, she pockets only about $1.35 from each $13.50 jar she sells.

Next on Weiner’s horizon is the Good Food Mercantile, a boutique alternative to the Winter Fancy Foods Show, that comparatively massive smorgasbord of less scrutinized comestibles that floods Moscone Center every year. Greg O’Neill, founder of Pastoral, a Chicago cheese and specialty shop, believes that the Good Food Mercantile, which will take place in January, will be a “bull’s-eye” for retailers like himself. “It’s like getting a chance to go, in one stop, to the farmers’ markets of Vermont and San Francisco and New York City. You get the benefit of meeting these microproducers who have a limited capacity but are doing amazing stuff.”

Sam Mogannam, owner of Bi-Rite Market and a sponsor of the upcoming Good Food Awards on January 8, 2015, is helping Weiner launch the Mercantile. Over and above its potential financial impact, he believes, her work has a simple but potent significance. “There are so many people out there starting to pursue their passions and do something fulfilling,” he says. “Sarah’s giving them a platform to be celebrated.”

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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