Restaurant-Farm Combination on the Rise

Riley Nowicki, Head Farmer of Fremont Diner

By Lesley Lammers for the Green Chamber of Commerce

With consumers increasingly interested in the source of their food and the sustainability practices of dining establishments, a growing number of restaurants are taking a rigorous approach to the term “farm-to-table.”  Restaurants growing their own food on-site or nearby have become aware that vertically integrated food businesses can be a win-win-win for the environment, their bottom line and eco-conscious diners.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with one such restaurant farmer, Riley Nowicki, who was just brought on as Farm Manager of Fremont Diner in Sonoma, CA.  He is transforming the restaurant’s attached five acres into an edible landscape, aspiring to eventually source all of the restaurant’s produce and a portion of their meat from the property.   With seven pigs, one hundred chickens, orchards on the way, and ¾ of an acre already planted, they are off to a quick start after only six weeks of farming.

Owner Chad Harris decided to grow food on-site because, like many restauranteurs, he wants the guaranteed quality that his own sustainable, home-grown farm provides.  “By having the produce right there at the diner, we can have some sort of control of what’s growing and how it’s grown.  You get the reassurance that you will have the produce you want in the quantity that you want, and can be proud of what you are serving,” says Nowicki.

For restaurants with a tighter space, Nowicki suggests growing herbs because they are high yield, low maintenance crops.  Lettuce greens are also a good place to start since they have short roots and therefore don’t require much space for root mass.  They are quick growing and will give you several harvests throughout your growing season.

Economically, the long term benefits of this model far outweigh the drawbacks.  Restaurants growing their food will need to make an initial investment, but Nowicki asserts that once you have a steady stream of incoming food, your expenditures will be covered and profit margins will increase.  “It’s also a big selling point to customers, and we’ve found it to be very attractive to patrons to have a farm on-site. People come back all the time and wonder what I’m up to, kids running around wanting to see the pigs and all the veggies growing.”

Since Fremont Diner is consistently slammed during breakfast and lunch hours, Nowicki is able to accurately anticipate demand for his product.  “In my position, I know I have a customer that is in the diner.  He can tell me how much he wants and when he wants it, so I don’t have to deal with the marketing in that sense.”  This relationship takes much of the stress and uncertainty out of growing food that most farmers without a loyal customer base typically face.

Businesses can also save money cutting out the middle man, as there are no distribution costs associated with harvesting right outside your back door.  By eliminating the need to transport food over long distances, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced as well.

There are many restaurants — especially in urban centers where there isn’t room to have a farm on-site — that have a sister property within a short drive of their restaurant from which to source food locally.  As evidence of this particular concept gaining momentum, New York Times Magazine recently featured Eno Restaurant & Market, praising them for their integrated farm-restaurant-market.   Similarly, Farmstead in St. Helena, CA sources their own honey, olive oil, wine, and grass-fed beef from nearby properties as well as an herb and vegetable garden for patrons to admire from the restaurant’s patio.  Meanwhile Pines Tavern & Restaurant in Pines, PA has been at the forefront, growing over 65% of their own food from an adjacent 2 ½ acre farm for over a decade.

These farm-restaurant establishments aim to bring people closer to their food by demonstrating and giving thanks for the process of creating a meal in its entirety — from cultivating, planting, harvesting, cooking and ultimately serving it to you.

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Lesley Lammers is a freelance food and environmental writer and regular contributor to the Green Chamber of Commerce. The Green Chamber of Commerce represents the NEW voice of commerce, one that can envision the future – a future where businesses work to protect our planet.

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