Saratoga Springs

Heaping Helpings: 9 Miles East Farm in Saratoga Springs adapts meal service through pandemic

Main: Julio Gutierrez removes a "Barnyard Pizza" from the oven; Top Right: Gordon Sacks, co-owner of 9 Miles East with cooler bins used to make home deliveries; Bottom Right: Raul Mejia-Franco prepares deliveries; Also baby food and prepared foods
Main: Julio Gutierrez removes a "Barnyard Pizza" from the oven; Top Right: Gordon Sacks, co-owner of 9 Miles East with cooler bins used to make home deliveries; Bottom Right: Raul Mejia-Franco prepares deliveries; Also baby food and prepared foods

SARATOGA SPRINGS – By now it’s old news: Restaurants have had a rough go of it for the past year.

Those that have fared best are those that have been able to rapidly add successful takeout and delivery lines to replace some of the in-person dining business they’re missing out on.

The cafe and pizza delivery service that 9 Miles East Farm opened last June in Saratoga Springs had no time to adapt — it was a work in progress when the pandemic hit.

And the adaptation the owners needed to make was in a different direction than most: Instead of moving from in-person dining to delivery, 9 Miles East needed to move from workplace delivery to home delivery.

It has done that, and regained some of the business it lost in the spring of 2020. With COVID restrictions easing and warm weather approaching, in-person dining is picking up, too, both indoors and outdoors.

“Mid-March of last year, 60% of our revenue was coming from workplace wellness. And our workplace wellness model was built on this now-quaint idea of people going to work in offices. And we delivered healthy meals to these offices,” co-owner Gordon Sacks said.

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The operation was delivering meals to about 100 Capital Region workplaces per week when COVID arrived in New York in March 2020.

“And that all came to a crashing halt,” Sacks added. “The reason we’re still here is we have a subscription meal operation.”

Residential customers text in their orders. On their designated day, they find a Coleman cooler full of chilled meals on their doorstep. A week later, they place the empty cooler on their doorstep and a 9 Miles East driver grabs it, leaving a full cooler in its place.

“While we lost a lot of revenue on the workplace side, there was a little bit of a seesaw effect, and many of the people we used to serve in the workplace, we now go to their house,” Sacks said.

The operation has reached far afield to do this. Along with its Capital Region customers, there are clusters in Boston and in Norwalk, Connecticut.

In 2005, Gordon and Mary Sacks purchased farmland in Schuylerville on which they began growing vegetables and cooking them into meals. There was a small sit-down area, but mainly it was a delivery operation.

That’s what they had aspired to create — a hybrid that was not strictly a farm nor a restaurant, but an operation that combined both to get healthy meals onto the tables of people who lack time or inspiration to do the work themselves.
“We want to make it easy for busy people to eat healthy local foods. That’s what our business is,” Gordon said.

“I don’t want to compete with the farmers’ market. It’s hard enough to be a farmer selling a commodity already. What our job is is to find people who aren’t farmers’ market customers and bring them to the party.”

About the word “local”: It’s relative. Ingredients come from far and wide — the kitchen crew is making sourdough bread and pizza dough from flour grown and milled outside Ithaca, for example.

Items grown on the Sacks’ farm in Schuylerville are used only about six months out of the year.

“We’re not purists. We don’t pretend that everything in this box came from our farm,” Sacks said, holding up one of his Go Box salads. “It didn’t. Especially this time of year. I don’t try to be a year-round grower. There are some very good year-round growers in this market. My hat’s off to them. It’s a very difficult thing to do economically.”

And he doesn’t define “local” as the 518 area code.

“I don’t impose an arbitrary ‘X miles’ limit. What’s the point?” Sacks said. “I’ll tell you what’s not local: the Central Valley in California, which is where most of your produce comes from.”

The Connecticut native worked for years in the finance industry to build the seed money to make the vision a reality in Schuylerville.

A decade of growth brought them to the point of needing a bigger kitchen four years ago. A former muffler shop on Excelsior Avenue in Saratoga Springs roughly nine miles west of the farm became the new mothership in June 2020.

It has indoor and outdoor seating, and has a brisk walk-in/takeout business. But anyone familiar with the restaurant industry will recognize immediately that 9 Miles East is not the standard restaurant. The kitchen is far larger than the dining area; the huge walk-in chiller is full of prepared foods; and Tetris stacks of colorful Coleman coolers stand by for sterilization and reloading with the next batch of deliveries.

The workplace wellness meal programs that accounted for 60% of 9 Miles East’s revenue are now down to about 10%.

To survive, 9 Miles East adapted.

Along with boosting the home meal delivery model, the operation has added other producers’ goods to their delivery routes. So with your salad or soup or pizza, you can get a dozen eggs from a local farm or yogurt made in Washington County.

“There’s no economic model for delivering eggs to somebody’s home,” Sacks said. “But when you’re covering your costs on the pizza, then it makes sense to bring other products. So we’re basically blurring the line between a pizza place and a farm.”

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He added: “We’re really interested in blurring categories. We’re looking for other local organizations to partner with and one good example is Northshire.”

Buy a book from the independent Broadway bookstore and 9 Miles East will deliver it to you. Hopefully you’ll buy some of their food, too — if not now, then later.

“We don’t do it because it’s a thrilling moneymaker,” Sacks said. “We do it because it’s great to support local business, and frankly, the same people that buy from Northshire are going to learn about us and buy food from us, so everybody wins.”

Another delivery partnership is with Seedlings, a baby food maker founded by Saratoga Hospital pediatrician and neonatologist Dr. Jennifer Lefner.

There’s also a health partnership: 9 Miles East is working to recruit riders for the American Diabetes Association’s virtual 2021 New England Tour de Cure and to raise awareness of diabetes, which is something Sacks tries to address with a menu featuring whole grains and vegetables.

“Diabetes and the related metabolic syndrome conditions were the foundational health issues of our time until 12 months ago,” and they will be when COVID-19 is vanquished, he said.

Finally, the restaurant itself is a result of 9 Miles East’s partnership with its customers: To raise funds for retrofitting the space, Sacks went on, an online investment platform for small Main Street businesses.

“Those are the people we want to see benefit from our continued growth,” Sacks said of his customer/investors, who are promised a 150% return on investment.

It’s a debt investment, not an equity investment — investors don’t own shares in the business. If they invest $1,000, they’ll get back $1,500 over time as a share of profits. The busier 9 Miles East is, the sooner investors are likely to see their profit.

“So you want a better return on your investment?” Sacks asked. “Super! Buy more pizza! Everybody wins!”

9 Miles East raised $410,000 through Mainvest, which Sacks said was a record amount at the time. He’s now featured on Mainvest’s website, head of lettuce in one hand and a pair of coolers on the table beside him.

The one-year anniversary of the Excelsior Street operation will be in June. The operating environment in that one year has not been what Gordon and Mary Sacks, or any other entrepreneur, could have predicted.

“We survived, which I consider a huge victory,” Sacks said.

“And we survived because our team worked really hard and got creative. Our customers like our product. We have good products and good service, and we were able to adapt that to changing circumstances.”

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