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A Taste for Entrepreneurship: KSB Alum Ensures Local Food Access in Pandemic

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Man on a ladder with a megaphone

Mitch Berliner, Kogod/BS ’70, grew up in a home where great food and entrepreneurial ideas were served up in equal measure at the family’s dining room table. It is no surprise that he built a career on these early lessons, and in the process helped make the Washington region a world-class food market.

Berliner has forged an innovative career at the forefront of the food industry. In 2007, he was inducted into the Maryland Food Industry Hall of Fame for his contributions to the field and his longstanding involvement with charitable and civic organizations. Currently, he is the owner and co-founder of Central Farm Markets and partner of MeatCrafters—both businesses have undergone tremendous changes to meet the challenges of COVID-19.

In 2008 he and his wife, Debra Moser, a former Kogod School of Business adjunct professor, opened the Bethesda Central Farm Market where customers can purchase locally grown fresh and prepared food from local farmers and artisan food producers. They started with 17 vendors and have relocated three times to create space for more than 100 local merchants. Central Farm Markets has grown to include two other locations in northern Virginia and Rockville, Maryland.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and threats to the traditional supply chain, providing access to locally sourced fresh food items like those found at Central Farm Markets is deemed an essential service. In Maryland, the governor and State Department of Agriculture specifically asked that farmers markets remain open during the state of emergency to preserve the local food chain.

These days it’s not unusual to see Berliner on a ladder with a bullhorn at the markets, enforcing safe social distancing and new public health protocols. Patrons can still shop in person at the market to see what’s in season and ask questions of the vendors and artisans, but Central Farm Market also offers home delivery service or will load pre-ordered items straight into the trunk of a patron’s car at the market. Berliner encourages Central Farm Market patrons to shop for others who cannot leave their homes safely—on a recent weekend, James Beard Award-winning chef Jose Andres was at the market shopping for several of his Bethesda neighbors.

Before the coronavirus, the market was a place to linger. “The market has been amazingly successful, not just in helping farmers and local small businesspeople, but it really became the village green,” Berliner says. “We had cooking demonstrations, kids’ activities, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad taught CPR, we’ve had blood drives. We host nonprofits so they can tell their stories.”

Berliner and the market continue to connect with the community and its nonprofits. For the last six years, Berliner has worked with farmers at the end of each market day to buy and donate surplus produce to the Manna Food Center. Central Farm Markets is on track to reach a half a million pounds of local produce sent to the food bank by the end of this season.

Berliner, who admits he’s “not very good at retirement,” a few years ago set out to master the process of making salami, guided by the region’s premiere sausage-maker who was supplying many of the area’s fine restaurants. Soon, this led to another business venture, MeatCrafters, based in Landover, Maryland. Their first restaurant customer was the Michelin-starred Inn at Little Washington.

With national headlines warning of the high transmission of the coronavirus in workers in the country’s largest meat processing plants, and of continued shortages and disruptions to the nation’s agricultural supply chain, there is a new role for the smaller, artisanal company. When its restaurant business fell off, MeatCrafters began selling direct to consumers through mail order.

As with Central Farm Markets, MeatCrafters prioritizes giving back through donations to food banks and community kitchens. “It’s important for us to give back,” says Berliner. “I cannot tell you how blessed I feel. My family came to America with nothing. It’s a matter of luck—what you do with it, that’s on you. I am so grateful. That’s why it’s so important for us to give back.”

Berliner has seen this drive to make a difference reflected in AU students. As a guest lecturer, he speaks with graduates and undergrads at his alma mater about the traits needed to build a business. Berliner says students are hungry to know about making an impact and pursuing their interests. “If you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to have a passion for something,” says Berliner. “AU students want to do their own thing. The atmosphere at AU is like that.”

Berliner joined his wife, Debra Moser, at a recent AU Center for Innovation’s pitch competition. Moser is a member of AUCI’s Entrepreneurship Advisory Council. The student entrepreneurs impressed Berliner with great ideas and thorough plans. “The entrepreneurial spirit is very much alive at the business school,” the Kogod alumnus said. “These students had a dream; they had a vision—that’s what it takes.” Berliner’s own trailblazing career is proof of this formula.