Farm to Table: Good or Gimmick? Part 2: It’s Hard to Cultivate Sources

Megan Lynch (@MLynchOnAir)

ST. LOUIS (KMOX)In our first report, KMOX introduced you to the concept of the “Farm to Table” restaurant. Farmers grow crops, raise livestock or poultry. They harvest, process and sell to local chefs. As you’ll learn in “Farm to Table: Good or Gimmick,” making the farm-to-table model work isn’t as simple as it sounds.

“It’s not as easy as just calling up Sisco or one of the big companies, placing your order and then they bring everything on a big truck. I’ve got 20 to 30 different people that we have to order from every week,” says Brendan Kirby, one of the owners of Seed, Sprout, Spoon on Morgan Ford in St. Louis.

Kirby has to find time to source while he’s planning event menus and managing his kitchen.

“Produce, spirits for our catering division for weddings and parties, beer, proteins, pork, beef, eggs – everything we can find we try to get. If we can’t find something local, we try to find something organic or within the Midwest,” he says.

On a long counter at the front of the store, a staffer adds sandwiches and sauce cups to paper boxes for a lunch order. Seed, Sprout, Spoon is clear about the philosophy.

“Sometimes you’ll have a sandwich and on the ticket it will have four different farms listed … we try to be as transparent as possible.”

Kirby admits there are times when there’s simply no way to make “farm to table” work: “Things that we go through on a higher volume like onions, we go through 1,500 pounds a week, I can’t get anybody to give me that many locally.”

A big consideration is that local sourcing comes with a cost.

“Some of the local products cost two, three, four times as much as some of the more commercially manufactured products,” which is why Kirby says some business owners soon find the farm-to-table model hard to swallow. “With a restaurant, you’re always constrained by a price point on your menu. You see maybe we’re not that busy, we need to bring the price down a little bit, then that brings the quality of the product down a little bit, before you realize it, your farm-to-table restaurant may be some lettuce.”

White canvas-covered stands line the street of downtown Edwardsville, Illinois. This is the weekly Land of Goshen Community Market. Just down the street, one of its biggest patrons.

“Farm-to-table is such a catch phrase and such a big thing right now; it gets overused, and I don’t even think a lot of restaurants are the ones overusing it,” explains Jenny Cleveland, co-owner of Cleveland-Heath – a restaurant known for hearty, bar food on Main Street in Edwardsville.  “Everyone thinks we’re farm-to-table, and everyone calls us organic, and we’re none of those things.”

Cleveland and partner Ed Heath’s perspective comes from their time in California.

“Ed worked at a restaurant that had its own cattle herd and its own olive grove, and they made their own olive oil, and they had their own chickens, and their own produce, and that to me is farm-to-table,” she says.

Their pork is local. In season, they can count on fresh produce. But it’s been difficult to get consistent supplies of other items.

“If you tell us you can get us enough, and we put it on the menu, and then Thursday you can’t bring us anymore … but we didn’t find out in time to reprint the menu, you know, it costs a lot of money every time you reprint.”

The ingredients they bring into the kitchen can’t drive the price higher than what customers will pay. A great example is chicken. For high-volume menu items, they have to buy industrially raised poultry.

“I hate that chicken, but it is what it is. We’ve tried to changing it, and people like white meat for lunch if they’re eating a salad they want white meat, so you aren’t buying whole chickens to do a hundred pounds of breast a week, we don’t have an outlet for the rest of that chicken.”

Cleveland is honest about the limits — some restaurants may not be.

“They can skip having to pay the price for that product, substitute it with something off the food truck that they can get for cheaper, and yet, they can charge more for their plate,” says Veronica Baetje, Baetje Farms.

More in Part 3 of “Farm to Table: Good or Gimmick?”

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