When Grace Pae started Artemis Foods, people told her she was crazy. That fully integrating organic, local food into her catering business would never work because the price was too high to pay. But Grace has proved them all wrong + made going local, sustainable and socially responsible into a thriving business model famous throughout the region.
We’ve been so lucky to work with Grace + her team at Artemis Foods on many of our events. And even luckier to sit down with her to talk about the importance of a strong local community + how to grow a business all while saving the planet.
SE: What was your motivation for starting an organic, sustainable and socially responsible catering company?
GP: It was exciting to me to know that in doing my own business, I could set it up the way I wanted. Something I heard years ago, from a boss of mine, is that the opportunity to affect the landscape of our politics is real. Every time I can offer somebody an organic, sustainable meal, it takes sales away from the big giants that are processing food and using pesticides, and not being local. In my mind it’s somewhat of a political movement and I’m somewhat of an activist influencing people to eat this way. It’s exciting to think that every time we get an event, I’m making a difference in shaping our system.
SE: Why is it so important for businesses to be socially responsible?
GP: I think as business people, and especially for me as a chef, we have a role in shaping our community. Some people are really driven by financial profit. I met a couple of guys who wanted to start a fast casual food business, because they had MBAs from Harvard and Stanford, and supposedly that’s the best way to make money. But for me, I feel that as business owners, we are leaders and it’s important to be responsible. People told me when I started that I was foolish, that organic was more expensive, that people weren’t going to be willing to pay for it—but honestly we’re priced pretty competitively for what we do. I think that anyone in a leadership role should be responsible, but some people aren’t. They’re driven by what makes the fastest buck.
SE: How do you stay competitive? That’s still an argument that is used against the natural and organic movements—both from the business community and the average consumer.
GP: What you see when people start doing something differently—and for some eating organic and locally is different from their normal routine—is an education lag. There needs to be education on how to do these things and I find in running my business that I can fill that role. For instance in Winter and Spring, it’s harder to get local foods. A lot of people don’t want to eat butternut squash, they don’t want to eat kale. There is an education piece that comes with the transition.
If you buy organic foods in season, they’re priced very comparably. If you went and bought local apples from the store, they’re priced better than strawberries. But a lot of people are stuck on having strawberries on their fruit platter, even though they’re more expensive right now. So the way I stay competitive is to stay in season. I watch what my competitors are doing, but I respond to my clients.
For instance, when the recession hit last fall, we came up with a menu that was simpler and provided choices that were more readily available, so that people could meet their budget and use our service.
SE: What is the overall corporate philosophy for Artemis?
GP: Our corporate philosophy is to be thoughtful about what we’re doing. Being thoughtful about the actions you take, coming from a chef’s perspective, is very important. How are you preparing the food? Is it going to please everybody? You have to be thoughtful cooking the food, but also in buying the product.
That goes all the way down to our office supplies and the equipment we use. We try to be thoughtful about how we recycle things and what we purchase—it’s important as consumers to think about where our dollars are going when we buy things. Ask yourself: Where did this come from? How is it packaged? How will I use it? Where will it end up when I’m done with it? Consider the full cycle in all your purchases whether you’re buying food or office supplies or a vehicle.
Our vehicle is a Bio-Diesel Sprinter and I bought it new four years ago at $36,000. Could we have bought a different van? Yes, we could have, but it was important to me to at least lessen our pollution as we’re driving around. It’s about being as thoughtful as possible when you make your choices.
SE: Getting back to the local component—why are relationships with local growers and the wider Portland community so important to you?
GP: I believe that eating is all about community. On the business side, I think that local relationships are important because there is a synergy that comes along with working that way. If I’m able to work with a client by discounting their event or working with their budget, it’s going to be a client I believe in and deserves that support. And I feel like there’s a synergy that comes back around with that in other ways. So business-wise, I think that it’s important to work with groups I support and feel are doing important work.
I’ve also realized, in getting so many requests for support, that my focus on what I can do is going to remain local to Portland and the Northwest. Being focused on our local and regional community—buying from those farmers and supporting the local community is our priority. Our community is only going to be as strong as the citizens can make it.
SE: You spoke about thoughtfulness earlier, can you give us some details about your sustainability plan and the processes you have in place?
GP: Like I said, we’re trying to be as thoughtful as possible with the choices we make. So if we can buy paper with recycled content in it, we do. We also compost our food waste, we recycle as much as we can and we constantly have stuff going to Goodwill or a shelter. We want to make sure that if it’s something somebody can use—whether it be leftover food or equipment—that it gets used or disposed of in the most sustainable way possible.
We also purchase green tags from Bonneville Environmental Foundation to offset our carbon use. Every year we go online, where they have a carbon calculator (for both personal and business use), and answer a round of questions—How many employees do you have? How many of them bike or take public transit? How many miles did you drive?—that determine your business’s carbon footprint. Then we purchase our green tags and the money goes toward development of green power.
The other thing I believe is really important is to offer a living wage to our employees. And we also offer them dental and medical benefits as well—which is all pretty unusual for food service. In being sustainable, I have to do the things that are going to allow me to stay in business and part of that is retaining good staff.
—Grace Pae is the founder and owner of Artemis Foods Catering Service. She is an advocate for organic, local food production. Artemis also provides the outstanding menus for most of Social Enterprises events—helping us support non-profits doing great work in our community and beyond.