Has it really been 13 years since Toyota introduced the Prius to the world? The favorite car of the socially responsible was launched in Japan in 1997 and rolled out in the U.S. in 2001. A million Priuses (or should it be “Prii,” the plural term promoted by Toyota?) have been sold in America since, thanks in part to the company’s marketing team. Of course, part of the job of any team is identifying its potential customer. With that in mind, the car company launched the Toyota “Farm to Table Tour” three years ago.
The strategy is simple enough. People who shop at farmers markets care about the environment, their health and the health of the planet. They are also keen to support small farms and local businesses. By attaching themselves to farmers markets, the halo effect occurs, allowing the brand to aver, “I share your values. I am the car you want.” But it would be a mistake to view this as a cynical marketing ploy. After all, what could be cynical about trying to get more people to drive more fuel-efficient cars? Isn’t that a noble goal?
The tour came to South Pasadena’s Farmers Market on April 14, and it’s not hard to see why Toyota would choose the place as the fifth stop on the tour (with other California stops in Walnut Creek and Aptos). With its leafy tree-shaded streets, mom-and-pop businesses, restaurants, historic buildings and strong sense of community, South Pasadena would seem to be the perfect, photogenic destination for the Farm to Table Tour. Walking around the market that afternoon, it was impossible not to notice how many more people than usual were in attendance. That’s not to say the market isn’t popular, but the scene on Thursday was intense.
To promote Farm to Table eating, Toyota had set up three tents, where participating restaurants provided chef-created tastings to the public on a rotating schedule. In tent No. 2, Tim Guiltinan of The Raymond Restaurant was busy with his crew, searing scallops and delicately perching them on some roasted Maitake mushrooms, pea tendrils and sweet soy. The line stretched 100 people long at one point, prompting some barking from concerned security personnel as faces and foreheads reddened and shone in the sun, resembling the slices of blood oranges on a nearby stand. Guiltinan kept up his good humor and kept his head down as more than 300 scallops were prepped and passed out to attendees. The dish he offered was time-consuming to prepare, certainly not something simply scooped out of a chafing dish. Did he regret making a rod for his own back by being so ambitious? It seems not.
“A lot of times when you do an event like this, you do something easy, you get it ready, put it out, make it look nice,” he told me. “I don’t like that. I don’t like cooking like that, don’t like eating like that. If you come into The Raymond, you’re going to get something that just came out of the pan, made with great ingredients. And we do the same here. You motivate your staff, and you say ‘Are you guys ready? Because we are going to cook for real!’” The restaurant’s owners, Rob and Leslie Levy, were similarly enthusiastic. “ We love South Pas, and our restaurant is half in Pasadena and half in South Pasadena. Our chef shops here for the freshest produce.”
As a sitar player twanged away to a pre-recorded hip-hop-esque beat worthy of a KCRW session, a woman with ankle bells danced and sang, and a crowd gathered. The L.A. FungHi stand was practically heaving with fresh wild mushrooms, their earthy funk rising in the heat of the day. Passers-by clutched the free potted culinary herbs that were part of the Toyota promotion, while children and some adults, ahem, scoffed down Carmela Ice Cream’s devilishly good ice-cream sandwiches. The scene was dotted with TV news crews, and crowds were beginning to gather for Susan Feniger. Her celebrity status cemented by appearances on Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters, Feniger now inhabits the rarefied world of the über-chef. She was unequivocal in her support for the event.
“I have driven a Prius forever. And when you think about the people that are here shopping, they are thinking about their health and the environment, they are making smart choices. In all of our restaurants, Street and Border Grill, we make the same choices and try to think of ways that we can make a little tiny step to make a difference. At Street we recycle all of our oil, and it’s used to make our hand soap in the restrooms. We follow Monterey Bay Aquarium’s standards at seafoodwatch.org, so all our seafood is sustainable. In talking to these guys at the market and Toyota, it all made sense. Whether it’s Toyota or whoever bringing more people here, it’s raising awareness about the farmers market, so I am happy to lend my support.”