Big Changes for Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance

The farmers cooperative spent two decades as the leading supplier of regionally grown food to Pittsburgh restaurants.

PHOTO BY LAURA PETRILLA

A trailblazer in Pittsburgh’s farm-direct relationships is changing course. In early December, Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance will dissolve as a cooperative and become a division of Paragon Foods.

“We’re not done and locking the door. A new door is opening with a much better facility to get these farmers products to market,” says Penn’s Corner general manager Jeralyn Beach, who will help oversee the transition.

The farmers’ cooperative was founded in 1999 when Casbah’s executive chef, Bill Fuller (now president and corporate chef of big Burrito Restaurant Group), talked about how frustrated he was with the challenge of purchasing a steady supply of locally grown produce for his restaurant. He was approached by a small group of farmers who thought they had a solution with a new venture they were about to embark on — Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance. Over the past 20 years, Penn’s Corner has grown into the region’s most robust supplier of regionally grown food to Pittsburgh restaurants and also has expanded its list of offerings to a direct-to-consumer market. In addition to fruits and vegetables, the 50-plus member cooperative includes growers of dairy, meat, honey and grains.

Beach says that following the departure of a couple of Penn’s Corner’s larger members, the cooperative model was no longer financially viable for the group as a whole. After some discussion about what would be the best way forward for the farmers, Beach approached another Pittsburgh-area food distributor with deep roots, Paragon Foods.

“Because of our distribution reach, they thought we would be a good company to partner with. The quality of what the farmers do, and the Penn’s Corner brand itself, is so positive. So we want to market, sell and supply as much of this product as we can,” says Paragon CEO Elaine Bellin.

Bellin’s grandfather Joseph founded Paragon in 1962. The company long has been a significant supplier of produce, dairy and specialty items to Pittsburgh-area restaurants, as well as to hospitals, universities and other institutions. In 2016, Paragon moved from its longtime Lawrenceville home to a state-of-the-art, 88,000-square-foot facility in Warrendale and also launched a fresh-cut produce line called JustCut.

Once the farms are vetted to make sure they fit Paragon’s guidelines, Penn’s Corner will operate as a unique brand under the Paragon umbrella. All food will the routed to Paragon’s Warrendale location and then distributed via the company’s network of trucks. “I think this will be great for the farmers. Paragon’s distribution network is so much wider than what Penn’s Corner was able to accomplish on our own,” says Beach, adding, “More will be gained than what is lost.”

The acquisition also offers Paragon the opportunity to expand its access to regionally grown food — while that currently is part of the Paragon mix, it primarily sources its goods on a national scale. “There is a demand for the food that these farmers grow,” says Bellin.

Categories: Eat Street