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The go-betweens

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

By Ted Whipp, The Windsor Star

Izabela and Mark Muzzin's local food roots run as deep as their commitment to bring fresh ingredients to restaurants.

They met at a Windsor's waterfront Festival Epicure in 2006, as they worked at adjacent booths. His family includes the owners of Armando's restaurants around Windsor and Essex County. Her family owns the Aleksander Estate Winery in Ruthven. The couple, married in 2008, now have a one-month old son, Matteo, and three-year-old daughter, Maya.

They saw the demand for locally grown food firsthand, as Mark started cooking for events and Izabela's family set up their winery.

Instead of shopping at conventional retail stores for ingredients, they worked their contacts and drew from knowledge of the area, families and farms.

One grower led to another, and the favourable reviews from winery visitors about the local flavours resonated with the Muzzins.

"Suddenly, Izabela and I were like, 'I think we're onto something here,'" said Mark, 35.

"I think maybe we can move in a different direction and start making this (food) available to people because they want it and they've never tasted it before."

The aim was to offer farms and restaurants a way to get local ingredients from field to fork. Now two years old, County Connect has a become a distributor working with 20 to 30 area growers. It delivers their beef, lamb, honey, produce, mushrooms and other ingredients to about a dozen area restaurants. Customers include Caesars Windsor's Neros, Jack's Gastropub in Kingsville, Walkerville's Twisted Apron and Foia in Tecumseh.

"I've always said we're building communities," said Izabela, 34. "We're just connecting the people in the community and allowing people to be part of that."

The Muzzins opened the Butcher of Kingsville a year ago. The attractive shop on the town's main street provides a bricks and mortar retail presence. It builds on the local food approach, with local meats and food, such as soups, prepared on-site.

"We're working on both sides of the spectrum here, with the primary producers and the end users," Izabela said. "A lot of our farmers, for example, they don't even market themselves."

The businesses aren't making money yet, she said. "There's a lot of first-year expenses and obviously loans we still have to pay back. But we're getting there. So we're on schedule."

Mark believes the future is assured because the local items have developed a following among chefs and their guests.

"We deal with these people face to face," Izabela said. "So when we're delivering to them, they look at us and we have to be accountable for everything that we do."

A premium for the specialty items hasn't been a deterrent because of the quality, she said. "A lot of restaurants found us. They heard about what we were doing."

Chef Patrick McClary at Caesars Windsor views County Connect as a liaison.

"We needed someone who represents all the farmers and brings their products to our back door. That's what we were lacking," said McCleary, who directs culinary, food and beverages services for the casino.

The relationship opened up menu possibilities. County Connect organized a farm tour last year for chefs to meet growers and learn firsthand about their techniques, variety of products and approaches to producing natural foods.

McClary recalled receiving a delivery of green beans from the Leamington-area Adamson Farms that was so fresh he could still feel the warmth of the sun on them.

Angus beef from Shawn Morris's Comber-area farm has made it onto the Neros Steak House main menu, along with lamb from the Fuerth family's Ewe Dell farm near Woodslee.

Neros has developed the special menu Essex Delight with local fare served on Wednesday evenings that includes tomato salad and lamb, striploin and rib-eye steak entrees.

"It's definitely coming together," McClary said, adding he expects more ingredients, dishes and wines to follow.

People want to experience the area with its distinctive foods, he said. "They want to identify with the farm they drove by a thousand times but really didn't know what it was all about."

Morris, one of the area's larger beef farmers with more than 300 head of cattle, said County Connects buys a small percentage of his cattle sent to market.

"They pay a good price, they pay promptly, they're good to deal with. So, it's a benefit to me to sell to them," he said. "They're very fussy about the quality of the product they sell, which is a good way to be. I think their business has a lot of growth potential to it."

Mark Muzzin believes County Connect has come to mean more than its beef, Sun Parlor Honey and other specialty items, like the verjus grape juice from the new Oxley Estate Winery that can be used for salad dressings and marinades.

"At the end of the day, I don't think we're selling food," Mark said. "We're selling an experience, we're selling a story and that's more of what it is."

Farms and their foods help define this area, said Izabela, a trained sommelier. "There's a very nice balance of acidity and sugars in the fruits and vegetables that we grow here. And that's, if you're asking the sommelier part of me, that's what we have versus other areas in the world."

twhipp@windsorstar.com or 519-255-6863

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