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Founding Farmers cultivate new ground

Founding Farmers cultivate new ground

How can you tell whether a restaurant concept has untapped potential? Here’s one way to judge: Ask if the consultants who had a profit-sharing deal on its first iteration want to take an ownership position on the second. That’s how Dan Simons and his partners in Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group (VSAG), the idea team behind Washington, DC’s Founding Farmers restaurant, wound up with their piece of its suburban spin-off, Potomac’s Founding Farmers. The new place, located 19 miles up Interstate 270 from the original, opened in Potomac, MD, last November.

VSAG’s clients for the original Founding Farmers restaurant were real-life farmers— lots of them.

The 42,000-member North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU) owns that restaurant, which opened in 2008. In an era when many restaurants strive to make the farm-to-table connection, Founding Farmers proved that the commercial implications of a direct farmer connection could be massive.

“There’s a huge difference between corporate farms and family-owned farms, and we wanted to expose the American public as to why that matters to them as individuals,” Simons explains. “We didn’t set out to have the hottest, most-booked restaurant, but we did set out to have the greenest restaurant. I think the combination of our principles and our ability to provide great value serving true food really excited our guests.”

Yet the hottest, most-booked restaurant is what they came up with. Opening in late 2008, Founding Farmers was an instant hit, grossing an estimated $8 million in 2009 and winning a boatload of awards along the way. The restaurant, housed in an LEED gold-certified space, has proven that, when done with style, a commitment to sustainability and a farm-to-table food orientation can make a restaurant into a money machine that doesn’t depend on having a celebrity chef in the kitchen.

It’s the kind of place that makes its owners think, “Where else could this concept work?” No wonder NDFU and VSAG were eager to see if what made Founding Farmers a hit in Washington’s urban corridors of power would translate to the suburbs. To find out, they opened a second Founding Farmers in   Potomac, MD, just over the state line in Montgomery County, MD.

Park Potomac is a mixed-used development that combines five office buildings with townhouses, condominiums, restaurants and shopping. The clientele, although no less well-heeled than the one in downtown Washington, is nevertheless different. VSAG was more than up for the challenge—provided they had a piece of the business.

“The only way to grow an enterprise is from the inside,” Simons told the Washington Post. “We loved our arrangement with the farmers, but we wanted them as partners instead of just working for them.”

They’re owners now, and they’ve made some key adjustments to the basic Founding Farmers concept. The bistro-style menu still features what the restaurant characterizes as “farm-inspired American true food.” But it’s been altered for the suburban audience.

“We forecasted the differences to be that we would attract more families and that our in-between meal periods would be slower without the downtown density and ongoing walk-by traffic,” Simons points out.

About two-thirds of the menu choices are the same, with key signature items and other proven pockets of interest from the 96-item downtown DC original menu remaining intact. New additions include more chicken and poultry dishes and meats prepared via natural juice cooking methods in a custom-made, high-heat gas-and-fire oven. Overall, the food is a little lighter than the original, the better to appeal to the larger number of female and family customers Potomac’s Founding Farmers attracts.

The bar menu has also been tweaked for the suburban audience. Relative to the original, Potomac’s Founding Farmers serves fewer mixologist-crafted cocktails and more straight-ahead vodka drinks. There are more sales of wine, and fewer craft beers are stocked. Simon says it’s all about making drinks more accessible for the new restaurant’s clientele.

One reason for the drink program changes: Foot traffic, a staple in DC, is light in Park Potomac. Most customers drive to get there. Good thing there’s so much free parking at this $5 million restaurant project. The 8,100 sq. ft. space hold 241 patrons; an outdoor patio is expected to come on line later this spring, offering 40 additional seats.

Daypart usage differs from the original in that customers arrive and leave earlier for dinner. And lunch has been a bit of a challenge so far.

To counter the midday sag, VSAG came up with an “Afternoon Social” concept, meant to appeal to everyone from laptop entrepreneurs to moms with kids to retirees. The special menu features tea sandwiches, scones, cocktails and cookies and desserts.

At breakfast, amenities have been designed to attract “entrepreneurs and business people who don’t need to go to a traditional office every day,” Simons says. “Our breakfast time at Park Potomac is now also for functional meetings and getting work done.”

Miraculously, VSAG opened Potomac’s Founding Farmers while helping resurrect the NDFU’s first DC restaurant, Farmers & Fishers. Originally known as Agraria, the restaurant was rebranded when VSAG come on board to run it. Farmers & Fishers experienced significant water damage when Washington Harbor flooded last April. Now closed, VSAG and NDFU hope to reopen it soon and further expand the Founding Farmers brand.

“We’re actively looking for a location in Northern Virginia for another Founding Farmers and we’re working on opening a new concept, FFB (Farmers, Fishers & Bakers) in the Washington Harbor spot,” Simons says. And they’re looking for another downtown location for the brand, too.

We’re betting these won’t be the last twists on the original Founding Farmers concept we’ll see.

TAGS: Operations
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