While the term “farm-to-table” has been widely used and abused over the last couple decades, for chefs like Eric Skokan, owner of Bramble & Hare in Boulder, Colo., the term fits his concept to a tee. For the last 15 years, he has been growing the produce, herbs and spices, and raising the lamb and pork served at his 90-seat restaurant.
What started as a hobby farm grew into 425-acres of land across Boulder County, with Skokan at the helm of each growing project. He experiments and dreams of dishes while he works with plants. And he sells excess products at the local farmers' market. The latter, he said, has been a key in getting his program noticed and has locked in life-long customers.
The farmer-chef spoke with Restaurant Hospitality about how he started Black Cat Farm, the economic impact, and why it's both difficult and worth the effort.
How did you start farming?
The farming started out as a hobby garden, something I loved to do. There wasn't any grand plan, it was just a chef and his garden, where I got to putter around and think about the menu, experiment and try stuff out.
Part of the thing I loved about it was that opening a restaurant and being a chef is super stressful, and the garden felt so relaxing. Just to be in the garden and doing the gardening work, I had more energy. I was spending more time thinking about things that would be on the menu. It wasn't just like playing a round of golf or fly fishing — it turned out my relaxation was beneficial to the restaurant. I love it, so made it bigger and bigger. Pretty soon it was half an acre, and a half-acre garden is big.
When did you start using the produce from the garden in the restaurant?
A lot of the things that I was growing and harvesting I was bringing into the restaurant. That was fun. I would harvest two dozen squash blossoms and do a little dish on the tasting menu. Then I started to work things more into the menu that I was able to produce in that garden. But there was a point at which the garden was full, and I realized it wasn't big enough to produce the bulk of what would sit on the plate.
For example, I grew one cabbage plant, one broccoli, one cauliflower. I was stunned how big the plants are. A single broccoli plant is big enough you can't get your arms around it. Maybe Shaquille O'Neal, but a normal person can’t. It's massive.
What made you decide to broaden the garden into the beginning of the farm?
Instead of growing six potato plants I wanted to grow enough potatoes to have them in the dining room. A friend asked if I wanted to join in a co-op and lease some Boulder County space and start a micro farm. I thought that was great. I thought I could do the squash blossoms at the house, but do rows of potatoes and cabbages on the farm. In 2008, I leased 2.5 acres, bought a tractor, taught myself irrigation systems, and hired a crew to help me out. Just two years after my restaurant opened, Black Cat Farm had been birthed.
When did the farmers' market come into play?
At the same time that we opened the farm, we were invited into the Boulder County Farmers Market. We had a booth and I would harvest carrots and radishes and arugula to hand out. Then we started selling the little bits of excess produce we had. It was there I realized the power of what we were doing and what it meant for the community and our customers. Before that, I was all in my head and I did the garden for the enjoyment of myself.
How did the farmers market help the growth of the restaurant and your farm?
Handing a carrot off to a customer at the farmers market and then referring them to the menu like, ‘These are delicious and here's what I am doing with the carrots tonight; here's a recipe and three fun things you can do with this carrot.’
Seeing the light bulb go off for the customers was significant. It was powerful. It transitioned random people who were just buying a bunch of carrots into lifelong customers instantly. It created this intense value for the consumers. From their perspective, they saw that this guy gets it, and this food is really good, I can believe in it and have faith in it. This is at the same time the country is going through a massive food scare. You can't eat lettuce, spinach, cilantro, and as a nation we became afraid of food-born illness from produce. Then, at the same time, you have this chef dolling out carrots to the public in a transparent kind of way.
Why is that carrot so darn good?
When we pull carrots out of the ground they are served the same day, maybe four or five hours later. Sometimes it's a month or more for standard carrots going through the food service system. We have this freshness advantage over other restaurants. That allows us, when we are executing really well, we are at a height that is hard to attain for most restaurants. Those are the benefits of that carrot, and they are hard to overstate. Plus, it creates intense brand loyalty and brand value for customers.
Are there downsides to running both a farm and restaurant?
The downside is everything that comes with operating a farm and restaurant and meshing it together. They don't really mesh. The clash is enough that you don't see many [true] farm-to-table restaurants out there. It's hard to pull off.
You would think, because farmers and chefs are dealing with food, that it's a left hand and right hand sort of deal. But the need of a chef is to have the right amount of food in a restaurant day after day because we have the same amount of customers day after day. Coming up with recipes and training the staff and getting things done efficiently, it's time consuming and really hard.
You have to create a world where you need consistency. You need the same kind of carrots day in and day out. It's best for the chef if you have baby carrots that are roughly the same size each day. It simplifies life for a chef. As a small farmer, it's exceedingly difficult to pull off having 20 pounds of carrots the same size day after day, week after week, it's almost impossible.
Has that support help change your business?
The carrot got the people in the door, and the carrots are delicious. This marketing aspect is really important. But marketing really only gets customers in the door the first time. I have always felt we have to execute at a really high-level service, day after day, year after year. That's been the most important thing to maintain when working with great food.
Why is it hard on the farm end?
Farmers have a process that they go through to harvest. There's field prep and fertilization, seeding and weeding and irrigation. Finally, you have to harvest. You don't want to grow just 20 pounds of carrots, you want to grow 2,000 pounds of carrots. It takes the same amount of labor to grow 20 pounds as it does to grow 2,000 pounds. And in the end, you want to limit the overall cost.
If I show up at another restaurant with 2,000 pounds of carrots, the chef chuckles and asks what are they supposed to do with that many. It doesn’t work. The farm either has to waste labor by growing little bits of food continuously, or be big enough to sell to 10 to 20 restaurants and dole out carrots to everyone. That's the way the food system works: farms go big and restaurants need small amounts of consistent food.
Bramble & Hare also doesn't need that many carrots at a time. So how are you working on that problem in house?
I have been working on this problem for 10 to 15 years now. I search for varietals that don't finish at the same time. As a farmer that's not what you want. A farmer wants all the green beans to mature at the same time. You want to harvest the field and flip the fields. I don't want that. I want green beans that are perfect every day for a few months. Then my crew will go out and search for the perfect beans. It's labor intensive, but that's what we do.
How does this method of farming translate inside the restaurant?
It's a lot of super fast menu writing. Instead of keeping the same dish on the menu for a couple months, we only keep it on as long as we have things coming out of the field in great shape. Then that dish goes away. We re-print the menu every day. Not that every dish changes every day, but there is a slow evolution of dishes that is always happening. Some dishes are just starting with a season while others are just petering out.
Talk to us about the economics of this food system.
It's hard, but the short answer is, yes, it can be economically viable. That is, now. It took a while to get to this point where it makes sense. There's an R&D factor to this. When I started farming, I wasn't a farmer, I had to teach myself to be a farmer.
It's important to understand that the first couple years you have to do it on faith not finances. It's going to look ugly financially for a couple years before you figure it out. Once I figured out a crop and how to grow it and spread harvest out over a long time, I found the price per pound of what I was able to produce was a fraction of what locally produced, organic food was from the market.
One of the first things I mastered was arugula. I would go to the farmers market and buy arugula for $6 or $7 a pound there, and buy around 10 pounds to use over the course of the weekend. Now I can produce it for less than $1 a pound, because we are good at it. We produce our own seed and I am able to have arugula growing 10 months out of the year at around 50-cents a pound. That's really inexpensive, and it's possible to make a lot of money with an arugula salad when you're only paying 50-cents a pound.
That's the carrot dangling on the string in front of the horse that keeps the whole thing moving forward. It took a number of years to figure out arugula and for it to be profitable. Now, we are working to do that with everything else.
What plant has been the most difficult to figure out?
I have been working on growing artichokes at the farm for almost 10 years. This is the glutton-for-punishment part of me. We still do it, but I have lost thousands and thousands of dollars in artichoke experiments. I don't even want to calculate the price per pound that we serve at the restaurants. It's probably the most expense artichoke served in a restaurant in the history of mankind. I call it the Midas Artichoke.
How did you fund the farm in the beginning?
We had partners in the beginning but now it's just Jill [his wife and fellow co-owner] and I, and we own the restaurant. In the beginning we funded the restaurant on our credit card. It was very much a to-the-penny operation. We didn't have the luxury to invest $1 million in the farm. So the farm needed to produce in the first couple of years. I couldn't have too many experiments, too many golden artichokes. We saw the number of covers shoot up because the initial marketing benefit of selling at the farmers market, and we kept those customers because the execution was really good.
Today, about how much comes from the farm?
In the height of the season, it's almost everything, in the high 90 percentile. It's easier to talk about the things not from the farm, like sugar, sunflower oil, olive oil, lemons, toilet paper, salt ... we don't produce fish and dairy and some of those main staples. But we do produce some of our own spices like fennel seed, sesame seed and coriander.
In the winter we have to purchase a little more, maybe 20% of what's used in the restaurant. Typically the thing that trips us up, since Bramble & Hare is open six days a week, is when the weather gets in the way of the operation. Like, if we have a two-foot snowstorm and can’t get in the fields to harvest anything. I am not willing to shut the restaurant down, so we will buy the bare minimum we need to make it through that little time.
The way I look at it, with 365 days in the year there are maybe sevenish days where we can't harvest. I am perfectly fine with that. We did all we can and have worked our butts off all year long.