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Farms & Tables A Love Story

Farms & Tables A Love Story

How often, when eating out, do we  truly know the origin of the food we’re eating? How often does the claim “farm to table” come with a road map to the farmers who have put their hard work into the ingredients that make up a meal? Not often enough. But things are getting better.

People are increasingly interested in knowing where their food comes from, and they care about how it is being produced. At the same time, the restaurant industry has been moving towards not simply supporting local farms but also sharing information about the ingredients they use with diners. (Some may say over-sharing; think chicken scene in the first season of “Portlandia.”)

While “eating local” and being “farm to table” can sometimes be little more than labels slapped on menus, there are chefs and restaurateurs for whom the words are scripture; who are dedicated to educating and inspiring diners to know their farmers, expand their palates, embrace what is local and eat what is seasonal.

Until recently it was primarily chefs in high-end restaurants who publicly lauded the value of sourcing locally. But a new category has emerged to bring this rever-ence of ingredients to the other end of the restaurant industry spectrum: fast-casual chains like Boston-born B.good; the grass-roots, Vermont-raised The Skinny Pancake and the DC-based national salad chain Sweetgreen. These are restaurants whose food is affordable, healthy and, whenever possible, local. They share the belief that everyone should care about what they are putting in their bodies, aiming to defy the stigmas of fast food. They provide quick, informal and consistent dining experiences with an added bonus of a clear conscience and an ideology about what they choose to serve.

Most importantly, they are creating genuine connections to the local landscape and the farmers who cultivate it.

Tony Rosenfeld, chef and co-owner at B.good, explains that from the restaurant’s inception, 13 years ago, the goal was always “to create a locally sourced, mostly affordable menu,” and to ensure that “everything that can be done locally is.”

B.good grew into a chain that spans the Northeast and extends into the Carolinas, and remains committed to working closely with local farmers and “connecting customers to the source,” according to Rosenfeld. That is why each B.good works closely with farms in its area, ensuring that every store is truly linked to its surrounding landscape. The B.good outposts in Connecticut are strongly reliant on produce from Botticello Farms in Manchester, while the ones in Portland, Maine, depend on Spiller Farm in Wells.

Bill Spiller and his wife, Anna, have been farming their land since 1967, and began working with B.good when the business opened its first Portland store five years ago. Rosenfeld visited the farm and felt a kinship with the Spillers, a mutual respect for what would be their shared community.

The farm grows potatoes almost exclusively for B.good’s use and also provides seasonal fruits and vegetables. The Spillers donate their surplus crops to local charitable or-ganizations that can redistribute them. “B.Good chose us because they want to work with the community beyond just having a restaurant here,” Spiller says.

Rosenfeld expresses his pride in not only supporting but also promoting the farmers, like Spiller, that work with the chain. He believes it is important for diners to share that appreciation for their local growers. Each restaurant’s walls are adorned with images from farms and a map of where that particular store’s ingredients come from, ensuring that no matter which B.good you visit, you are aware of the origin of your meal (if only subliminally).

Similarly, Flatbread Company, which began in Amesbury, Massachusetts, and has expanded across the Northeast from Providence to Portsmouth and a bevy of locations in between (plus Pa´ia, Hawaii, and Whistler, British Columbia), has been dedicated to these ideals since its inception in 1998. Each individual wood-fired pizza franchise sources and supports local and organic farmers in its area.

These restaurants are proving that in the fast-casual dining space farm-to-table can be a reality, not a fad. It is ingrained into their very essence, and their endurance is a testament to the mutual support between them and the growers they work with. They are built on a common ethos to maintain the thread from farmer to restaurant to consumer, with the goal of sowing change into the broader dining landscape.

The Skinny Pancake, a chain that first opened in Burlington, Vermont, and now has locations scattered across the Green Mountain State as well as one in New Hampshire, shares this commitment to broadening people’s ability and desire to support local agribusiness by highlighting the regional bounty in an approachable way. “Our goal is to make local food affordable and accessible. We’re working to keep local food as everyday eats,” says Benjy Adler, who co-founded The Skinny Pancake in 2003 with his brother, Jonny. As their business has grown, so has their commitment to keeping it local. The set menu items and daily specials are reflections of Vermont’s bounty, but what Benjy referred to as their “secret sauce” is a consciousness of what is growing around them each season and how best to use it.

That consciousness stems from the Adlers’ strong relationships with their farm partners, such as Pitchfork Farm, in Burlington. Run by Rob Rock and Eric Seitz, Pitchfork serves more than 25 restaurants in the greater Burlington area with its diverse, organic produce. Speaking about The Skinny Pancake, Rock not only acknowledges the Adler brothers’ commitment to the farms they work with, but says they were “ahead of the curve” in their approach to affordable, local dining. “For a farmer, it’s a great account,” he says. “It’s a guaranteed high-volume sale for your products. They are so good for the local agribusiness.”

The symbiotic relationships that are blossoming between farms like Pitchfork and these restaurants take nurturing and time, as any relationship does. They are built on mutual respect, support and beliefs—something that is still relatively new to the fast-casual dining space.

Above all, these fruitful pairings are born out of shared approaches to food. This is what Michael Docter, whose farm Winter Moon Roots in Hadley, Massachusetts, sup-plies some of Clover Food Labs’ vegetable needs, offers as his reason for collaborating with the Boston-area business. “Clover is giving quality food to people at a price they can afford,” he says. “We work with restaurants that are real; they are places where we want to eat.”  
Winter Moon Roots is a unique member of the local farming community, and one that helps restaurants (and the public) embrace the bounty of the colder months. Docter grows organic root vegetables—carrots, beets, turnips and the like—to be sold throughout the winter. He harvests in November and sells December through March, storing his product in an environmentally friendly root cellar that cools without compressors. His ethical approach to production also means the farm delivers almost 30,000 pounds of product by bike trailer.

Docter’s philosophy for growing “high quality, local [products] while minimizing our carbon footprint” is matched by Clover, making their collaboration a fruitful one. Clover calls out its relationship with Docter on its website: “Michael calls us to ask how many fields of parsnips he should plant. This is a dream.” On the Clover Instagram account, a video of vivid oranges and deep purples is accompanied by another note about Docter: “This is a special year for his carrot & beet crop. You can find them all over the menu right now.” And when Docter began growing a rare varietal of daikon radish, he says, the team at Clover was so in love with the beauty and flavor of the product that they decided to build a sandwich around it.

Jim Ward, of Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, Massachusetts, has a relationship with Sweetgreen that exemplifies the mutually beneficial connection between farm and restaurant. Originally introduced through a produce distributor, the relationship between Ward and the Sweetgreen team blossomed when the salad chain’s Boston-based employees spent a day on the farm, and has grown so strong that Ward spoke at the company’s retreat in front of their entire national staff.

Nicolas Jammet, one of Sweetgreen’s co-founders, expresses his profound admiration not only for Ward’s produce, but for the man himself. “He has really helped us understand the Boston area and what grows here.” And the company has put that knowledge to good use.

Jammet shares a story from a few years back, when Sweetgreen was still fairly new to the Boston area. On the brink of releasing the seasonal winter menu, which included a popular butternut squash and apple salad, one of Sweetgreen’s team members visited Ward and discovered he had grown an abundance of Hubbard squash that was going to go to waste. Recognizing that Hubbard and butternut squashes share a similar flavor profile, Sweetgreen decided to alter the menu to include it, and thus help Ward move his supply.

The decision, according to Jammet, was made in spite of “a lack of consumer knowledge…because it was important for the farmer.” The salad still sold well—a testament to Ward’s great squash and Sweet-green’s ingenuity, and a desire to let the farm help dictate what the restaurant would serve the public.

This concept of allowing the harvest to dictate what is served is significant. It helps put the needs of the farmer on a level footing with the desires of the diner. This shift, coupled with increased visibility on menus, is making relationships with restaurants of all shapes and sizes increasingly appealing for farms because they are becoming more mutually advantageous.

While working with restaurants is not always the primary method for these farms to distribute their products or their chief source of income, the value of these partnerships is evident. The positive impacts for the farms are a smaller crop surplus, a steady avenue to move volumes of product, and some overdue acknowledgement from the communities they serve.

Each time a farm is mentioned on a restaurant’s menu or listed on its chalkboard, we are reminded that the food we eat comes from the toil of hardworking farmers who have dedicated themselves to helping feed us; that we are intrinsically linked. It is up to us to ensure that “eating local” is not just a passing fad. TM

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