Califonia Bountiful

Farm to food truck

May/June 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Wide variety of produce feeds Clif Bar founders' 'bruschetteria'

John McConnell, executive chef of the Clif Family Bruschetteria Food Truck, serves dishes made with ingredients from Clif Family Farm. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Even for a food- and wine-centric region such as the Napa Valley, it's practically unheard of for a food truck to have an entire farm at its disposal, especially one devoted to growing fresh produce year-round for the truck's seasonal menu.

The prospect seemed "too good to be true," said John McConnell, executive chef of the Clif Family Bruschetteria Food Truck, recalling his job interview with owners Gary Erickson and his wife, Kit Crawford.

"I remember after meeting them and thinking to myself, I would be a fool to turn this away," McConnell said.

If the single "f" in the Clif name looks familiar, you probably recognize the energy bars that also bear the moniker, named for Erickson's father, Clifford, who was an avid gardener and loved fruit trees—so much so that the couple named their orchard after him. After starting Clif Bar & Co. in 1992, Erickson and Crawford moved their family to the Napa Valley in 1997 and began expanding their business into winemaking, farming and other foods.

"Growing food and sharing it with our neighbors was part of my family life growing up," Crawford said. "When we moved to the Napa Valley, I knew I would like to grow food on a larger scale."

The process began with Crawford and her brother Brad planting an orchard that slowly evolved into a working farm as they added more fruit trees and a vegetable garden. It was "a family affair" from the beginning, General Manager Linzi Gay said, pointing out that as the farm grew, the family needed an outlet for all the produce.

Their experiences bicycling through northern Italy inspired husband and wife Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, owners of Clif Bar & Co., to start the food truck. Photo courtesy of Clif Family Farm

From Italy to Napa

Inspiration for the bruschetteria food truck came by way of Erickson and Crawford's travels through northern Italy, where they became friends with owners of a restaurant that specializes in bruschetta, a classic Italian dish of toasted bread dressed in olive oil, rubbed with garlic and topped with fresh ingredients such as tomatoes and other vegetables.

"On cycling trips to Italy, we would often end a long day on the bike sharing bruschetta and local wine," Crawford said. "We wanted to offer a similar experience in our own tasting room."

Their plan was to use ingredients from their organic farm in Pope Valley to re-create some of the "delicious and vibrant, unique toppings" for the bruschetta, Crawford said. Erickson was specific about the bread, McConnell recalled: Slices needed to be large enough, almost the size of a small pizza, so that the bruschetta could be easily shared.

"They were fascinated by this concept (of the bruschetteria) because nobody was doing anything like this," McConnell said.

The food truck offers a variety of bruschetta, main dishes, sides and salads, such as this chicory-citrus salad. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Pedal power

This time of year, it's not uncommon to see cyclists come through the Clif Family Tasting Room in St. Helena, grab an espresso or a Clif Bar, fill their water bottles, go about their day and later return from their cycling trip to the tasting room for a chilled glass of wine and a bite to eat from the food truck, open since 2014.

"The first three years of our existence, it was the best-kept secret locally," McConnell said of the bright-green mobile eatery.

Though he came from a fine-dining background and had never stepped inside a food truck until his current position, McConnell said he was "totally excited" about designing his own kitchen and bringing Erickson and Crawford's vision of the bruschetteria to fruition. Typically parked just off the back patio of the tasting room, the food truck serves a variety of bruschetta, salads, sides and main dishes that change according to what's in season at the farm.

At the height of its production season, the 90-acre farm—which includes a vineyard that produces about 8,000 cases of wine annually—supplies 70% of the food truck's produce. Peppers from the farm go into the company's line of hot sauces and jellies, and the orchard's more than 30 varieties of fruit are used to make jams, preserves and olive oil. Chickens, which the farm added in 2015, provide eggs for some of McConnell's dishes. Ingredients not available from the farm, such as pork, other meats and bread, come from local farms and vendors.

Tessa Henry manages Clif Family Farm, growing more than 70 crops. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Taking a backwards approach

As the farm's manager for the last three years, Tessa Henry said she likes that Clif Family Farm grows such a wide variety of crops to promote biodiversity "in the middle of what is pretty much all vineyards." But managing the farm's more than 70 crops is labor-intensive and can be challenging, she acknowledged, especially when trying to figure out how much to grow at different times of the year to match what McConnell needs.

"We both have to be super-flexible," she said, noting that she keeps in constant contact with the kitchen, particularly during the busy summer months. "Because we both have to work with each other to make it work, I think it makes both of us think outside the box a little bit."

Although she's mindful about choosing crops that will do well in the region, Henry said she also considers what McConnell wants to see on the menu and what's unique that he can showcase.

Whereas most chefs create a menu and then acquire the ingredients to execute the recipes, McConnell said he takes a more "backwards approach," in that many of his recipes are born in the kitchen as he tries to adapt his menu to either an abundance or a shortage of certain items.

"You have to be open to the idea that it is in Mother Nature's hands. We are only helping the journey along," he said, adding that his goal as a chef is to validate Henry's work "by using any and all produce that we receive from her."

Henry works on the farm's vegetable garden, which supplies 70% of the produce used by the Clif Family Bruschetteria Food Truck. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

For Henry, what's nice about the arrangement with McConnell, she said, is that she never has to worry about finding a home for her crops.

"I've never worked somewhere where the chef will see something that he likes in a seed catalog and relay that to me," she said. "I think that's really cool because that makes it extra exciting for me to grow, because it was a special request."

Noting how Clif Bars were one of the first certified organic energy bars on the market in 2003, Erickson said supporting organic agriculture has long been "an important part of Clif Bar's journey." That business provided a platform for Erickson and Crawford to promote sustainable agriculture on a larger scale, General Manager Gay said, and now with Clif Family Farm, they're doing it "on a very personal level."

"It has been a great opportunity to put our passion for organic farming into practice on our own farm," Erickson said.

Ching Lee


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