Friday, February 8, 2008

Changing the World one Hard Hat at a Time

"Hope cuisine, not haute cuisine."

Barre, Vermont, is a small, working-class town and the center of the state's granite industry—a place known for quarries and tombstone carving. Here on Main Street, in a small fifteen-foot-wide building that has been feeding residents for over seventy years, is one of the most revolutionary and progressive businesses in the nation—the Farmers Diner. In this tiny diner with its green vinyl booths and white Formica countertops, we find proof that a more hopeful harvest is already under way.

The Farmers Diner is the brainchild of owner and organic farmer Tod Murphy, who one day wondered if it would be possible to create a restaurant with good old American diner food at good old affordable prices but have most of the food come from local and sustainable sources. He took over the landmark diner in 2002 and since then has turned it into a prototype for a national franchise that may someday put Mc- Donald's and Starbucks to the test. More than a meal, the Farmers Diner represents the cutting edge of the local foods movement. So far, the Farmers Diner is spending 70 cents out of every dollar on products from farmers and small-scale producers who live and work within seventy miles of Barre. You'll find milk shakes, burgers, and omelets on the menu, but the burgers and milk will come from local grass-fed cows, the omelets from the eggs of free-range and small-flock hens. And if the season is right, you're likely to find a few surprises, such as a slice of green zebra heirloom tomato under your burger bun or a dish of local organic strawberry ice cream.

Diet Start

The way Tod Murphy sees it, he's building a bridge between the sustainable local foods movement and the everyday customer who may not be able to afford a meal at Alice Waters's Chez Panisse in California, but would still appreciate the riches of local, seasonal fare. (In fact, the diner's tomatoes are grown by one of the farmers who used to supply organic tomatoes for Chez Panisse.) Many of the residents who first started coming to the diner in 2002 didn't really care much about local sustainable. foods, they just wanted good, reasonably priced diner fare. While customers have come to appreciate the local connection, it is the food that keeps them coming back.

Murphy speaks fondly of his regulars, such as the elder Vermont ladies who come from the assisted living retirement housing two blocks down from the diner. "They almost wept when they tasted our sauerkraut," he said. "It's not cooked, it's just chopped cabbage with sea salt, and for a lot of these ladies over seventy this is the sauerkraut they remember from when they were little girls." They have the same reaction to the diner's beet salad made of four different varieties of local, organic beets. "For many elder customers, the resurgence in local fresh food gives them a chance to remember and retaste the food from childhood, before industry got in the way," said Murphy. "And hopefully the desire and the commitment to pay what is needed to taste it again."

Sometimes it's not until customers start reading the menu and place mats, profiling all the local farmers who brought them their breakfast, lunch, or dinners, that they are even aware that the diner offers local riches. The customer literature explains that the diner only sells animal products that have been raised without antibiotics and hormones, and all livestock has access to the outdoors and pasture as a principal part of their feed ration, thus explainingwhy the butter is bright yellow. "That's the way butter is when the cow is outside eating fresh grass, not chained up in a barn," said Murphy. The literature also gives the history of the diner's hamburger, how it made a seventy-mile route from farm to plate instead of the almost 2,000-mile journey of most industrial beef.

Tod Murphy may be an organic farmer with an idealistic vision, but he is also a savvy entrepreneur. It certainly hasn't escaped his attention that just about every food and travel magazine now includes a favorable feature about local foods. He also noted that food trends, such as gourmet coffee, seem to first appeal to consumers in the top upper 10 percent income bracket, but eventually become popular among the middle class. He sees the local foods movement eventually becoming a mainstream mandate.

His vision is to create a national franchise of Farmers Diners—with about five to ten diners working with a central pod of local suppliers. So far his sights are on a pod in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, another one in the Hudson Valley/New York City area, and eventually moving on to the San Francisco Bay area and Portland, Oregon. According to Murphy, each pod will help eighty to 200 local farms become secure in their economic viability. For now he's seeking investors while he continues to infiltrate the working class of Vermont. He likes to recount the time a crew of construction workers came into the diner for some hamburgers. They had come to Barre from another part of the state to work on a local gas station.

"One day at a quarter to twelve in walks a whole crew of construction guys looking for burgers," Murphy recalled. "They have Dallas Cowboys stickers on their hard hats, and they immediately take over two booths with their cement- covered boots sticking out in the aisles."

When the burgers were served, one of the guys declared, "This is the best hamburger I've had since I was a kid inMontana. This has got to be Black Angus from Colorado or Montana or Wyoming."

But his friend said, "What the hell are you talking about? Can't you read the menu? It's from right around here—in Starksboro, Vermont."

The other guy got mad. "No way did this come from Vermont. I'm telling you I grew up in the West and this is Western beef." For a while it looked like a fight might break out.

This story especially delights Murphy. "These guys didn't come into the diner because we offered local food. They came in to get hamburgers and get back to the job. But suddenly they are having a discussion about local food. You now have a guy sitting there thinking holy smoke this tastes different and better than anything else because it's local and you got another guy who's now got emotionally involved in defending the position that this is local. This is what the victory for our side really looks like."

Another encouraging trend is Burgerville, a chain of thirty-nine fast food restaurants in the Pacific Northwest that was dubbed "America's Freshest Fast Food" by Gourmet magazine. Their menu is nearly identical to Mc- Donald's, but the mini-chain buys the bulk of its ingredients from farmers in Oregon and Washington. Some of its big sellers are local Tillamook dairy products. This may not be remarkable for a restaurant that features local sustainable foods—but what is remarkable is that McDonald's is catching on. Drive by the Seattle McDonald's that serves the Space Needle tourists, and you'll see a brightly lit sign, boldly advertising its exciting new menu item—local Tillamook ice cream.

... andjoyohoxing