It is a typical day at Roundup Corner (also known as Dawson Lake Store or Cox’s Conoco … depending on what sign you choose to read) in Lewis, Colorado. In the dusty pock-marked triangle formed by US 491 and Highway 184, there are the usual sights: the vacationer adjusting two matching ATVs in the back of his tricked-out pickup; the Kenworth with a load of scrap metal and the hood up, parked off to the side idling with the sound of marbles on metal; the well-pressed Budweiser guy with the delivery truck the length of a swimming pool, shiny, quiet and functional. And there is the tourist filling his Camry, adjusting his jean shorts up over his paunch, suspiciously scanning his surroundings.
In the middle of it all is a weathered Ford F350 box truck, covered with white house paint to conceal the prior life it had as a U-Haul. In the back, by the salvaged cargo box door, waits Ole Bye. His diesel tank is full and now all he needs is two pounds of microgreens, five pounds of kale and a pound of cilantro and he will be on his way.
Here is the universal conundrum facing the local food movement: Just how do you get the farmer’s bounty to the chef’s table when the farmer is overwhelmed with growing food and the chef is swamped with cooking it?
Enter Ole Bye and his refrigerated overhauled U-Haul.
“I saw a need and filled that need,” Bye says of Local Food Logic, his delivery business that brings food from the farms to the buyers.
Two days a week, Bye, a part-time bike mechanic and a struggling artist, is on the road between Telluride, Cortez and Durango. On Mondays and Wednesdays he drives in excess of 350 miles in his re-appropriated three-speed diesel. The engine literally roars at highway speed as if begging the driver for just one more gear (and before you ask, yes, biodiesel is part of the grand plan). The refrigerated truck has no air conditioning. So, while Bye sweats and his dog, Maddy, pants madly (“a West Virginia Retriever” aka rescued curly looking thing), the carrots remain cool as the cucumbers. “I would offer to play a CD, but we wouldn’t be able to hear it,” Bye says, his voice raised to overcome the turbulent weather pattern created by the 1990 Ford’s wide-open windows. At this moment, it is better than air conditioning in some inexplicable way.
Here’s how it works: Monday is office day for Ole Bye. This means he contacts all the clients currently working with him – farmers and restaurateurs and grocers … as if there couldn’t be a more disparate group. He sits in his rented guest house near Dolores, Colorado, not far from his bed and around the corner from his kitchen, in front of his computer working the phone (a flip phone he paid 20 bucks for five years ago. “Baby steps,” Bye says). Right now, Telluride restaurants are his main customers (Bye has his theories as to why: it is isolated and has a need). If everything goes according to plan, farmers upload their inventory lists to his website, essentially saying to the virtual market “here is what we have.”
“Then I start calling chefs,” Bye says. This requires patience. It is like juggling, but with people. It requires leaving a lot of voicemails for a lot of chefs. “Chefs don’t tend to answer their phones,” Bye says. Ironically, farmers do. While new software has been helping in his second year, it is still a Rubik’s Cube to be solved at the beginning of every week.
While Bye will pick up almost anything, he tries to make it economically viable for all parties involved. “I don’t say no to anybody.” A single pound of Napa cabbage can make the cut. So can microgreens by the ounce (some restaurants order two ounces at a time). On the other end of the spectrum, Bye can be delivering whole lambs or up to 100 pounds of fresh produce to one client. Drop off points help tremendously. Like Roundup Corner where Michele Martz and her husband, Mark Mitteis, of SongHaven Farm in Cahone rendezvous with Bye on a weekly basis. Today the farmers are running a little behind.
“Scheduling people is one of my challenges. It feels like I have a business with 20 employees, none of which I have any control over and none of which are actually employed by me or anybody. There is a lot of love needed to keep everything together,” Bye says. “I am dealing with very independent people.”
But the love is not lost on anybody. “He is awesome,” Rosie Carter of Stone Free Farm says. “He has expanded our sales and brought us into the Telluride Market.” And it is a seemingly ideal system. Bye is the conduit. A mobile market. Farmers hand him the pre-arranged order, Bye delivers it to the waiting chef where he picks up a check that is then handed over to the farmer at the next exchange. Bye makes his cut with a 20 percent delivery charge. “Chefs have been happy with the prices,” Bye says.
Pickups can have the feeling of a made-for-movie drug deal. There is the nondescript box truck sitting alone in a parking lot at some remote location, a lanky 32-year-old standing outside with an unruly frock of curly sun-baked hair checking his watch. A Subaru pulls up. The booty is transferred (microgreens and cilantro in this case). Pleasantries are exchanged. Everybody moves on happier.
Deliveries can have a different feel altogether. Bye has a philosophy of dressing for success. “I wear dress shoes and a collared shirt (untucked) when I deliver in Telluride.” He calls it business casual. “I would like to have a uniform shirt someday.” He is first to admit, though, that he would probably sell more if he dressed in “a straw hat and overalls.”
Next stop is Four Corners Nursery for a pick up. The next, Southwest Memorial for a drop off. The next? Vicky Paxton, who is babysitting her grandchildren, to pick up 20 dozen eggs for P & D Grocery in Mancos. “He has gotten me more egg customers for sure,” Paxton says.
There are stops at Dave Banga’s Mancos farm, where Bye maintains a walk-in cooler plugged in not far from the dirt road; a delivery to the new El Moro in Durango; another to the Travelers World Café’s Airstream on College Avenue; and then a stop at the gas station, Hesperus Oasis, off 160 to meet up with Denise Stovall of LB Brands to pick up two pounds of ground goat and three pounds of pork sausage. There is also an exchange of a frozen pig head that was a non-commercial side deal between friends – details of which were only privy to the parties involved, except the pig.
At this point, as is often the case, Bye is a little behind schedule. “It is kind of challenging to work with your friends and maintain a schedule.”
Bye says he is in this for the long haul. First on his list of capital improvements are plastic bins for all his farms. Then maybe a hand truck (he carries everything via his back muscles). Then an iPhone. “We are pretty much in the beginning stages of an effective local food system,” Bye says. “It’s going to take time. But there are enough people behind it. I just have to be patient.”
And for a guy who spent more than a year trying to make a living selling his miniature landscapes that he created entirely in the confines of bottles (think ship in a bottle, but instead, a whole intricate landscape including trees, hills, houses, bridges, etc.), patience just might be on his side.
“It is safe to say I have never had a career,” Bye, who studied photography in college, confesses. “This is the most meaningful thing I have ever done in my life.”