Executive Chef Katherine Fuchs is thrilled to be back in the kitchen testing out some new creations for the fall menu at The Thirsty Koala, an Australian-themed restaurant in Astoria, N.Y. Fuchs Co-Owns with partners Alex Styponias and Aussie native Christine Chellos.
The restaurant’s name originated from the Black Saturday Bushfires that raged in Australia in 2009, when Fuchs, Styponias, and Chellos were in the early stages of planning the restaurant. Sam the Koala, a female koala from the forests of Mirboo North, Victoria, Australia, became publicly known when a video and photographs of her being rescued and drinking from a bottle of water held by a firefighter were distributed on the internet and through the media during the aftermath of the fires. As a retired Deputy Chief with the New York City Fire Department, this resonated personally with Fuchs, and when Styponias came up with the name The Thirsty Koala, everyone instantly loved it.
At the center of this experimentation is gluten-free flour from Italian foods distributor Sogno Toscano, which Fuchs purchased wholesale on RangeMe – along with its gluten-free pasta and San Marzano tomatoes – during RangeMe Deal Days. The week-long event featured special discounts on products for buyers and commission-free sales for suppliers.
“Discovering these items has definitely inspired me to play in the kitchen again,” says Fuchs. “Play is important when it comes to creating new menu items. Everything on our menu is the result of this creative kitchen play, which I haven’t been able to do much of lately because as a small business owner, I have to juggle a lot of responsibilities. Discovering these new items on RangeMe makes me really happy because I’ve switched from my operational, financial and logistics mindset into the creative mode.”
An Australian culinary adventure
The Thirsty Koala is located in the middle of a three-block strip of Astoria’s Ditmars Blvd. that features some of the hottest restaurants in Queens. Opened on Winter Solstice 2012, the restaurant offers farm-fresh foods incorporating Australian indigenous ingredients, organic and pasture-raised beef, chicken, pork, and lamb, along with locally grown vegetables.
“We focus on providing extremely high-quality, healthy food,” says Fuchs. “We’re fortunate to have access to wonderful meats, poultry, grains, pasta and vegetables, and as a chef, the quality of the products is most important to me. We use the cleanest ingredients possible and cater to all kinds of dietary restrictions. Socially responsible and sustainability-focused suppliers are also a priority for us, and are important for many of our guests.”
Over the years, the restaurant has gained a reputation for those seeking delicious gluten-free fare. While it may not have official certification, most of its menu items are gluten-free. “We’re about 98 percent gluten-free. The bread we use for our burgers and our Australian Meat Pies have gluten, so that kind of knocks us out of the running for certification, but all of the other entrees and apps are gluten-free,” says Fuchs.
As many restaurants have experienced over the past year, having high-quality food comes at a cost, and that cost has been steadily rising due to supply chain issues, product shortages and inflation. But unlike many businesses that have caved to the shrinkflation trend, Fuchs has stood her ground.
“Customers will pay for consistent quality,” she says. “There’s not much else I can do but raise menu prices to accommodate this. I don’t want to cut my portion sizes to nothingness. Our guests expect value, so I won’t compromise in that area. Has it hurt our bottom line? Yes, but I think this is something that we just have to weather until things start to normalize a bit. We’re very transparent with our guests, and the consistent quality drives loyalty, which is important in the long run.”
Convenient, efficient sourcing is a must
Finding the ingredients that enable Fuchs to craft such high-quality dishes is not easy for someone who wears so many hats. Indeed, at any given time, you’ll find her busy on both front- and back-of-the-house tasks, such as engaging guests, overseeing the kitchen, building schedules, paying bills, fixing a mobile POS system, tracking deliveries, replacing a lightbulb, or even unclogging a toilet. She arrives early and leaves late almost every day.
Because of this, it should come as no surprise that convenience and efficiency are of primary importance when it comes to sourcing products. Fuchs doesn’t have the time to travel to trade shows, and the one time she did this year, it was in New York City and she was speaking there.
Even driving to a market can be a huge time suck, such as when a distributor in Hunts Point Market stopped delivering to her business because she was “too small” to make it worthwhile (a scenario faced by many indie restaurants). Eventually, Fuchs decided the weekly hours spent traveling to and from Hunts Point wasn’t a good investment of her time. So now, her primary means of discovering new products are digital, through her distributors’ apps and websites, and now RangeMe.
Striking gold during RangeMe Deal Days
Fuchs has been a buyer on RangeMe for just over a year and set up her direct purchasing capabilities soon after the feature became available this past February. For RangeMe Deal Days, her primary aim was to find some gluten-free items, particularly pasta, as it’s a favorite among her guests. A quick search on RangeMe led her to the digital storefront of Sogno Toscano.
She quickly placed an order for gluten-free pasta and San Marzano tomatoes, and while browsing the supplier’s additional offerings – which include authentic Italian meats and cheeses, pasta and grains, oils and sauces – came across its gluten-free flour. Little did she know it would turn into a gold mine of options for her restaurant and inspire her to create as she did on TV during her appearances on Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay.
“I currently use a flour blend that’s really good for my baking and pastry applications, but it just wasn’t the right texture for my savory applications like a shortcrust for a pie or a pizza crust,” says Fuchs. “It didn’t give me the right texture that would make it happen.”
But this flour does. Not only did she make a delicious pizza using it (which was devoured in a flash by the regulars at the restaurant’s bar), but she also made several types of bread, one of which I had the privilege of trying – and it was amazing. And she continues to experiment using this flour in other recipes.
“It gives you beautiful workability when you are kneading and stretching it, something that you don’t often get with gluten-free flour,” says Fuchs. “The bread I made with it was better than any gluten-free bread I’ve bought in the past. The flour opens up lots of opportunities for me; I even made some donuts with it and will continue to try other options in the coming days.”
RangeMe as part of The Thirsty Koala’s sourcing initiatives
After experiencing the burst of inspiration from her recent product discovery on RangeMe, Fuchs plans to incorporate the platform into her ongoing sourcing efforts to discover more products with which to experiment and build out her menus.
“As a chef, when I search for items on RangeMe, I lean more toward raw ingredients, which give me the latitude to make my own menu creations from scratch,” says Fuchs. “I look for brands that have high-quality ingredients that are consistent with the quality I seek to deliver. The convenience of the platform and the thousands of available products will give me the foundation to make tons of very yummy and unique offerings.”
As this post gets published, Fuchs had to pause her kitchen play once again, as she has already used up all of the flour from her RangeMe Deal Days purchase. But she’ll be back at it again soon, having just placed a large reorder from Sogno Toscano!
Are you a buyer on RangeMe? Browse Sogno Toscano’s products here!