Posted by Carrie Ray
on Jul 28, 2011 | Comments Off on Local-Food Restaurant Faces Challenges
An article in yesterday's New York Times (posted below) examines an issue facing many folks working to develop local food economies: the cost of fresh, local produce. The article below describes one man's effort to start a local-food restaurant in a small, Southwest Virginia town, to provide fresh, healthy food and to support local farmers. However, the local population hasn't entirely gotten on board. In many cases, the idea that local food from a Farmer's Market costs more is a myth, but when it comes to taking your family out to eat, a paying $10 per meal at a restaurant like Harvest Table isn't what many folks in this region can afford, especially if they can eat at McDonald's for a fraction of that price. Of course, when you look at the wider costs of eating cheap, processed food (obesity, diabetes, increased health-care costs), what seems like a better deal at first turns out to be much more expensive in the long run.
If local is better – fresher, healthier and supporting local farmers and entrepreneurs – how do we build community support, dispel the myths and ensure that it's affordable for everyone?
Local Food Has Been No Easy Sell in Appalachia
Shawn Poynter for The New York Times
Steven Hopp began a small farm to help supply his restaurant, the Harvest Table, in Meadowview, Va. More Photos »
By JANE BLACK
Published: July 26, 2011
Shawn Poynter for The New York Times
WHEN Steven Hopp envisioned his restaurant, the Harvest Table, he drew up a list of strict rules. Local farmers would provide the produce, meats and cheeses. Lemons would be banned: after all, why ship something that is mostly water when homegrown lemon thyme might suffice? Coffee and tea would be allowed because they are dried, but they should be organic, fair trade or both.
That philosophy grew out of his own experience. From 2005 to 2006, Mr. Hopp and his wife, the author Barbara Kingsolver, decided to see if their family could rely on the food they grew here in the hills of southwest Virginia. Their 2007 best seller, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,” a memoir about their experiment, helped introduce Americans to the locavore creed.
With the Harvest Table, Mr. Hopp is trying to determine whether those same principles can sustain a business beyond the big city.
“My motive is not that I love the restaurant business or that I want to create a fine-dining restaurant with local ingredients,” he said. “We want to design a business that maximizes the benefit to the most local people that it possibly can.”
Mr. Hopp’s goal was to create an egalitarian restaurant, one that is built by and caters to the community. Four years later, his dream is still a work in progress. The restaurant has breathed some life into the central square of this deflated old railroad town in dire need of economic development. It employs 18 people, significant in a community with a population of about 2,200. Its chefs buy from dozens of local farms, pay foragers for ramps and morels that proliferate in the Appalachian woods, and get all the wine from Virginia.
But in the heart of Appalachia, where there isn’t a critical mass of suppliers or customers for whom the term “locavore” rolls naturally off the tongue, the restaurant remains something of a curiosity. Mr. Hopp is, once again, a pioneer. The 50-seat Harvest Table has not yet turned a profit. Over the past several years, it has struggled to build a fan base among the area’s predominantly blue-collar residents for whom the average annual income is $15,750, and many of whom view local and organic food as out of reach.
“I’ve heard it’s expensive, so I’ve never been in,” said Bobbie Cornett, the site manager at the town medical clinic next door. “Well, that’s not true, I got a can of pop there once.”
Initially, Mr. Hopp, who teaches environmental studies at the nearby Emory & Henry College, wanted to build a year-round farmers’ market. But he soon decided that a restaurant was more viable.
He renovated two century-old buildings, using salvaged wood and old bricks, then painted them pastel blue and rose with neat, white trim. The Harvest Table and the Meadowview Farmers’ Guild, the general store next door that sells local grits, microbrews and a collection of Ms. Kingsolver’s books, opened in October 2007.
The warm, friendly restaurant has a low-key vibe that would help make it an instant hit in a progressive, urban enclave like Brooklyn or Berkeley, Calif. There is an open kitchen, and colorful paintings of barns adorn the walls.
On one visit, the special was “salad pizza,” a white pie with a spicy mix of local greens, dressed with red wine vinaigrette. A middle-aged couple greeted Philip Newton, one of the restaurant’s chefs, with a handshake, then sat down to lamb sausage burritos. One enthusiastic server wielding a charming drawl successfully sold nearly every table on desserts like warm berry cobbler.
When summer is over, chefs will face up to the short Appalachian growing season by relying on house-canned, frozen or dried ingredients. (Among the benefits of being outside a metropolitan area are cheap rents and ample storage space.)
While the chefs have worked hard to woo local farmers, finding the ingredients they need remains a challenge. For at least a century, tobacco was the area’s main crop. When federal subsidies for that crop ended in 2005, many older farmers put away their ploughs. Those who have switched to produce have often been happier to sell a single crop to one big buyer than to grow the small quantities of a variety of fruits and vegetables that a small restaurant needs.
“There aren’t a lot of farmers keyed into growing vegetables, which, actually, works to our advantage,” said Mark Scott, an owner of Eden Farms, which sells heirloom vegetables, including tomatoes, to the restaurant. “A lot of old-time farmers still do a few acres of the basics: tobacco, hay and corn.”
Mr. Newton, the chef, said things were getting better. “After four years, the farmers are more willing to take a chance and grow a few things,” he said. “We are showing them that we are not going away.”
Despite some progress, Mr. Hopp decided last fall to begin growing his own produce. He hired a farm manager who helped him carve terraces on a steeply sloped four-acre plot adjacent to his home and build hoop houses to extend the season. They planted beets, cauliflower, broccoli and a small orchard of cherries, plums, Asian pears and persimmons. They even made an investment in the future by planting asparagus, which won’t produce a significant crop for several years. Mostly, though, the farm is meant to provide the basics like greens, onions and carrots that a restaurant needs in large volumes. The goal is not to stop paying farmers, Mr. Hopp said, but to fill in the gaps until suppliers can meet demand.
The biggest challenge has been winning over townspeople. It’s not hard to find residents who say that a meal at the Harvest Table is more than they can afford, though none who said so in interviews had actually eaten there.
Shawn Poynter for The New York Times
A church group from Bristol, Tenn., dined there, but some neighbors have been reluctant to try it.
For many here, “farm fresh” food is not necessarily more appealing than the chain restaurants that are anathema to Mr. Hopp. “If you go over there and eat, you have to pay $20,” said Kay Thomas, 69, who has been farming in Meadowview with her husband for a half-century. “You can go to Pizza Hut and eat for $6. With the economy the way it is, you have to watch what you do.”
It was no wonder that some residents were furious when in 2009, the County Board of Supervisors rejected a plan for a truck stop with a McDonald’s for Meadowview. Supporters of the proposal said it would have lured customers for local businesses off the highway, created jobs and provided a more affordable dining option than the Harvest Table.
“Anything you can get into a little town like this is good,” Terry Hagy, who owns Hagy’s Garage and Wrecker Service in Meadowview, said of Mr. Hopp’s venture. “But we’ve got farmers and working people here. They don’t have time to sit and order a meal. They run in and grab a burger.”
Mr. Hopp said he does not want to feed only “people who have the money to make it work financially.”
To compete, he keeps prices reasonably low. Lunch entrees cost no more than $10, and most dinner options hover around $15. (Prices are comparable to those at, say, Applebee’s, though portions at the chain are bigger.)
The dishes are sophisticated comfort food, and the chefs are careful about how they describe them. What might be called “fennel pasta with pecans” in Brooklyn and served with a detailed description of the vegetable provenance, is “pasta primavera” here. A plate of Padrón peppers was called “pepper roulette,” Mr. Hopp said, because there is always one that is mind-blowingly spicy.
“When people who are interested in food ask me questions, I tell them: ‘I can give you the nauseatingly long version or a short one,’ ” Mr. Hopp said. “We are always trying to figure out how to educate people more, but with the recognition that most people don’t want a lecture.”
Finding that balance between an agent of cultural change and friendly neighborhood hangout won’t be easy. “If this was a really successful model, there would be one between every 7-Eleven in the country,” he said. “This provides a model for people to think about.”