Will Gray, introducing new converts to the delights of the Back Pocket Provisions lines of Bloody Mary mixes.
A NOTE FROM THE INTERVIEWER/AUTHOR
I know I’ve said this before, but it really bears repeating: one of the coolest parts of being me (Marketing and Promotions Director for Fall Line Farms and Local Roots) is that I get to interview our producers and talk to them about what they do, then introduce them to you. It never fails that after talking with every one of them, I’ve come away inspired, informed, and feeling very optimistic about the possibility of making local food an even larger part of the economic picture in our region. Together, we can preserve farms and make great food even more widely available--just by enjoying it! Back Pocket Provisions serves as just the right kind of business model for bringing something delicious to consumers, while also providing critically important economic opportunity for tomato growers across the state of Virginia. And let’s not discount the fact that, in creating such a tasty line of Bloody Mary mixes, Back Pocket Provisions is winning converts to local food all of the time just because of the taste!
In this interview, I spoke with Will Gray, the CEO of this impressive social enterprise. I hear you asking already: “Social enterprise? What is that? Read on and you’ll learn the definition, plus a lot of other cool things about Will, Back Pocket, and how this product’s benefits go well beyond just the enjoyment of a wonderful drink.
Katie: Thank you so much for talking with me today, Will! I know our members will be excited to learn more about your product, which they already seem to be enjoying without even knowing the story—or should I say stories—behind it. Can we start with the name of the business: Back Pocket Provisions? Where did that come from?
Will: (Laughs.) Well, there isn’t really too much of a story. Sometimes I like to say that we came up with the name because we source ugly tomatoes, so the farmers love keeping us in their back pockets! (Laughs.) And that’s really part of it. But it actually all started when I was first in D.C. and working as a private chef. Not a classically trained chef—just a proud line cook. I cooked professionally for number of years. I just love the alchemy of turning food into other food! Anyhow, I was doing some small event catering at the same time. It was a side hustle. Cooking—making food—was the skill that I kept in my “back pocket” while I was looking for work in the food system.
Katie: That’s a better story than you think it is, actually: we love a company founded on inspiration and a love of good food! Can you tell me a little bit about the beginnings—who and what was involved in getting this off the ground, and who is involved now?
Will: My sister, Jennifer Beckman, worked with me early on. She’s a longtime supporter and Bloody Mary drinker. She’s also an attorney and an award-winning recipe writer. She helped us get up and running. Our current crew is small but mighty. Trey Corrin handles our back office work and manages markets in Charlottesville. Heidi Chaya works out of Front Royal; she’s a content writer and digital marketing expert. She’s the one collecting and presenting our farmers’ stories. Kevin Zeithamlis based in Richmond, and he handles RVA-based events and in-store support. And COVID moved Sam Eldridge into our art and external-facing production from his home office in Upstate New York.
OK, so "ugly" tomatoes might be a misnomer. These look beautiful to us!
Katie: Well, you’ve come up with a great idea for reducing food waste and helping farmers make money. For example, you use "ugly tomatoes," meaning the tomatoes that taste delicious but may be misshapen or have other superficial flaws that keep them from being retail-worthy. I’m curious about those tomatoes and about how you achieve consistency in the taste of your product when you’re sourcing different tomatoes from different farms. Do you even worry about that?
Will: I love that question! We definitely care about consistency in quality, because we want our customers to have an amazing craft cocktail experience. We want their reaction to be, “Wow! That’s really fresh!” But guess what—if we make a batch that’s 50% Hanover Slicers, then it’s going to taste different from a batch that’s 50% Cherokee Purple tomatoes. Different batches will definitely have a different taste. That’s why we always say, “Shake before pouring. Appreciate subtle differences.” The differences are a feature, not a flaw!
Back Pocket's social media posts often introduce us to both the farmers and the heirloom varieties of tomatoes used in making their products.
We’ve all spent a lot of time eating way over-processed tomatoes and products with exact scalability. For big companies, it’s all about predictability of taste. Not ours. It’s all about the tomatoes, and come on--they’re different every season! Back Pocket Provisions’ Bloody Mary mix won’t taste the same every time you try it. That’s just not how nature works. That’s not how food works. Who would trade all the wonderful nuances of seasonality and flavor to make sure that the food is identical every time? If we’re sourcing from Appalachian Sustainable Development, the tomatoes are going to taste different from those grown in RVA and Hanover. We go with what’s great and what’s in season. Terroir is the point of an heirloom tomato!
Katie: Can you talk a little bit about your product line and how you come up with the ideas for each delicious Bloody Mary mix? And please tell us more about your collaborative projects—like the Bloody Blue Ridge that you worked with Ian Boden of The Shack to make. Will you be doing more collaborations?
Will: [Bloody] Brilliant is our flagship, and that won’t change. It’s pretty much the classic. Bloody Baja was our second recipe, and it was kind of a sleeper favorite for us. What sets it apart is the corn juice and the texture. The smokiness and heat make it fun and different--different from most Bloody Marys that people have had. Maybe it’s the bartender in me, but I think Baja is really fun for making cocktails. And Bloody Bangkok has that Asian flair. Great for making a distinctive Bloody!
Bloody Blue Ridge was a collaborative effort for us, as you pointed out. We came out with it last fall. Ian makes a fabulous ghost pepper and sorghum hot sauce, and Bridget Meagher of Catbird Sauce Company in Charlottesville makes the vegan Worcestershire that gives the mix its umami. And yes--it was such a great experience working with them that we have nothing but plans to do a whole series! Unfortunately, COVID-19 has kept us from being able to do it the same way we did with Blue Ridge, so nothing this year. But we’re looking for other ways to collaborate. And we’re doing another run of Blue Ridge, same recipe. We’ve just been blown away by the positive feedback.
We originally envisioned that we’d only do [the collaborative mixes] only once, but the response has been so good that we may just keep adding to the lineup. (Laughs.) Our entire life is a test kitchen right now. So, yes—we will do another collaboration, as soon as it’s feasible.
Katie: When I first saw your mission statement (“Our mission is to make life more healthy, delicious, and fun by helping small farms succeed”), I just knew you were going to be a great match for FLF&LR. I hope our members will go to your website (link provided below) and read more about Back Pocket Provisions and the philosophy and thought behind it. So impressive! Can you talk a little about your inspiration for starting the business?
Will: Absolutely! I had been working in the local food system for about 12 years. I came to this as an eater. I love to eat and drink. They’re two of the great passions of my life. I was lucky and had the opportunity to get into food service young. I spent time working in kitchens when I was in college in Charlottesville, and I became fascinated with the stories behind the food, the culture of the food—where it all comes from. I began to think about that, and I also began to notice how broken the American food system is. It became really clear to me that it was—and still is—very difficult to make a living as a farmer. I was privileged to grow up in a family who owned land. My father was a bit of a back-to-earth guy, a gentleman farmer. We grew up valuing food, growing it ourselves. Lots of gardening! As a ten-year-old, I didn’t pay attention. Not yet. Then I kind of lived it through the restaurants where I worked. And it all eventually sunk in. Now I feel called not only to pay attention, but to take action to make things better for farmers.
Katie: Yes, And, in turn, for people who appreciate a good Bloody Mary and other great local foods and beverages, right?
Will: Right. The whole time I was working in food, I was thinking and learning. I worked for a while at The Rock Barn, a Nelson County farm-to-table catering company that pivoted into sustainable nose-to-tail hog processing. Later, I worked for a national food non-profit in D.C., The Wallace Center. It was at the Wallace Center that I began to see problems on a national scale. While I was still there, my sister and I launched Back Pocket Provisions as a side project. We feel so lucky to have been able to create this—something that practices local procurement and is useful to farmers. It was about a year and a half ago that I made the jump to full-time CEO.
Katie: On your website, you say, “Back Pocket Provisions is a social enterprise. That means that while we’re a for-profit company, we make decisions about how we work based on furthering our mission, not just increasing our margin.” I know that our members would be interested in knowing more about how that plays out in the way you do business. Tell me about that.
Will: We really are a for-profit social enterprise. We use the mechanism of capitalism and business, but rather than maximizing profit for shareholders, we try to optimize for social good. In our case, the social good is our mission. The problem that Back Pocket Provisions is trying to solve is that it’s hard to have a successful life as a small farmer without compromising on certain values. We don’t want our farmers to have to compromise, and we want them to make a good living. So we operate Back Pocket Provisions in a way that serves our farmers. We use the financial levers of the market, creating business that serves social good. We like to joke that we’re unusual, because at Back Pocket, the customer comes second. Our products and our customers are our means—supporting a stronger food system is our end.
Back Pocket is all about supporting their hardworking farmers! This is the hoophouse at Double-H Farm in Wingina, VA, run by the Avagyan Family.
FarmHers Nicole Broder and Jes Carr, of Shine Farms in RVA.
Katie: I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed talking with you, Will. And I can’t tell you how pleased we are to be working with you. I hope you’re enjoying the Fall Line Farms and Local Roots experience!
Will: We are really happy with it. Sales have exceeded our expectations. But I have to say that one of my favorite things about being part of this is the Thursday producer drop-off. I think it’s such a great opportunity. In a business, it’s so easy for everything to be so intellectual, but seeing this giant group of growers and makers going this way and that way every Thursday morning, exchanging fresh flowers and tomatoes and veggies and stuff—I have really enjoyed it. It’s a great community-led effort to distribute community-made-and-grown goods.
Katie: Thank you so much for your time, Will. It’s been a pleasure. And I can’t wait to see what you come up with next!
Will: Thanks. I’ve enjoyed it, too.
CEO, bartender, spokesperson, and truckdriver, Will Gray.
One last bit of local food wisdom from Will—a reminder of what seasonal eating is all about: “Eating locally is an ideological and political act, but it’s also treating yourself. Rather than wanting to have everything all the time it’s the opportunity to have the best things when they’re available and at their best.”
What can I say? The guy is, well, Bloody Brilliant!
Shop for Back Pocket Provisions on our FLF&LR buying pages:
Visit the Back Pocket Provisions website https://www.backpocketprovisions.com/ where you’ll find information on their farmers and products and some wonderful recipes for cocktails and mocktails!
You can also find them on Facebook and Instagram at @backpocketprovisions.