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Restaurateurs support sustainable food movement with captive farms

Restaurateurs cultivate more than food by operating farms

It's about storytelling, but also connecting customers with the earth

Restaurateurs who operate farms are growing more than just fruits and vegetables. They’re also cultivating the ability to tell stories around the dishes that incorporate their harvests.

Operators have long embraced the cachet that locally sourced ingredients impart upon their menus, and some have learned they can take it a step further by using the yields of their own sustainable farms. Such farm-grown ingredients can serve as both a marketing tool and an educational platform for workers and the public.

At Seattle-based Homegrown Sustainable Sandwiches, which operates 13 fast-casual restaurants in the Seattle and San Francisco areas, operating certified organic farms helps the company communicate its position on the role agriculture plays in the environment, said Ben Friedman, co-founder and co-CEO at Homegrown Partners.

“We see big agriculture being a huge contributor to climate change and to a lot of our environmental woes,” Friedman said, citing the use of chemical pesticides as an example.

Homegrown operates two organic farms, one in Woodinville, Wash., that serves its locations in the Seattle area, and another in Discovery Bay, Calif., that serves the company’s San Francisco-area outlets. The farms rotate the crops they grow, with half an acre devoted to crops each year at the Washington farm and two acres of crops each year at the California farm.

“For us, it's mainly about storytelling,” Friedman said. “It's about connecting the customer and the product back to the planet.”

Homegrown Sprouting Farms produce a limited amount of produce for the restaurants, including tomatoes and cucumbers, but also mix in some other crops such as squash for some temporary, seasonal menu items. The farms are able to produce up to about 80 percent of the tomatoes needed for the restaurants, according to Friedman.

Homegrown offers restaurant employees the opportunity to work paid shifts on the farms during the growing season.

“It’s an amazing training tool,” Friedman said. “We can teach everyone about sustainable agriculture, and why the food tastes amazing when you grow it in certain ways, and that spills over the counter to our guests. It’s staff education, and it’s customer education, and the two come together in a way that is important for our brand.”

One of the biggest learnings since the company began operating its own farms has been the important role that soil plays in producing crops sustainably and in helping protect the environment.

“I've just been floored by the value of soil, not just from a nutritional or agricultural standpoint, but from a climate/Earth sciences standpoint,” he said. “That's been the coolest part for me.” 

Large-scale industrial agriculture often results in soil erosion, which ends up releasing carbon into the atmosphere, Friedman explained. Soil contains about three and a half times as much carbon as all plants and trees, and it is important to the environment for the soil to retain that carbon, he said.

Maximizing the impact

Sustainability is also important to T.J. Callahan, a partner in Farmheads, which operates three restaurants in the Chicago area. Callahan also owns Brown Dog Farm in Mineral Point, Wis., where he farms an orchard of some 200 trees, grows asparagus and elderberries, and operates 32 beehives to produce honey.

One of the biggest challenges, Callahan said, has been maximizing the impact of the crops produced at the farm across his three high-volume restaurants.

This year, Brown Dog Farm yielded about 250 pounds of honey, but that would be used up in a couple of months if he used it in the kitchen, he said.

Instead the restaurants use the honey in a signature cocktail called the Brown Dog Old Fashioned, which includes a dollop of the farm’s honey, along with black walnut bitters from the farm.

“That way, a very small amount of honey can be stretched out,” Callahan said. “It makes it something special and creates a story for the guest.”

Callahan used a similar tactic with peaches from the farm by creating a peach shrub (a mixture of mashed fruit and vinegar) that was used in summer cocktails.

For Callahan, just running the farm is a challenge, given it is a three-hour drive from his restaurants in Chicago. He has a staff of part-time workers who tend to the farm’s everyday needs, but Callahan handles many of the chores himself.

Seeking to operate sustainably and without the use of chemical sprays and fertilizers further complicates matters, as he often has to time the application of natural fertilizers according to weather conditions. That throws some unpredictability into his schedule.

His advice for would-be restaurateur-farmers: Have a farm close to the restaurant. Callahan is looking into the possibility of growing produce inside shipping containers, which would allow him to harvest closer to his restaurants. 

Managing quality and cost

One of New York City’s most acclaimed farm-to-table restaurants, Blenheim, sources from its own sustainable farm in the Catskill Mountain region of upstate New York. The Blenheim Hill Farm supplies a range of produce items, including herbs and edible flowers, as well as eggs, honey, chicken, pork and lamb.

The 150-acre farm includes 20 acres of pasture, a greenhouse with hydroponics and a fully equipped kitchen in the barn, where the farm processes some items for the restaurant and also hosts catered events.

Earlier this year, Blenheim owners Morten Sohlberg and his wife and partner, Min Ye, delivered the keynote speech at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's Sustainability Conference.

“Sustainability is not just the question of whether you're using pesticides or not, which we do not, but it's also a question of whether the environment will be a better place after we use it for growing food, than it was before we used it for growing food or raising meat,” Sohlberg told RH.

The farm’s hogs roam free on the farm’s wooded areas, where Sohlberg also harvests wild mushrooms and taps trees for maple syrup.

He said his vertically integrated model of doing business helps reduce costs for the restaurant, as he can incorporate high-quality products much more affordably than if he were to buy them through a distributor.

“If we had to buy products or ingredients with the quality we serve in my restaurant that we grow ourselves, we would probably have to charge double the price for all the dishes in the restaurant,” Sohlberg said.

Although he described the financial condition of his operations as “very, very healthy overall,” he said the agricultural aspect of the farm operates at around break-even.

“We like sharing what we're doing, and sharing our difficulties so that others hopefully can learn from it,” Sohlberg said. “We want others to actually do the same thing that we do, because it will help our food system greatly.”

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