Restaurants Growing Their Own and Sourcing Local: Expanding Urban Agriculture

Restaurants across the country are advocating food sustainability by moving towards farm-to-table and growing their own ingredients.  Restaurateurs have long known that locally produced food generally guarantees higher quality and better tasting products. But urban agriculture is also increasingly an economically viable path for restaurants. Supporting local products, particularly within and around the urban setting, reflects an environmental and social awareness that appeals to customers now more than ever.  And while local sourcing does come with a few drawbacks — such as selection being limited by seasonality and weather, and a lack of uniformity and consistency in the products — it avoids the more major disruptions caused by national food scares, such as the recent outbreaks of e coli and salmonella. 

A number of Boston-area restaurants have proven to be great models of this trend.  Chefs of several urban restaurants such as Rendezvous, 51 Lincoln, and dbar, have extended their kitchen by investing in rooftop gardens to grow ingredients on site.

Here are examples of how rooftop gardens have influenced these restaurants:

According the Boston Globe, Green City Growers, a Somerville-based organization that installs residential and corporate year-round raised-bed gardens in the Boston, has recently worked with food businesses such as Ledge, b. good, and the Seaport Hotel.  The restaurants, in turn, have reaped the benefits of being food citizens, as well as ecological citizens.  Other local area business have pursued similar paths, forming partnerships with local farms, keeping rooftop apiaries, and even starting their own dedicated farms.

So, in our second week of class, we read an article by Adam Gopnik, where he detailed his attempts to learn about urban agriculture, and then create a meal constructed entirely with food grown and raised in New York City.  When he had to compromise and buy a chicken raised elsewhere but killed locally he said, “If there was something to be learned, it’s that the question of locality is one that can be either narrow and parched or broad and humanizing”.  While we’ve researched and highlighted some initiatives to grow food, and keep bees in the city, the reality is that restaurants need to go outside the city to source most of their food.  However, I think there are some restaurants that are bridging the needs of a restaurant in a city, while creating meaningful and beneficial agricultural relationships.  I choose to highlight Siena Farms and Oleana, as they have an incredibly unique partnership, and I was able to interview their assistant farm manager Karen, and the owner of the farm Chris.

Siena Farms and Oleana Restaurant: Marriage and a Business Partnership

  • Chris the owner of Siena Farms and Ana, the head chef and owner of Oleana are married.
  • Chris started Siena Farms in 2005, after their daughter was born; he did this for two reasons, 1. He wanted to work closer to Boston as he had been teaching at the Farm School, in Athol Massachusetts, and 2. Because him and Ana were interested in growing all of the produce for the restaurant themselves.
  • They were able to expand the farm from the original plan of ten acres, to fifty.  So they supply Oleana and Sofra which they own, as well as other restaurants in the Boston area, stands at two farmers markets, and they offer a CSA share.

There are a lot of advantages to this relationship

  • Karen talked about how working with Oleana this closely meant that the farm always has a guaranteed buyer, and one that is more understanding and forgiving of natural fluctuations in the produce.
  • Karen questioned whether this was possible outside of a marriage relationship; she felt that they had something very special.
  • Chris however, felt that they have, and other farms can cultivate this relationship with chefs, citing how they are able to work with Barbara Lynch and her restaurants in a similar working relationship.
  • Chris told me that working closely with Ana has taught him to value his produce more, both economically in how much he charges for it, but also realizing the quality of what he produces.

Challenges of dedicated farm to table buying

  • It requires a lot of creativity and skill on the part of the chef; they need to be able to alter menu items in accordance with the growing seasons, and availability.
  • Customers need to adapt their expectations.
  • Can every restaurant cultivate this type of relationship?

While I think the food at Oleana is phenomenal, and Siena’s produce top-notch, this model does make me question how feasible these type of partnerships are for restaurants.  The restaurants that Siena sources with are very high-end establishments, and their farm stand is by far the most expensive at the farmers market I work at.  In an article by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft after he has eaten a 300 dollar dinner at the French Laundry states, “My meal at the French Laundry acted as a catalyst to further reflections, encouraging me to think hard about the way we pronounce meals “worthwhile”, and about the calculations we make consciously or unconsciously, about the price of pleasure….” (Wurgaft, 56).  Wurgaft was looking at the different ways that people justify expenditures on food focusing on everything from cultural capital gained by eating at a certain place, to the way that the menu highlighted certain ingredients and where they came from.  I feel like Siena Farms and Oleana offers us the same opportunity to question the large-scale applicability of close relationships with agriculture in city centers.  Is it possible to do so in an affordable manner?

A Look at Chef Frank McClelland
Owner of L’Espalier, Sel de la Terre and Apple Street Farm

McClelland grew up on his grandfather’s farm in New Hampshire: “I couldn’t imagine not having a garden,” he tells Yankee Magazine, “let alone not teaching my children about how things grow.” So, when he purchased L’Espalier – Boston’s only AAA-Five Diamond establishment – over two decades ago McClelland immediately made a commitment to seasonal cooking and local agriculture. “It makes sense: food that is in season and doesn’t have to travel far just tastes better,” he states. A 100-square-foot roof garden was installed (at the old Back Bay townhouse location) and the menu began featuring its produce – mostly greens, herbs and tomatoes – as well as the fruits and vegetables grown in McClelland’s own home garden, an important shift from telephone orders and truck deliveries.

Analysis Points:

  • Personal connection to gardening: Do you have to have a history with agriculture to fully reap its benefits? Can the restaurant industry bring more people to agriculture for economics and education?
  • Restaurant garden showing parallel to the community garden. “[E]njoy[ment of] being attached to a place through physical and social engagement.”(Flammang)

The first Sel de la Terre was opened on Boston’s waterfront in 2000, and within a decade there were two other locations. Even with his expanding business and related needs, McClelland stood by the locavore movement: “I’m just being selfish,” comments McClelland to the Gloucester Times, “because I love to do this. Why not harvest today and cook immediately and eat outside tonight? It’s almost spiritual.” By combining farming with his culinary skills, McClelland is able to personally reenact treasured family memories, support the “eat local” movement, and increase communication between his businesses – “re-making intimacy in a large corporation” – since he personally delivers harvests every afternoon in Boston.

Analysis Points:

  • Restaurant industry challenge: Lack of space to grow enough or at all in close proximity to restaurant location(s).
  • Is having a restaurant garden a “selfish” act? Can it be sustainable and profitable, or does a restaurateur have to choose one principle over the other?
  • Secondary and tertiary benefits of restaurant urban agriculture, such as better communication, more involved upper management, unified vision, etc.

In 2008, L’Espalier moved to its new location in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Boylston Street, thereby losing its rooftop space. Chefs in McClelland’s busy kitchen could no longer simply run up the stairs to harvest lettuces or snip extra herbs for sauces and garnishes. In preparation for the move and in recognition that good food is relatively scarce, McClelland purchased the 14-acre Apple Street Farm in Essex, Mass. – 26 miles from downtown Boston – and it’s buildings in 2007. He quickly re-tilled a few of the fields and, in doing so, re-launched what had been a working farm as far back as 1635. Staffed with four dedicated, full-time employees and relying on supplemental labor from the chefs and staff of McClelland’s Boston restaurants, Apple Street harvested its first crops in 2009. Now, the farm’s 2.5 acres under organic plow supply over 50% of the produce for L’Espalier and all three Sel de la Terres: “Maybe I’m a little ahead of the curve,” says McClelland to the Gloucester Times, “but I think linking urban agriculture to restaurants is the next big thing.” The farm also provides food for 50 local families as part of poultry and produce CSAs, with overflow being sold at a farm stand. Apple Street is considered to be, “one of the country’s most ambitious sustainable agriculture initiatives for the restaurant industry.”

Analysis Points:

  • Required garden involvement by L’Espalier employees: Can this be considered agricultural/ecological citizenship without the aspect of free will? And without true inclusion? Or little to no education? (Travaline)
  • Multiple outputs – not having all of the eggs in one restaurant-based basket – allow for constant variation and adjustment in products, menus, outreach, etc. Diversification of crops and businesses are mutually beneficial.

Apple Street Farm grows more than 40 types of crops, including:

  • 14 tomato varieties,
  • 8 different eggplants,
  • 8 types of peppers,
  • mesclun,
  • winter and summer squash,
  • cabbage,
  • 3 kale varieties,
  • leeks,
  • scallions,
  • bok choy,
  • turnips,
  • beets,
  • cucumbers,
  • and a wide range of herbs.

There are also six kinds of fowl on the property, as well as horses, pigs, over 60 laying hens and Tom Turkey. And McClelland stays in the thick (and dirt) of it all; actively farming with the intensity and authority that he brings to his kitchens. “It is really beautiful,” comments McClelland to NECN. “It’s like a world away. … [W]e’re only 35 minutes away from Boston and you would never know it.” The video segment of NECN’s interview with McClelland and a tour of Apple Street Farm can be viewed online.

Analysis Points:

  • Constant struggle with dichotomy between city and country: McClelland sees Apple Tree as an integral part of his Boston restaurant businesses, but describes it as “a world away.”
  • View of agriculture as a retreat from industry and complexities of culture; Urban agriculture delivers a best of both worlds scenario.

McClelland increases the link between his urban restaurants and Apple Street Farm by hosting special farm dinners – cost $175 per person, inclusive of tax and gratuity – in the summer and autumn highlighting fresh organic produce, livestock and eggs straight from the fields. Guests make reservations through L’Espalier and are encouraged to explore the farm’s grounds before taking a seat at an opulently set table for a four-course meal with a trio of wine pairings. For the dinners, bar, kitchen and server staff come from his Boston restaurants. It’s a costly endeavor – McClelland makes no profit – but he thinks it’s worth it: “It’s bringing L’Espalier [customers and culture] to Cape Ann.” Apple Street also hosts themed cooking classes and is available to rent as a location for third-party events.

Analysis Points:

  • Apple Tree Farm as a part of urban experience, available only to those with means (money, time, education, etc).
  • Restaurant industry challenge: Is this “agriculture for the elite” doing harm, good, or a bit of both? How is agricultural romanticism, such as farm dinners, impacting current and future gardeners and restaurateurs?

We decided to look at how the restaurant industry utilized urban agriculture because we were interested in how for-profit organizations used something strongly associated with community organizing. Boston proved to be rich in example of how urban agriculture was being integrated into the restaurant/hospitality business model. In looking forward into the future we determine elements of urban agriculture that directly correlate with the success and benefit of the restaurant.

Agro-Tourism/Culinary Tourism: Restaurant and urban gardens can be  marketed as a form of travel and experiential vacations.

Integrate Agriculture: The symbiotic use of various growing cultures to create a self-sustaining model of agriculture. Restaurants can employ these principles into the urban garden model as a means to effectively and efficiently use space.

  • Aquaponics: hybrid growing practice that uses aquaculture and hydroponics
  • Urban Beekeeping: Urban bee work to pollinate their city environment. Urban hives are known to be stronger, healthier hives.

Non-traditional Growing Methods: Much like intergrated agriculture, non-traditional methods employ strategies of farming that combat the issue of space.

  • Vertical Gardening: growing up rather than out. Usually require special structure for this to be accomplished.
  • Rooftop Gardens: Make use of the underused space of a roof.

Slow Money: At network that encourages investors to support the food, farm and the soil. This economic support can serve as the catalyst for a number of restaurant to incorporate agriculture, hopefully urban, into their model.

We asked ourselves what the future of urban agriculture would look like, and if it could be something that all restaurants should have. Naturally this isn’t possible, not is it the goal. Partially our project was an exercise to determine how broadening our scope of urban agriculture, to include just beyond the city limits, or to include strictly for profit business model would, change the way urban agriculture could be incorporated into the urban landscape.  We have to redefine the urban food to do so. There was a lot of stretching involved, as well as many flaws, such as exclusivity and access. The model, however, remains  worth looking into for the sake of possibility alone.

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