In the last few months, the North Coast Food Trail — a self-guided tour stretching the length of Tillamook County and into Cannon Beach and Lincoln City — has received awards and recognition, including the Best Tourism Development Award from Travel Oregon and Best Food Trail Editor’s Choice Travel Award from Sunset magazine. Lots of articles have been written about the trail, featuring participants' businesses on the covers of multiple magazines.
But what’s remarkable, and most important, is the economic development that is rooted in the food trail. The possibilities began to reveal themselves during the planning of the trail, back in February 2017. Seventy community members - owners and managers of farms and food businesses - gathered for two days of discussion. As a result — and as I hoped — buyers (chefs and food retailers) and sellers (food producers) met and built relationships.
What came up a lot during those two days was a great need for a better food distribution system between boat and farm to restaurant and retail. Fishers and farmers who sell direct often deliver their goods, taking them away from fishing and farming for several hours. And on the flip side, for chefs and retailers who pick up their produce, cheese, meats and fish, those errands take them away from their restaurants and stores for several hours. I filed that information away for follow-up.
The other significant discussion was about creating a common branding effort that would bring recognition to Tillamook County and Oregon’s north coast for the quality of products grown, caught, harvested and crafted here. That information also was filed away for follow-up.
The North Coast Food Trail launched in spring of 2018 with 60 participants representing farms, markets, restaurants, breweries, wineries, retailers, lodging and tours. It’s been successful — businesses have done very well, and so have the producers that supply the businesses. We’ve received a lot of attention, and several tourism organizations have called asking for advice on creating their own food trails.
I went back to the information from 2017 that I had filed away, and with the help of Oregon State University Extension, applied for a Business Oregon Rural Opportunity Initiative Grant. We were awarded the maximum amount, $45,000, and used it to conduct feasibility studies and focus groups, which Food Roots managed. We confirmed strong interest and support for two ideas: a location-based food brand, and development of a food hub — a central location where farmers, fishers and other wholesale sellers would bring their products for pickup by wholesale buyers such as restaurants and retailers, or a similar form of efficient food distribution system.
The grant was also used to bring back Recipe to Market workshops, presented by Sarah Masoni, the director of OSU Extension’s Food Innovation Center, which help local residents bring food products to market. OSU Extension held a FarmDirect class for farmers wanting to create products; the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) presented a business-building workshop; a social media expert held a workshop for food businesses; and I conducted a food marketing class, while one of our vendors taught two social media marketing workshops. In addition, we were awarded a technical assistance grant from The Ford Family Foundation to set up an online Spanish-language business-building platform on the SBDC website.
As we were doing research on a food hub, the Port of Garibaldi was working with Rural Development Initiatives and EcoTrust on a seafood chain project, including a way to better distribute seafood from small commercial fisheries to their buyers. We are now working on ways to combine our efforts. We are in discussion with Business Oregon on additional grant monies that will help us support a public/private partnership to develop a food storage and distribution system.
Then something unexpected happened. For the new Crave the Coast festival in 2018, we invited several food and media influencers to attend. The influencers — people with large social media followings, creators of books or podcasts, people with strong industry connections — took part in a producers’ dinner the night before the festival, where they made a lot of contacts. One of the food influencers reached out to me a month ago. Turns out, her food business contacts are quite extensive. She’s arranging to bring two dozen major food buyers to Tillamook County this fall to meet several of our producers.
That means greater revenue opportunities for local food entrepreneurs — a classic example of economic development. And that’s just one reason why the North Coast Food Trail matters.