Farmers Bet 'Green' Eatery Will Catch On

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Associated Press

Farmers Bet 'Green' Eatery Will Catch On

by
Mary Clare Jalonick

The new Founding Farmers' restaurant General Manager Ralph De Rose poses for a photo at Founding Farmers' restaurant in Washington on Friday, Sept. 26, 2008. North Dakota farmers opened Founding Farmers, just blocks from the White House, to showcase food from family farms. The eatery aims to be "Washington's greenest restaurant." (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON - North Dakota farmers have spent $6 million to open
a pair of Washington restaurants, one just blocks from the White House,
to showcase food from family farms. The newer eatery aims to be
"Washington's greenest restaurant."

"We believe we are doing the
right thing, doing it the right way, and the profit will come," says
Ralph DeRose, general manager of Founding Farmers, a modern space with
an environmentally friendly design.

The North Dakota Farmers
Union, which has 42,000 members, has made the investment despite the
economic downturn, high food prices and risks inherent in running a
restaurant. With Founding Farmers, which opened this month, the group
is betting on the success of a growing trend in the business: food
straight from the farm, in a place with a green focus.

The first
restaurant, Agraria, was built in a massive, darker space in the city's
Georgetown neighborhood. While popular with tourists, it has struggled
to catch on with people in the city since opening in 2006.

DeRose
says the management team is trying to get it right this second time.
Unlike Agraria, Founding Farmers was built to comply with LEED
(Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a third-party
certification for the design, construction and operation of green
buildings.

"To do farm-to-table the way you envision it, you need
to do it like this," said DeRose, sitting at a sunny table in the
restaurant less than a week after its opening.

The restaurant
focuses on serving food from family farms in the United States,
delivered by co-ops that buy the food directly from smaller,
noncorporate farms. Much of the food is bought locally, though the
restaurant gets food from North Dakota and other states farther away.

That
is a more complicated and expensive business plan compared with
restaurants that use large distributors. But the owners say it allows
customers to know where their food is coming from.

Founding
Farmers is not the only restaurant trying to bring in customers by
appealing to their environmental and food safety concerns.

Pizza
Fusion, a Florida-based chain, has sold 75 franchises in 15 states by
using locally grown foods, building their restaurants with recycled
materials, delivering pizza in hybrid cars and giving customers
discounts if they recycle their pizza boxes.

"It absolutely is
tough times and everybody is fighting for the dollars that are
dwindling," says Randy Romano, Pizza Fusion's executive vice president.
"You need to stand out."

It's a growing trend as restaurant
operators face the most challenging financial climate in nearly two
decades, said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the
National Restaurant Association. It's about "consumers connecting with
their food," he said.

Robert Carlson, the president of the North
Dakota Farmers Union, said it also is about making money. He said it
was not that much more expensive to construct Founding Farmers
according to LEED standards, especially because the space was recently
built. Plus, saving energy saves money, down to the high-efficiency
hand dryers in the bathrooms.

"It was really a question of
money," Carlson said. "We thought it would be an added draw to be
LEED-certified and environmentally friendly," he said.

The decor
is contemporary and has a farm house feel. Puffy cloud sculptures hang
from the ceiling. An old West Virginia farm house is incorporated into
the interior, and floors and tables are fashioned from trees that fell
on their own - without being cut down - in Wisconsin. Menus are printed
on recycled paper with soy-based ink and the restaurant is flooded with
natural light.

The menu focuses on comfort food - think fried free-range chicken, deviled eggs and huge bowls of salad.

Other restaurants take the concept even farther.

The
Balanced Kitchen, a tiny eco-friendly restaurant in Chicago, is not
only built to comply with LEED but serves vegan, gluten-free food.
Business manager Joshua Alper said it's "the whole package."

The
concept does not always translate into dollars, though. The 20-seat
eatery is still not breaking even after opening at the beginning of
this year, though the owners are hopeful.

"There is a certain percentage of the market who need, or want or appreciate what we are doing," Alper says.

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