You may have read, especially from various press releases, about this restaurant claiming to “green” or “sustainable” or that chef doing “farm-to-table” cuisine. Now don’t get me wrong. I am a huge proponent and supporter of sustainable cuisine and local artisans, as long as it isn’t used just for PR purposes. But with all do respect to my fellow locavore restaurateurs, the Real Farm-to-Table cuisine is represented by restaurants like the recently opened Founding Farmers in Washington, DC. The North Dakota Farmers Union, which has 42,000 members, made a $6 million investment (in a pair of Washington restaurants) despite the economic downturn, high food prices and risks inherent in running a restaurant.
The first restaurant Agraria (from a Latin word meaning “field”), opened in 2006 in the city’s trendy Georgetown neighborhood. While somewhat popular with tourists, it has consistently mixed reviews and problems maintaining key personnel.
Will Founding Farmer succeed?
According to the new 2009 Washington D.C./Baltimore Zagat Restaurants Survey guide, regional residents that dine out are clearly moving in a “greener” direction. 70% of surveyors consider eating locally grown food important, while 62% will pay more for sustainably raised food.
Unlike Agraria, Founding Farmers was built to comply with LEED certification (they’re aiming for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold) and has procedures and operational standards to reduce waste, recycle, save energy and practice earth-friendly food service. They have an innovative design with farm silo-shaped booth seating made of recycled steel, PaperStone countertops in the restrooms, finishes made with post-consumer content, reclaimed brick pavers and barn woods underfoot and for the long, communal farmhouse tables. Other LEED criteria design elements and energy-efficient moves include the use of day lighting to illuminate the restaurant, increased ventilation, green-sourced power and low-VOC emitting paints.
Chef Graham Duncan summed up the menus at Founding Farmers as “traditional American classics inspired by the heartland made with sustainably farmed products and only in-season vegetables and fruits.” The restaurant focuses on serving comfort food from family farms in the United States, delivered by co-ops that buy the food directly from smaller, non-corporate farms. Admirable.
With restaurants that expound the same philosophy in Portland, Chicago and New York struggling or going down to the economy, I’m taking a wait and see attitude with Agraria and Founding Farms. The keys to success are the same as any restaurant, whether “green” or not. They have to concentrate on all the details, maintain consistency, continuely show passion and committment and above all, as William J. Garry editor of Bon Appetit magazine wrote, “make me and others want to leave home and pay for the privilege of eating – and come back for more.”