The United States wastes 80 billion pounds of food each year.
That number would be 55,000 pounds higher if it weren’t for Will Gray and his Richmond-based Bloody Mary mix company, Back Pocket Provisions.
Thanks to booming sales for his local line of mixes, this year Gray anticipates 27.5 tons of fresh produce from surrounding farms will get a second lease on life as ingredients in cocktail concoctions. After spending half his life working on farms and the other half in restaurants, Gray was intimately aware of the pounds of produce that go to waste each year for frivolous reasons.
“Working in food service, I used to hear from farmers all the time that they would still have 25% of their crop they couldn’t take to market and struggled to can, process, and use it all on their own,” Gray explains. “Stores want something green or blush so they can move the produce through the supply chain so it’s ripe later, closer to the point of sale. But we want our vegetables as ripe as possible so we can turn it into delicious juice.”
Operating out of Hatch Kitchen on Southside, Back Pocket Provisions produces 7,500 gallons of Bloody Mary mix each year — enough juice for over 160,000 Bloody Marys. This year will be Gray’s third year operating out of the Swansboro food incubator that is expanding to a new food hall in Manchester later this year. Over the seven years he has served as CEO of this local enterprise, Gray has increased its offerings beyond their signature Bloody Mary mix to include three more flavors pushing the boundaries of this beloved brunch beverage.
Back Pocket Provisions’ flagship flavor, the Bloody Brilliant, delivers the classic combo of all local tomatoes, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, and a pinch of cayenne to give it a bright and briney punch. Gray’s most experimental mix may be the Bloody Bangkok — a Southeast Asian-inspired variety that leans on red chilis, lemongrass, galangal root (a cousin of ginger), and fish sauce as a Worcestershire replacement to create the balance of sweet, salty, sour, and savory that Thai food thrives upon.
Although those two varieties include animal products via the fish sauce and the anchovies in Worcestershire, Gray also wanted to offer customers two vegan Bloody Mary mix options as well. “When I first started in this business, I didn’t know the plight of the vegetarian Bloody Mary lover,” he recalls. “Most mixes you find are not vegetarian friendly, so it’s fun to do these without any animal products.”
Featuring fresh garlic, organic sweet corn, local green chilis and jalapeños, cumin, and paprika, the Bloody Baja turns toward the Southwest to offer a smoky, savory flavor that pairs perfectly with tequila for a “Bloody Maria” or with a Mexican beer for a michelada. Back Pocket Provisions’ latest creation is the Bloody Blue Ridge, an extra spicy variety full of fresh habaneros, sorghum molasses, miso, and tamari that blends a dark sweetness with a tip-of-the-tongue heat.
For Bloody Mary lovers looking to aid Gray in his mission “to make life more delicious, honest, healthy, and fun all while helping small farmers,” Back Pocket Provisions’ wares can be found at 35 retailers around town. The Market at 25th, Stella’s groceries, Ellwood Thompson’s, Outpost, and Libbie Market are just a fraction of the locations — Union Market even has its Bloody Brilliant variety on the bar. If you get a Bloody Mary at Cirrus Vodka or Virago Spirits, the mix will be from Back Pocket Provisions as well.
When Gray first started this social enterprise seven years ago, he never could’ve imagined the success he would have convincing Virginians to drink locally-grown vegetables and help build a market for the tons of fresh produce farmers would otherwise have to let go to waste for a lack of aesthetic appeal.
Although the mission of Back Pocket Provisions may sound lofty when framed as part of the fight to prevent food waste, Gray doesn’t take his “bespoke vegetable juice” too seriously.
“In the middle of the harvest season, I certainly have days when I look around and think, ‘What am I going to do with all this tomato juice?!’”