Before long drives, Sandy Lerner plugs a back-seat mini fridge into the cigarette outlet of her Chevy Volt and fills it with the sort of local, organic foodstuffs she has been cheerleading for two decades.
The owner of the first farm in Virginia to be both certified organic and certified humane, Lerner doesn’t want to risk getting hungry on the highway, where the only option might be gas station food.
“And I am so not alone,” says Lerner, sipping coffee in the cafe of Gentle Harvest, her new retail and grocery store an hour west of Washington in Marshall, Va. When Lerner tells locals that the store, the first of “hundreds” she plans to open near the region’s highways, will have a drive-through window, take-home meals and a $5 organic hamburger, “The first thing they say is, ‘Oh, thank God, I don’t have to bring food with me anymore,’” she says.
Ask her how she plans to adhere, at those price points, to the farming practices she has espoused at her 800-acre Ayrshire Farm and Hunter’s Head Tavern in Upperville, and she flashes a knowing grin.
“We’ve spent 20 years learning how,” she says.
By any account, Lerner, 61, is a formidable businesswoman.
In the 1980s, she and her then-husband founded tech giant Cisco Systems, which made the router ubiquitous, and made millions when they cashed out their stake after she was fired in a corporate shake-up. In 1996, she followed her longtime interest in animal welfare to start Ayrshire, with a focus on rare and endangered animal breeds. That same year, Lerner started the cosmetics company Urban Decay; she sold it a few years later, and now it’s part of L’Oreal.
Stephanie Bates, a friend and fellow business owner in Upperville, Va., long ago realized Lerner’s reach. “She’s a woman of endless talents, and she has this ability to fill the niche that people are looking for,” Bates says.
Lerner’s experience at Ayrshire taught her that she’d need to buy a slaughterhouse to make the economics of this new fast-food model work. So, when one of the half-dozen U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified facilities in Northern Virginia became available this year in Winchester, she did just that.
Though Ayrshire Farm has the capacity to supply meat for the first two stores, the second of which is slated to open off Interstate 81 in Winchester this year, Gentle Harvest will need to source from more local farmers in the future. Lerner says she plans to help interested farmers get the necessary certifications and to pay them more for their animals than the livestock exchange in their county.
“This is about rebuilding a local food system,” she says.
Eric Bendfeldt, a Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist in community viability, said farmers are always looking to diversify their markets, “and having these nodes along the I-81 corridor and other locations really makes a lot of sense.”
With her latest business venture, Lerner joins a handful of others in the country trying to prove that fast food can be good food.
This year, California chefs Roy Choi of Kogi Korean taco trucks and Daniel Patterson of two-Michelin-starred Coi opened the first outpost of LocoL, their more-healthful fast-food chain, in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles. The menu includes $4 cheeseburgers with grains mixed into the meat, $6 noodle bowls and $1 agua frescas rather than sodas. A second location in Oakland and a food truck that opened this year add a dollar to the price of each item while still competing with other fast-food options.
“Fast casual” chains such as Elevation Burger, based in Northern Virginia, provide alternatives by putting organic and grass-fed beef between buns, but their prices are closer to $10. And, though Chipotle Mexican Grill’s careful meat sourcing earned a loyal following, its lofty model took a hit after an E. coli outbreak late last year.
As for Lerner, she’d like Gentle Harvest to compete with the McDonald’s in Marshall for I-66 drivers seeking a pit stop. But she also wants its airy, white-brick interior to be a community space for the bucolic town that is, by all accounts, a far cry from a food desert.
At first glance, the retail space in the renovated lobby of the onetime Marshall National Bank & Trust Co. seems like a much larger version of Lerner’s quaint Home Farm Store in Middleburg, Va., which closed in August so she could focus on the new stores. The corner grocery sold meat from Ayrshire and other farms alongside local produce and prepared foods, and those who want a $145 Ayrshire turkey can still find it here.
“This is essentially the store in Middleburg on steroids,” Lerner says. “Although I hate to say steroids, because it’s so unhealthy and we’re, of course, healthy.”
This flagship retail space of 3,500 square feet, not including upstairs seating and offices for the growing brand, makes room for sprawling refrigerated cases of meat and prepared dishes fitting for a weeknight dinner or Thanksgiving table, all available for delivery. Wooden display shelves feature local products including Virginia peanuts, Firehook crackers and Cocoa Manna hot chocolate as well as national organic products.
At the back of a high-ceilinged lobby, the bank’s vault has become a wine cellar, and a walk-in refrigerator behind a small bar is filled with Virginia beers. Kegs feature more brews as well as organic kombucha from Barefoot Bucha and nitro cold-brewed coffee from Snowing in Space Coffee, both based in Charlottesville
There’s also a coffee bar and, on the other side of bricked archways that used to separate the bank from its office buildings, a light-filled cafe. A back entrance to the building from a sizable parking lot — a selling point for a business owner used to Middleburg’s lack of parking — takes customers by fresh-cut flowers and the brand’s in-house line of Furry Foodie pet foods.
The drive-through is behind the store, where two lanes remain from the building’s banking past. (Don’t worry: The burgers will be delivered through a window or walked out to waiting cars, not whisked out by pneumatic tube.)
Sheree McDowell, Gentle Harvest’s food and beverage director, says she wants to provide options “for families who want to feed their children healthy food but who might still need to get fast food occasionally.”
To that end, the sweet potato spuds with a kid’s burger are baked instead of fried (there is, by design, no fryer on the premises) and come with a small cookie and organic juice or milk, for $6. Families will be able to sift through all the choices by ordering ahead of time online or via the brand’s app, which allows more time for a cooked-to-order approach.
The store should also get its share of wanderers, drawn to town by a street that’s now teeming with excuses for food-minded folk to take a detour. The nationally acclaimed Red Truck Bakery has its Marshall location next door. That proved particularly fortuitous when Gentle Harvest’s building caught fire in early September, weeks before the planned opening, and a baker working the early shift was there to call 911. The damages were minor.
Across Main Street is the newly opened Field & Main Restaurant, serving destination-worthy fare from Virginia’s Piedmont region. Riccordino’s, a tiny bricked-in kitchen by the same owners, hawks Chicago-style hot sandwiches next door. Down the street, the Whole Ox butcher shop sells cuts from animals raised on the pastures of “neighborhood farms” and opens the Butcher Bar for dinner Tuesday through Saturday evenings.
“Park the car once, and it’s kind of like three-stop shopping,” says Red Truck Bakery owner Brian Noyes, who watched the street’s only grocery store, an IGA, close just before he opened in Marshall last year. “We’ve all wanted something else to come, so here it is next door.”
Lerner said Marshall’s momentum is one of the reasons she chose to locate Gentle Harvest’s headquarters and first store here. The store will keep one foot in the community-grocery aisle for which its Middleburg predecessor was known while launching the new brand’s more convenient concept, one Lerner has been honing for years.
“This is the food system I know,” says Lerner, a California-raised convert to Virginia culture. “I’m not Bill Gates; I can’t fix it all, but I can help here.”
Pipkin writes about food, local agriculture and the environment.