Some Valley merchants differ on the word's seemingly evolving definition.
Long before the word "artisan" was trampled to death by marketing mumbo jumbo, cities like Portland, San Francisco, and Boston were homes to thriving CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), farmers markets, and independent shops and eateries selling locally sourced food.
Phoenix, however, took its first serious dip into the local food pool just two years ago, with the 2010 opening of Phoenix Public Market's Urban Grocery downtown. Touting fresh vegetables, fruits, and other locally grown products, the nonprofit grocery also boasted a lunch counter and wine bar. But while Valley consumers outside the city seemed to enjoy weekend procurements of a twine-tied bag of local this or a Mason jar of local that at neighborhood farmers markets, they weren't willing to drive into downtown Phoenix for them on a regular basis. And those who did live near the market weren't willing to pay the market's relatively high prices.
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The result was the shuttering in May of Urban Grocery, just two years after it opened. The retail outlet's demise raises the questions: Is there a viable market for locally produced foods in Phoenix? And as for the producers of handcrafted fare in the Valley, how can one reach a level of success (i.e., make a living) amid our sprawl without reaching a point at which some could accuse a product of not being "artisanal" anymore?
Lisa Reinhardt, CEO and founder of Wei of Chocolate, the Phoenix chocolatier that distributes organic, fair trade, and vegan dark chocolate on the Internet, in Valley farmers markets, and in shops and spas across the country, says it requires a new way of thinking.
Defining her product as "created with all the love and care of artisan food" but stopping short of declaring it handmade, Reinhardt says, "A food stops being artisan when the concern for profit supersedes the love of what pure, honest, natural ingredients offer. Making a decent living at artisanal food is possible, but it cannot follow the 'logic' of traditional business.
"Part of the shift involves buyers who are participants, not just consumers. By engaging in thoughtful tasting and awareness of the holistic impact of our food system, the community learns through experience why the value of real food cannot be measured in money alone," she says.
But for Shannon Dufresne, owner of the former Crave Artisan Ice Cream, keeping a product artisan is much more black and white.
"Food stops being artisan when it is mass-produced and more machines are creating the food than actual skilled hands," Dufresne says. "Food loses its soul when this happens — and you can always taste that disconnect."
Dufresne, who closed her wholesale ice cream business in 2011 after three years to promote artisanal foods via her website, Crave Artisan Kitchen, says there currently is a market of people in the Valley, albeit a small segment, that appreciates artisanal food and is willing to pay a premium for it. The trick to making a living, she adds, is finding those people.
"Selling wholesale is rough, because you don't have the benefit of tapping into the direct buyer," Dufresne says. "I would say the secret is in direct retail, both as a storefront and especially online. Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream in Ohio is a perfect example of this."
Then there's Charleen Badman. As the local ingredient-focused chef of Scottsdale's FnB and Baratin restaurants, which she co-owns with Pavle Milic, Badman selects the locally produced goods for the pair's Bodega Market and says keeping a product truly artisan simply means doing it yourself.
"When it's been sold to somebody big or you see it everywhere, you know it's been mass-marketed. It loses its sparkle," says Badman. "You have to have a hand in it. It's like [being a chef] at a restaurant — once you're not there, it loses something."
Badman says the secret of stocking Bodega's shelves with bona fide artisan products means tasting everything and having a relationship with those who make it. Because she uses many of the products in her restaurants, Badman knows that some of them, due to their seasonality, cannot be sold year-round. And despite the shuttering of Urban Grocery, Badman sees the desire for locally produced goods becoming more prevalent as the city grows — and not just in downtown, which she acknowledges as a tough place for artisans to thrive in.
Badman cites the Whole Foods Market chain as recognizing the demand by carrying several locally grown and made goods in its Valley stores.
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Of course, the higher price points attached to truly artisanal products means the market for them is exclusionary. "Like hiring Picasso to do your portrait, it's good, but you have to pay an outlandish price," says economist Tyler Cowen in his new book, An Economist Gets Lunch.
When consumers want what they can't afford, the marketing industry swoops in to make us all feel better. Suddenly, everyone can go artisanal.
In terms of its purity, the word "artisan" may have gone the way of "natural" and "organic," to a place where those words raise nearly as many questions as they answer. But it seems Valley residents will continue to desire artisanal products, even if they're not easily geographically and economically accessible to a general population.
That's why it might be a source of comfort that, in the face of dubious ad claims, questionable product origins, and cynical marketing, there's still one artisanal product that we can still count on: the homegrown, home-cooked meal.