The Global Organics conference room looks like one you'd find at most any corporate office park. You've got your enormous table, your comfy chairs, your telecom setup — but there's one little difference: that tie-dyed fabric plunked down in the middle. Global Organics may be a massive delivery service, with an enormous refrigerated warehouse in south Sarasota and trucks bustling to and fro all over the Southeast, but it's also a personal labor of love, led by people who believe in the mission of putting "life-giving foods" into as many hands as possible, in the words of company V.P. Ronni Blumenthal.
That's why they won't budge on certain principles, like selling strictly organic-certified food. Company founder Mitch Blumenthal, Ronni's brother, says Global is one of only nine distributors nationwide who specialize in organic-only. They come across plenty of growers who employ organic practices but aren't certified by the USDA, but it's still Global practice to deal strictly with recognized organic entities. The company's customers, who are only getting better educated as the years go by, want to know for sure if what they're eating is organic.
Mitch came by organic farming almost by accident, starting as a "casual backyard gardener" who later moved with his wife to a 10-acre plot out east. The land, owned by a Mennonite couple, came with 5,000 organic blueberry bushes. "The next thing we knew we were organic growers." Both he and his wife worked in hotel and restaurant management, but it wasn't till they started growing their own food that they thought hard about healthy agricultural practices.
Global started in 1999 with a refrigerated box truck that Mitch would take down to Miami and up to Tampa, then grew into the space now occupied by Sarasota Architectural Salvage, before relocating up near the airport. A year ago, the company decided to go big, and moved into the building where Mitch, Ronni and I are talking. At more than 80,000 square feet, the structure is four times the business' previous home. But they need that space. The company now employs 113 and ships 25,000-30,000 cases a week, as far west as Louisiana and as far north as Virginia. They rely on Florida farmers as much as possible, but the demand is too great to make it a strictly local enterprise. The company has considered satellite locations, but for now, everything ships from Sarasota, and no one has any plans to relocate. "We all love Sarasota too much to move," Ronni says.
Mitch says the company caught the organic "wave right at the right time." Like most trends, it might have taken a while to trickle down to the Southeast, but the desire for organic food isn't going anywhere anytime soon, Mitch says. And as people learn more about things like genetically modified products, they're only going to be more likely to sign up for organic options.
Global has "a lot of room to fill," Mitch says when I ask what's next for the company. He's being literal. Karen Watenpuhl, who handles accounts for the company, hands me a thick coat and leads me on a detailed tour of the sprawling warehouse. The trucks — some empty, some full — back up to a long dock with 17 doors. Guys wear parkas and balaclavas to ward off the 32-degree air while they spin around on forklifts. Today, they're unloading, and ferry it away to different rooms, each kept at different temperatures and humidity levels. In one, the wet cooler, ice is placed atop tall metal shelves. It then drips down to keep the food moist and frigid. Watenpuhl takes me through the company's tropical cooler, its dry cooler and on and on. There's even a deep-freezer, where Global stores dormant hives for Burt's Bees.
Mitch and Ronni say Global works hard to keep its footprint as small as possible, but with trucks zooming all around the Southeast, the task can be monumental. How do you balance your environmental commitments with your desire to consume the healthiest food? Should you prioritize local? Or organic? These are questions that have paralyzed me, and Mitch and Ronni acknowledge how tough they are to solve. Like most ethical questions, there are few absolutes, but Mitch says the company has prioritized one thing above all else: "We're in the organic business for a reason."
This is the 27th entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at email@example.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.