What it takes for Columbus restaurants to bring true farm-to-table ingredients to you
By Nicole Rasul, Photography by Maria Khoroshilova
On a recent evening dining out, Bryn Bird, whose family owns Bird’s Haven Farms in Granville, noticed her family’s farm listed as a supplier in beautifully crafted cursive writing on a chalkboard hanging prominently in the restaurant.
“I thought, ‘that’s funny, we haven’t sold anything to them in nearly a year’,” says Bryn.
“Local”’ is a word that you can find splashed on menus across town. Consumers and those in the food industry happily welcome the movement for fresh foods that grow regional economies. Yet as Bryn can attest, the buzzword has also met exploitation in the name of marketing. And while farms face increased public transparency to disclose their growing methods, restaurants often face zero accountability in their farm-to-table advertising.
Commitment to a Core Philosophy
“We don’t really know any other way to run our business,” says Todd Mills, owner of Acre Restaurant, which opened in 2014 and is located in the Old North neighborhood of Columbus.
“From the beginning, the point of opening this restaurant was to help build the local food economy and provide an outlet for locally-grown products.”
Todd and his chef, Paul Millman, estimate that during the peak of the growing season most of their products are sourced from area producers. In the off-season, staples like tortillas, bread, beans, dairy, storage crops and hoop-house-grown vegetables still come from Ohio growers.
Acre prioritizes buying directly from local farms. If the restaurant cannot source a certain food or enough of an item from their roster of farm suppliers, then they will purchase through a local farm cooperative, such as Great River Organics or Yellowbird Foodshed. For remaining purchasing needs they will use a distributor.
“For the majority of our food, we choose to use local farmers and, though it’s more work than using a distributor, it is well worth it,” notes Paul.
The work means devoting time each week to communicating with a multitude of producers regarding matching farm inventory with a restaurant’s needs. The simpler scenario is purchasing from a distributor who generally sources from large-scale producers across the country.
“Instead of maintaining one or two relationships you are maintaining 20. It’s just a different approach,” Paul says. “It takes a willingness and a personal interest in doing this well. It takes effort and it requires a lot more organization. However, the product is so much better and you are investing back into the local economy.”
Though Todd, Paul and general manager Colleen Yuhn each had established connections with area producers before Acre, they note that the key to their success has been fostering those relationships and continually expanding their network of suppliers.
“Go to your local farmers market—there is one almost every day of the week in Columbus during the growing season—and talk to the farmers,” Paul says when asked what advice he would give to restaurants who want to commit to using more local ingredients. “The farmers will get to know you and they will help you choose what is best for your restaurant.”
Empower Staff to Tell the Story of the Food
Kevin Malhame, who co-owns Central Ohio’s Northstar Restaurant Group, which operates Northstar Café, Third & Hollywood and Brassica, believes in empowering his staff to know and tell the story of the sustainable, often local, food that is served in their restaurants.
“The great thing about local food is the relationship component—it is enriching—it makes our work and the work of everyone in our company more satisfying,” he says.
Northstar Restaurant Group is committed to sustainability as an overarching goal in purchasing. The company is also committed to buying from local producers when possible. During the peak of the growing season, a large percentage of the produce served in the company’s restaurants comes from local farms.
As part of their training, managing partners at Northstar Restaurant Group have the opportunity to assist during planting or harvesting season at a supplier’s farm. Additionally, the owners organize a company-wide party at an area farm each Labor Day and they offer employees the chance to attend the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) conference each February.
Understanding from all 350 team members of why the company aims to serve sustainable food is crucial to their success story, says Kevin.
Flexibility, Creativity & Community
No restaurant can source local food 100% of the time.
Bill Glover, the executive chef at Gallerie Bar & Bistro in the Hilton Columbus Downtown, knows that he must balance his love of local with the reality of meeting the demands of a large-scale event venue. At the Hilton, his staff cooks for both the hotel’s restaurant and its conference spaces.
“I can’t feed 600 people lunch every day unless I have a balance between large and small producers. In our restaurant we try to focus as much as we can on local producers. It’s a dance that we have to do to balance both spaces,” Bill says.
At the heart of it, he says, the dance must focus on using all of the resources available to him to make the best dish possible.
“The future of this industry resides in putting local foods with non-local foods. Everything on the plate cannot be local. For example, the olive oil isn’t. No one can make Parmigiano-Reggiano like the Italians,” he says. “I think chefs shouldn’t be afraid to use outstanding non-local ingredients with local foods.”
Bill also believes that chefs have an important role to play in the local foods conversation by sharing outstanding producers’ stories with others in the culinary community.
“One farmer told me, ‘I want to focus on these heritage pigs but I’m worried about how to move the product.’ I told him, ‘don’t worry.’ If it came down to us going up and down High Street, that can be done. I know all of the chefs and I can tell them, ‘you’ve got to see this pork chop.’ And I know the pork chop will speak for itself.”
Since taking the reins at the Hilton, Bill has hosted several high-level culinary showcase events, including James Beard Celebrity Chef Tours, which have not only aimed to share technique but to highlight outstanding regional producers.
The Future of Seasonal, Local Eating
In a 2015 survey from the National Restaurant Association, which asked chefs nationwide which culinary trends they thought have grown the most over the past decade, 44% of respondents noted local sourcing as the biggest boom in the industry.
Todd, Kevin and Bill have all seen positive change in the industry in regard to large-scale distributors responding to the demand for local, seasonal offerings in their product catalogs.
All three attest that local, seasonal eating is not a passing trend but the future of the industry.
“High-quality food and restaurant experiences are converging with responsible purchasing,” Kevin says. “It is an expectation now from consumers as it has become easier to eat at restaurants that, on some level, are trying to focus on sustainability.”
A major hurdle that remains is cost, which may be hindering increased uptake of local food use in the restaurant industry.
According to Kevin, in the past couple of years, inflation in the category of local, sustainably produced ingredients has outpaced general inflation. As consumer demand grows for local, responsible food, restaurants that try to meet this demand have seen their costs rise.
Nevertheless, according to Todd, though it may take extra effort, the commitment to local sourcing is well worth it as it helps to drive change in our local, regional and national food systems.
“A business’s model may have to adapt to pay a premium for local products but if you do it authentically, people will appreciate it and you will impact the community as a whole,” Kevin says.