Bluebird Grain Farms

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by Ashley Lodato, Bluebird Grain Farms staff writer

Those who know Portland, OR’s Wellspent Market owner Jim Dixon, those who have heard him expound upon the virtues of really good olive oil, may be surprised to learn that for a time in his life, he bought his olive oil at Costco. “I considered myself a well-informed cook at the time,” Dixon says, “but I had never tasted good olive oil.”

In the mid-1990s, however, Dixon’s life–or at least his palate–changed. Dixon and his wife, a “New Jersey Sicilian American,” traveled to Italy, where Dixon had his first taste of delicious, bona-fide extra-virgin (a term that is unregulated in the US) olive oil. There was no going back. “After that,” Dixon says, “we went back every couple of years to support our own habits. All I ever wanted was an endless supply of good olive oil.”

The couple brought home as much good olive oil as they could each trip, but after a few trips it wasn’t sustainable. “We could get enough oil home to last until the next time,” Dixon says. “So in 1999 we were traveling along the Amalfi Coast, and stopped at this great little farm-to-table place–before farm-to-table was a thing–and they made their own olive oil. We cut a deal on shipping and decided to start importing.”

“We knew nothing about importing,” Dixon continues. “We’d ship a large quantity, sell half of it to friends to cover the shipping cost, and keep the rest for our own kitchen.”

Real Good Food, Dixon’s original import company, was founded on a mission of supplying his own pantry, but soon became a source of high quality Italian food products for others in the Portland area. Dixon came from a technical writing background and was thus connected with various Portland restaurant owners, including Genoa (now closed) and Nostrana, both of which, along with others, started buying his imported oil. Dixon soon added to his imports salt and farro, a grain with a nutty flavor and ancient roots and a staple of Italian cooking.

Dixon’s interest in farro led him to his ongoing relationship with Bluebird Grain Farms. “Brooke [Lucy, Bluebird co-owner] came down here in a pickup with all these 50-lb bags of farro and flour,” Dixon says. “We’d buy it and put it in small packages.” Farro’s whole-grain, nutritious profile appealed to Dixon’s sensibilities, and he likes to support small family agriculture, so Bluebird was a fit for him. “And then suddenly farro got popular and was sold everywhere,” he says.

When Dixon decided to open a storefront, he says it was very simple. “We didn’t have enough inventory, so we were spreading product out and filling the empty shelves with art and other things.” Dixon’s business partner recognized that there were other things the market could offer, so they started expanding. Eventually Wellspent Market began carrying “pantry staples from around the world,” ranging from vinegar to grains to beans to dairy to housewares to wines (which are managed by Dixon’s son, Joe), and everything in between. It’s “everything we love, nothing we don’t,” Dixon says.

“We’re always on the lookout for small, local producers,” says Dixon. “We seek out women-owned producers, other marginalized producers.” The way Dixon sees it, he and his business partner, Noah Cable, are “a couple of privileged white guys who have a platform.” So through their sourcing decisions for Wellspent Market, they’re leveraging their influence.
For years, Dixon was a member of Slow Food Portland, which promotes “good, clean, fair food.” That mantra guides Dixon–“it’s what we do at Wellspent,” he says. “We’re about real food, clean food. And that means no chemicals, but also food produced without a giant environmental impact. Fair food–food that doesn’t exploit the people who grow and harvest it.”

Also for years–20 of them–Dixon’s operation was a one-man show. “I picked up pallets of olive oil in my old Vanagon, filled and labeled bottles, and made deliveries. I was the bookkeeper, recipe developer, and janitor, and I worked a day job [as a technical writer for the City of Portland]. As my long-time customers remember, the Real Good Food ‘store’ was only open a couple of days each week, and they had to wait if they needed oil or salt.” With the addition of Cable, Dixon was able to expand his offerings and focus on his passion: real food, good food.

Through Wellspent Market, Dixon likes to “tell stories through food.” He refers to the Culinary Breeding Network and talks about “working with growers to develop products that grow in the region.” Pointing to Feast Portland–which celebrates the diverse food and beverage communities in Portland–Dixon notes that he learns about food producers from other farmers and growers. “Stories taste good,” Dixon says. “All these small food networks are sharing each others’ stories. We tell the stories about the food we sell. And our customers respond to that.”

“There’s a lot of cool agricultural stuff going on around here,” Dixon says. “Bluebird Grain Farms fits into that for us.”

Real Good Food and Wellspent Market are inextricably linked, but in simple terms Real Good Food is the brand and the regional wholesale business, while Wellspent Market is the retail food store. Like other retail shops, Wellspent Market had to reframe its practices for COVID. Prior to the pandemic, about half of Wellspent Market’s sales were restaurant purchases. “All that revenue went away,” says Dixon. “We closed our store doors and wondered, ‘Are we doomed?'”
Dixon and Cable took the opportunity to ramp up the online sales system they had been developing slowly, and focused on responding to individual customer demand. “When things shut down, we had to figure out how to get products to our customers,” Dixon says. “We did deliveries, we did curbside pickup. We made it work. But it also gave us the incentive to fine tune our online ordering systems.”

“We increased our revenue. We’re still not making a lot of money, but at least we didn’t go out of business,” Dixon acknowledges cheerfully.

Gazing at the hundreds (thousands?) of products on Wellspent Market’s shelves, or scrolling through them on the market’s website, the apparent complexity can be overwhelming. “Do I want the organic gold sesame paste or the organic white sesame paste? Zinfandel vinegar or rosé vinegar?” you wonder. But there’s a method to the multitude of products. “Our overarching goal is to sell good food that helps people eat better,” Dixon says. “There are some products that will make your life better. Good olive oil is one of them. If you  can understand how a few simple ingredients will make your life better, you’ll enjoy your food more. Our goal is just to tell you how to make food good.” To this end, Wellspent Market offers a vast archive of simple, tasty recipes.
“I can cook, but I’m not a chef,” Dixon notes. “I like simple food–food with humble ingredients. I like to encourage people to cook this way. I think this can help people cook more at home and eat better.”

Dixon keeps his pantry stocked with good olive oil and salts, sources of acid like vinegars and lemons, and focuses on simple proteins and grains. “Most of my diet is beans, grains, and the cabbage family,” Dixon says. “I like whole grain pasta, different flavored pastas, Bluebird’s Einka & French Lentil Blend.”

Yes, he eats carbs, and plenty of them, heedless of the bum rap carbohydrates get in mainstream media. “I get cranky when people push me about that,” Dixon sighs. “People don’t pay attention to the details, they just hear something is bad and eliminate it. Gluten intolerance is more related to the industrial food system. Those ancient grains [like Bluebird’s Einka and Emmer Farro, for example] are much better, they digest better. Their makeup is just so different than the highly processed grains you typically see on shelves.” (There’s not much at Wellspent Market that Dixon doesn’t like to eat, but gluten-free pasta tops that list.)

Dixon credit’s Wellspent Market’s “fierce loyal customer base” with the store’s sustainability. Customers rely on the shop’s newsletter with new recipes, the shelves stocked with a comfortable blend of old favorites and new products. A customer or a restaurant chef might ask about a particular product the store doesn’t sell, and Dixon’s team investigates it and decides whether to stock it.

“Over the years the only change is that now we offer more stuff. We like to play around with different flavor profiles, experiment with different products. But our customers know they can count on us to offer their reliable pantry preferences,” Dixon says. “Ultimately, we’re still focused on real food, on good food–on real good food.”
Read Dixon’s olive oil “rant” HERE.
Learn more about Wellspent Market HERE or find them on Facebook.