Specialty food shops find ways to support local ag

In my constant quest for really good food, I noticed that a number of specialty food shops - usually stores that focus on gourmet olive oils and vinegars - find ways to incorporate local food products and agriculture into their businesses.

Take for instance the Olive Oil Outpost, located in the popular tourist destination of Anna Maria. Right outside the store, the Olive Oil Outpost sells veggies like eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes from nearby Hunsader Farms, King Farm and Mixon Fruit Farm.

Inside the store, owner Kelly Kary sells raw honey from a source in Bradenton, and she carries caviar from the Anna Maria Fish company, which actually sources the caviar from Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory.

Kary also sells Florida marmalades and posts information on nearby businesses that support local agriculture - for instance, there's a flyer in the store promoting how nearby Poppo's Taqueria sells tacos with locally sourced bison.

Of course, like any food shop best known for olive oils and other gourmet delights, Kary has products available from around the world. However, the focus on selling local when possible comes from both Kary's preferences and consumer requests.

"I believe in local products but some people ask, especially people visiting here, 'What do you have that's local?'" Kary said.

One thing Kary cannot carry from a local source is olive oil. "People will ask if our olive oils are from Florida and I politely laugh and tell them no, but I show them our local caviar and vegetables," she said. Olive growth is under experimentation right now in the state but is not yet ready for prime time.

Kary said she'd love to carry more local products, such as cheeses and eggs, but restrictions on smaller vendors selling those items to retail stores limits their availability.

The Olive Oil Outpost is not the only specialty shop with local ag ties. Katy Rose Olive Oils in Lakewood Ranch sells local honey and spaghetti sauce. "We try to do as much local as we can," said owner Don Whitson-Schmidt. Whitson-Schmidt said he'd be "very interested" in carrying Florida-sourced olive oil if it ever became available on a larger scale.

Although it's not exactly agriculture, many specialty food stores also go out of their way to support local food producers. Vanessa Wilks and Nancy Zareczny, both owners of Middle Earth Olive Oil Company in Dunedin, said they stock the Florida-based Joy's Gourmet Garlic, Jolly Mon sauces from Largo, and specialty products from Tarpon Springs's Delicať Gourmet.

"We like to find local homegrown vendors. It's nice to meet people face-to-face and develop a relationship with them," said Wilks.

Moving away from the olive oil shops, I noticed around Valentine's Day that the Bradenton-based chocolate shop Richey's Fine Chocolates had a sign out front that said "Florida Strawberries, Richeys Chocolate." The next time I saw the sign, it said "Bradenton Strawberries, Richey's Chocolate." It was as if the store was beckoning me to include them in this story.

"We're getting our strawberries from O'Brien Family Farms," which is also in Bradenton, said owner Mardee Westerman. "We'll go through five flats in two days." Each flat weighs about 12 pounds.

This is the second year that Richey's used locally sourced strawberries for its Valentine's Day strawberry-dipped chocolates. "We hope this year we'll get more notoriety for a 100 percent local product," Westerman said.