Homegrown Hospitality

By Ann Foster Thelen

Lydia Zerby, consumer insights and engagement manager for the Iowa Food & Family Project, is one of the Iowa Restaurant Association’s “40 Women to Watch in the Hospitality Industry.” She shares her insights into why the farm- to-consumer connection is the ultimate intersection of homegrown hospitality.

Since taking the helm in 2021 as leader of the Iowa Food & Family Project (Iowa FFP), Lydia Zerby has put her passion to work connecting consumers with Iowa’s farmers. Day in and day out, she works to showcase Iowa’s global role in food production while promoting the symbiotic relationship between agriculture, hospitality and consumers. Prior to leading Iowa FFP, Lydia was the program manager for the Downtown Des Moines Farmers’ Market. 

This month, she was recognized by the Iowa Restaurant Association and named one of its 40 Women to Watch in the Hospitality Industry. 

This third class of honorees, selected from more than 100 nominations, range from entrepreneurs to those who have built careers with purveyors, corporate hospitality groups and commodity groups. The honorees lead by example and exemplify their passion for their teams and customers daily. The honorees were recognized at the annual Celebrating Excellence Awards Ceremony on Nov. 14.

“This year’s honorees exemplify the multitude of opportunities the hospitality industry holds for women,” says Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association. “These honorees are innovators, leaders, mentors and trendsetters in our industry.” 

We sat down with Zerby to learn more about the natural connections between Iowa’s farmers and consumers and how that translates into homegrown hospitality.

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How are food and agriculture the ultimate intersection for the hospitality industry?

Using hospitality experiences to connect visitors to the source of the food they are enjoying brings the experience full circle. Indulging in a delicious beer and burger pairing is enjoyable on its own. But adding context to how the beef was raised, the care given to the animal and the thought put into the animal’s diet adds value to the entire experience. 

People often say food is the ultimate connector. What makes that true?

Food is one of the few universal things that has the power to bring people together. Whether it’s a holiday meal, summer picnic or birthday party, food is often the center of gatherings and celebrations. Sharing a meal gives people time to pause and reflect, engage in conversation and step away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. 

In what ways are farmers critical to the hospitality industry?

Farmers provide a variety of benefits and opportunities for hospitality and tourism in Iowa. Many farmers grow and produce food for local restaurants, grocery stores and commercial institutions. With consumers’ demand for buying local continuing to grow, being able to advertise a relationship with a local grower is increasingly beneficial to businesses. 

Agriculture also brings culinary tourists to the state who are interested in unique food and drink opportunities. A couple of great examples are Iowa grape growers and wine producers who offer tasting rooms, event facilities and entertainment at their farms, as well as row and specialty crop growers who also plant pumpkins and build upon Iowa families’ demand for a fall farm experience. 

How does agritourism provide a boost to Iowa’s restaurant and hospitality sectors?

Consumers who live in urban areas have unique opportunities within Iowa to visit various agritourism sites. This type of tourism has grown exponentially in the past 5-10 years. Not only do these places offer Iowans the opportunity to see “behind the scenes” workings of farms and production facilities, but they also give farmers and agricultural sites an opportunity to share their knowledge and create additional sources of revenue. The dollars spent by consumers at agritourism destinations stay within the local communities and therefore are reinvested right where they are spent. 

In your experience with the Iowa Food & Family Project, what do you find fascinating about making connections between farmers and consumers as well as uniting rural and urban communities?

In such an ag-centric state as Iowa, you may think all Iowans grew up close to farm production or have a broad base of knowledge around farming and agriculture. In fact, only about 3% of Iowans farm, which makes for an amazing opportunity to engage with the 97% of Iowans who do not. Many Iowans have some sort of ag connection within their family history, but often that connection goes back four to five generations, which leaves a gap. This is why the work of the Iowa Food & Family Project is so important in strengthening the farm-to-consumer relationship and trust. 

What are some agricultural and food trends that are on the horizon, which could impact Iowa’s hospitality industry?

Looking at recent trends, take-out and delivery services are one of the hottest things right now. Many farmers who sell directly to consumers, and of course restaurants, had to pivot during the pandemic to move their products differently and continue selling to customers. I don’t see that trend going away, and it is likely to become more popular. To remain relevant and profitable, hospitality and food-related businesses will need to stay on top of developing technology and customer demands. 

Before leading Iowa FFP you spent a decade with the Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers’ Market, working with many people skilled in the hospitality industry. What are some of Iowa’s advantages when it comes to hospitality and food?

Two advantages immediately come to mind for Iowa: The consumers’ appetite for supporting local and the diverse cultures represented throughout the state. 

Iowa consumers have long had a reputation for supporting small businesses and investing in those who want to pursue the entrepreneurial path. Many schools and higher education institutions within Iowa offer courses and degrees to set young people on the right course to follow those dreams. 

Iowa is also fortunate to have a diverse population base. Various cultures and backgrounds are represented across the state, and the variety of restaurants, bars, events and festivals offered is a huge advantage in building a welcoming community. Iowans embrace these differences and opportunities to engage with others through food and experiences.

What are three things you wish every Iowan knew about modern agriculture?

Farmers are just like you. They care about the food they grow and produce because they feed it to their families too. 

Technology and innovation are vital to the ag industry to continue to produce more food for the growing population. Just as you rely on companies to continue to develop innovative products for consumers, farmers are looking to ag tech companies to do the same. 

Modern agriculture is constantly evolving! Asking questions of experts, such as farmers or those within the industry, is the best way to stay informed and build trust in the people and processes involved with modern agriculture.

What do you love most about your job?
I am fortunate to work with an amazing team, including colleagues from across Iowa’s commodity groups and several food and healthy living organizations. The collaboration and partnerships offer opportunities to be creative and strategic when it comes to advancing the mission of the Iowa Food & Family Project. 

The variety of work this role provides also keeps me on my toes. From serving as the editor of Fresh Pickings magazine to planning consumer-focused events and building relationships with partners and advertisers and more, there’s always something new and exciting on the horizon! 

Lydia Zerby (center) with her Iowa Soybean Association co-workers, Brock Johnston and Bethany Baratta.

Fun Facts about Lydia Zerby

Favorite Food: Wood-fired pizza
Favorite Dessert: Tiramisu 
Favorite Celebrity Chef: Ree Drummond
Favorite Small Kitchen Appliance: Coffee maker
Dining Out: Reservations or Impromptu: Reservations, if possible
Favorite Holiday: Christmas
Perfect Vacation Destination: On a warm beach 
Family: Husband Evan, and children Hannah, 6 and Graham, 4

Meet the 2022 honorees.