The Restaurant Connection

The Restaurant Connection

Michael Ruhlman

FARM LIFE: Berkshire hogs (top); free-ranging sheep and lamb (bottom).


I've recently been reacquainted with a lamb farmer in Pennsylvania I wrote about nearly 10 years ago for The French Laundry Cookbook because of his efforts to bring his very carefully raised lamb, once available only to a few restaurant chefs (such as Thomas Keller, whom he is partnering with here), to the retail market. As a writer who spends a lot of time in professional kitchens but who doesn't have access to the sources chefs do, I've come to resent the fact that I can't get really good product like Martin's lamb even if I could afford it.

Pretty soon, amazingly, this lamb will be available to the retail customer, and it represents a hopeful model of how a farmer creating specialized product can expand because of the restaurant business.

The potential for such a success can be seen in Niman Ranch, which began 30 years ago raising cattle in Marin County, CA. Once catering to a handful of fine dining chefs, Niman now sells to clients as big as Chipotle and Whole Foods.

Why this matters to me has to do more than with the fact that I can now buy for my own pleasure Berkshire pork, either by mail or down the block at Chipotle, and soon Keith Martin's "Pure Bred" lamb. It means that Americans through their purchasing are encouraging a more humane treatment of animals than exists in concentrated feed lots. When the animals we eat are treated well, all creatures benefit: the consumer (better tasting meat that is likely safer and better for you), the animals and the lives of the people raising and then slaughtering those animals.

Moreover, it reveals the critical factor that restaurants play in this equation. Restaurants are the necessary link.

Niman Ranch's strategy from the outset was to interest high-end chefs in its product. The chefs gave the company good business so that it grew slowly but also, critically, the Niman brand, endorsed by chefs and noted on menus, developed cachet—it became a chic brand. In 1997, it registered sales of around $4 million. That was the year the company began to introduce packaged meats to the retail customer.

Ten years later Niman Ranch does sales of $100 million and contributes to the livelihood of 500 hog farmers. Under a strict protocol for raising their animals in a humane way, they are also contributing to the welfare of more and more animals.

The power of the consumer is awesome—it can and will move mountains. Imagine if Applebee's and Cheesecake Factory only bought pork raised under Niman Ranch protocol? What if McDonald's, over a period of a decade, encouraged farmers to raise cattle naturally? It would change the face of the Earth.

Keith Martin has created a model of raising lambs for which he has requested a patent. His fundamental concern is the welfare of the animal. He now works with six other family farms in Pennsylvania and Ohio. But he hopes to expand, and when he does, he wants his model, called "Safe Alternative," to be protected against anyone wanting to take shortcuts. When customers buy lamb under his label "Pure Bred," he wants them to know exactly how they were raised (each package will have a tracking label).

Martin is a farmer of uncommon sensitivity. It's been his mission since leaving the business world 17 years ago to create a situation under which the animals, which make the ultimate sacrifice for us, are able to thrive and prosper while they are alive.

The result of these happy animals is, after they are "harvested," lamb of extraordinary quality and flavor. There's every reason to believe that the meat is also better for you than commodity lamb (though Martin will make no claims for health and safety benefits). Martin's program will help seven family farms prosper in an era that has crushed the small farmer, farms that act in a sustainable, environmentally conscientious way. If his lamb sells the way Niman Ranch meats sold, all of these good things—happy, healthy animals, delicious healthful lamb, farmers supporting their families and their land, our Earth— may increase exponentially.

It wouldn't have happened without restaurants. This is the ultimate power of the farmer-restaurant connection.