When Niemann Foods Inc. (NFI) President and CEO Rich Niemann spoke about the company’s new Harvest Market as it opened to the public on Oct. 6 at 2029 South Neil Street in Champaign, Illinois, he shared the store’s mission: to connect food producers and makers with its customers. He talked about food and he talked about farming. Farm tractors were fired up to mark the store’s opening.
“One hundred and fifty years ago, 95 percent of the U.S. population was involved in agriculture. Today it’s less than 5 percent,” Niemann said. “But people still have a desire to be connected to the land. You can witness that by people with chickens in their back yards picking up their own eggs. There’s a desire to be connected.
“There’s also a desire to know the origins—what’s in my food, what’s not in my food. So the whole concept is based around giving people a connection to the producers—the farms, the makers, the people that reconstitute food in some fashion—and then letting our customers make the choice.”
Harvest Market isn’t the product of food snobs. No one is telling people what they should or should not eat.
“We’re saying here are options and here’s information,” Niemann told The Shelby Report’s Geoff Welch. “We want to be as transparent as we can possibly be. We do some curation of what we offer, but it’s up to our customers to make that choice.”
Those choices include deli meats that are roasted in the store, butter made in an on-site pasteurization plant and buttermilk biscuits at the in-store Farmhouse restaurant made from said butter and its byproduct, buttermilk.
“It’s a small dairy plant inside the store,” Niemann said. “We’re not aware of anybody else that’s doing that. We abide by the same regulations as anybody else producing milk on a bigger scale.”
At the Farmhouse restaurant, patrons also will enjoy recipes from NFI’s staff and their families.
“We have a rolled lasagna that is one of our guy’s grandmother’s recipe, and it’s fabulous,” Niemann said. “We’ve been tasting food for months. It’s kind of a tough gig, but somebody’s got to do it,” he added, smiling.
The eatery also features three types of cornbread, each from heritage seed corn grown and milled locally. Farmers bring it to the store in bags. There are Corn Cookies, too, which Niemann said are “wonderful.”
The relationships NFI has developed with farmers and producers will continue into the store. One avenue for that is Harvest Market’s cooking school.
“Yes, we’re going to show people how to make things, and we have some tremendous culinary expertise in this store, some great chefs, but we’re also going to bring in our producer friends,” he said. “They’re going to come in and talk about their product and then we’ll have our chefs prepare that product in some fashion, so it’s that continuing education of our customers and letting them experience these same relationships that we have.”
One of the producers is Niemann himself. He’s a cattle rancher producing Niemann Ranch Beef, which will make its debut in Harvest Market. Niemann, his two oldest sons and a son-in-law have been working with cattle for more than 12 years to develop the right genetics for the Angus beef they produce.
“We also have a commonsense approach to the things that we think are important to our own families as to how we feed the animals, what type of medication they do and don’t get, animal husbandry, how these animals are treated, all that process goes into Niemann Ranch Beef,” Niemann said.
Niemann Ranch Beef won’t be available for sale every day, just from time to time, but Niemann said that being a producer has brought him a greater understanding as to their plight.
“I know the most important thing, in most cases, to any producer is a fair, stable market,” Niemann said. “As we have these relationships and work with the people who are growing things for us, and we guarantee them that market, then they can expand their business, more family can be involved, and the cycle goes on. We think that’s very important for our customers and for us, and that’s what this store is all about.”
*Editor’s note: Read more about the new Harvest Market in the December print edition of The Shelby Report of the Midwest.