Ellis Grossman mounts a dark green John Deere tractor at Thackeray Farms. It’s a week before the first day of spring, and 2012’s mild winter has made the turn of the season feel like early summer.
Grossman wears brown leather cowboy boots, khaki pants, and a light blue pinstripe shirt as he hooks the row hiller attachment to the tractor, but his Chanel sports watch hints that he’s not your typical farmer.
Grossman started Black Bean Co., a growing local chain of quick service, farm-to-table restaurants, two years ago at the age of 24. The acres of heirloom tomatoes waiting to sprout, as well as other spring crops on Thackeray Farms, will be used almost exclusively by his restaurants.
“I love being on the tractor,” Grossman says. “It’s one of the only times all day I can’t hear my cell phone ring.”
Grossman is partners with farmer Shawn Thackeray at Thackeray Farms. What started as an experiment with six crop rows has expanded into Grossman owning 35 acres of the Wadmalaw Island property.
He works at Thackeray at least five days out of his seven-day work week. In just two months, he’s put 10,000 miles on his new pickup truck, driving back and forth from the farm on Wadmalaw Island to his two restaurants, located downtown and on James Island. He’s working on opening a third Black Bean Co. in Mt. Pleasant.
Grossman has been in the food and beverage industry since he was 15. He’s young and bafflingly well-accomplished. After graduating from the Culinary Institute at Trident Tech, Grossman worked as the director of operations at Bojangle’s and then as a traveling manager at Taco Bell. At Bojangle’s, his job was to open new franchises.
During this time, Grossman also performed business consultations. That’s how he met Joseph Lawlor, who came to him with the idea of Black Bean Co. The two embarked on creating what Grossman calls the only drive-through, farm-to-table concept he knows of in the country. If it weren’t for his experience working fast food, Grossman never would have known how to open a restaurant where people can order from a drive-through window and get their food in less than two minutes.
What’s changed is the ingredients. Black Bean Co. serves “energy” food — vegan and vegetarian-friendly fare that appeals to a wide range of customers.
“I wanted to show people it could be done,” Grossman says. “It was more of a challenge. I wanted to prove that health food didn’t have to be slow food, expensive, or tasteless.”
Items at Black Bean Co. include wraps and salads, breakfast goods, smoothies, and dinner specials like soups made with whatever is seasonal. Carnivores can add chicken, shrimp, and turkey to just about anything. Gyros and half salads are priced under $6. They also sell great Greek yogurt.
Both restaurants assemble all the food to order — no sandbagging (an industry term for pre-making). In the kitchen on James Island, every line cook wears a headset. Thirty-six colorful ingredients are lined up in pans on the cold line so not a second is wasted pulling an item from the cooler.
Grossman says 80 percent of their produce comes from Thackeray Farms, when in season. In one week, both restaurants combined can move through 230 pounds of local greens. Shawn Thackeray sees Black Bean Co. as a way to expand his farming operation. For the past year, he’s mentored Grossman on the ins and outs.
“It’s a lot to take in at once,” says Thackeray. “Everyone thinks they want to farm until they find out it’s more than dropping seeds into the dirt. If don’t love it you won’t last.”
Grossman seconds that statement.
“It can be a very dirty job,” Grossman says. “One Sunday after it rained, Shawn and I were out here digging channels under every row with rakes and hoes to make sure they didn’t flood. You don’t pay people to fix stuff out here, you do it yourself.”
Before meeting Thackeray, Grossman says he couldn’t change a car battery. Now, he can take apart a tractor.
“Shawn knows what he is doing,” Grossman says. “It’s delicate work. To be able to rotate crops properly for 20 years like he has, and keep the land tight, that’s an art. Shawn doesn’t look at the ground and see dirt. He sees soil, a living organism.”
While Grossman predominantly handles sales and marketing at Thackeray, he can now legitimately say he’s a farmer. He grows food for Black Bean Co. because it’s the best way to be sustainable and ensure that his restaurants will continue to serve the best produce he can find — plants that are mature, without chemicals, and packed with nutritional density.
“The Black Bean Co. is part of Thackeray Farm,” Grossman says. “But this is a bigger picture than just Black Bean. It’s about Thackeray Farms and Black Bean, and, as far as I’m concerned, the whole Southeast.”