Founded in 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, PRoduce has been committed to connecting chefs across the island with the local farmers and producers to allow both travelers and patrons to experience authentic Puerto Rican cuisine with the freshest ingredients possible.
Initially started as a subscription box service, PRoduce created a mobile application following the shutdowns related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, PRoduce is the marketplace for over 40,000 users and over 600 local producers, according to Crystal Díaz, co-founder and chief marketing and consumer experience officer for the company.
“PRoduce was originally intended to solve the problem of the chefs and cooks that wanted to serve locally sourced ingredients in their restaurants but because of the small scale and disorganized nature of our local food production, it was very inconvenient,” Díaz said. “Our four founding partners all come from different backgrounds but still share the love for food.”
Díaz said the organization aims to not only connect local farmers with consumers, but also support the local farmers with information about other crops with high demand, buying different varieties in order to be more resilient and sustainable, and also buying steady quantities of produce that gives them peace of mind.
“Food is not only nutrition, but also politics and economics,” she said. “It is something that most of the people consume at least three times a day and has a huge socio-economic and environmental footprint. This is why it is important to know where your produce comes from, because every single meal that we eat has multiple implications.”
The James Beard Foundation recently honored the organization as one of the 12 leadership and resilience projects in its 2021 awards edition.
Said Martin Louzao, chef and co-founder of PRoduce: “We saw the need to create PRoduce to be able to connect with so many products that were no longer used because they are not produced industrially. Ingredients are to the cook what words are to a writer, and the more variety we have, the more interesting the story we can tell through cooking, while also contributing to the sustainability of ecosystems.”
To that end, plant-based foods are catching on on the island. At El Grifo (“The Faucet”), located in Caguas, chickpea nuggets, gluten-free pasta and more are making a delectable name for themselves.
Like in the continental United States, plant-based foods are growing in popularity on the island. Restaurants and cafes are opening up to answer the call.
El Grifo, which opened four years ago, just two months before Hurricane María hit, serves a plant-based menu as well as tap craft beer bar which holds up to 23 draft beer lines—prioritizing the service of local craft breweries.
Founders José Soto and Loumiry Sanchez have also created a variety of beer cocktails, including their famous BEERmojitos, brunch must-haves BEERmosas and Desvelo, a coffee-infused beer and rum cocktail.
Plant-based is a way of life for the founders.
“We feel the need to transform other aspects of society into more sustainable and ecological systems,” said Soto, adding that the two created a network of agroecological farms that collaborate with them and allows them to educate people about the agricultural method.
For Soto, he believes the plant-based movement is growing due to the youngest and the oldest on the island.
“On one hand you have older adults who are suffering the consequences of consuming highly processed products and having a primarily carnivore diet,” he said. “On the other, you have the youngest generations who are witnessing these health complications while growing up trying to incorporate more sustainable habits in order to revive a dying planet because of global warming and climate change. Yet, we need to make plant-based nutrition more accessible and that starts by changing Institutional policies.”
Like many establishments, El Grifo has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Every time a crisis occurs, links between the business and distributors get disrupted—in some cases resulting in total disconnection,” Sanchez said, adding that they experienced this Hurricane María struck, though nothing to the extent created by Covid-19. “Our communication with the agroecological farm network really got debilitated and distribution became really difficult. Distribution got so challenging that it forced us to shrink a brand new menu put in motion at the beginning of 2020.”
He said most of the agroecological farms have not recovered completely and products or ingredients are harder to find. Closing due to the pandemic was never an option, though.
“The pandemic came upon us so spontaneously, as if someone unplugged a cable and all of the sudden everything was turned off,” he said. “Even though we decided not to close and follow the Executive Order working in delivery and carry out format, the reality was that we were barely receiving any orders. We were not making any profits, forcing us to make one of the hardest decisions since we opened and lay off our whole team.”
The two kept operations going, however, though they have not reached a point to put an entire team together again.
The plant-based movement isn’t just happening in places outside of San Juan, either. It’s catching on in the capital, too.
At Caña by Juliana Gonzalez at the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel, plant-based foods are just one option for visitors.
“We wanted to dedicate a part of the menu to vegetables to showcase how these ingredients, which are such a big part of the nutrients the body needs, that they can be just as delicious as other dishes,” Gonzalez told the Daily Yonder.
Gonzalez said she buys as many local ingredients and produce in Puerto Rico as possible.
“When we buy local, we support our local economy while also getting the freshest and highest quality products,” she added.