Portland, Ore. — Andrea Reusing, chef and owner of the award-winning Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., told participants at the recent Farmer-Chef Connection it was time to move past the farm-to-table cliche.
“How can we expand local food from a niche movement to stable, common ground?” she asked.
“Too few of us are making a profit,” she said. Although Lantern’s accolades are many, the restaurant barely managed to break even as sales and staff have increased. Flat sales in 2009 forced Reusing to pay attention.
Her experience with pork was a telling example. North Carolina, the second largest pork producer in the nation, had few grass-fed hog farms until about 10 years ago. Reusing connected with one local farm, where she was also buying cheese, beef and hogs.
“For a long time, we were buying pork at a price under (the cost of) production. The farmer was losing money, we were losing money, and the customers felt they were paying too much,” she said.
She established an “open book” policy with the farmer and they have been able to make it work by focusing on the money. “We need to make sure our suppliers make money,” she said.
She prefers to deal with fewer suppliers. Farmers’ markets, while popular, are not an efficient way to buy or sell. USDA figures from 2007 put market sales at 1 percent of national totals, she said.
“It’s unrealistic to expect that farmers’ markets can change local food sourcing,” she said.
“Although markets and chefs have been essential in getting us where we are today, we need to demystify food, stop romanticizing farmers and get chefs off TV,” she said.
Like many of her culinary counterparts, she started out focusing on the creativity and uniqueness of local cooking. Today, though, local food is ubiquitous.
She now pays close attention to costs. In that regard, she feels sustainability is intimately tied to profit and that means helping mid-size farms grow and supporting aggregators.
Several other presenters also emphasized profitability.
Greg Higgins, owner of Higgins restaurant, never negotiates down prices from farmers.
“Quality is our benchmark,” he said. “We just work out the arithmetic.”
Aaron Dionne, formerly a chef at Lewis and Clark College for Bon Appetit, agreed.
“We always paid what the farmers asked,” he said. “We bought the best food we could, prepared it the best way we could, and tried to extend it and educate our people.”
How long does it take a restaurant to become profitable? Jason French, owner of Ned Ludd, said, “There’s a three-year mark. We passed that, but at five years, we’re still not profitable.” In fact, last winter he worked 63 straight days on the line in the kitchen.
Higgins, who has been in business more than 20 years, said that it’s a process that ebbs and flows.
The better questions, they said, might be, is it sustainable, can your business continue to flourish and adapt?
Health insurance was another aspect of the profitability question. Higgins has offered health insurance since he opened. Reusing said that the only ones in her restaurant with health insurance were the managers.
Gabe Rosen and Kina Voelz, owners of the small Japanese restaurant called Biwa in downtown Portland, explained their solution. In 2011 they added a 5 percent health and wellness charge on each bill with an explanatory note on every table. The money goes into a separate account to pay health insurance for the staff of 25 and a portion pays for quarterly bonuses.
They have encountered no resistance from customers and have gained good will and excellent publicity from it, noting that tips have also gone up.