Sunday, December 6, 2009

Vermont Farm to Plate Summits

Earlier this year, Vermont House of Representatives members Jason Lorber and Christopher Bray won passage of the new Farm to Plate initiative, designed to build on the "buy local" movement and foster jobs creation and a sustainable rural economy. Now housed within the Sustainable Jobs Fund, state and community leaders are developing a 10 year strategic plan through a series of regional summits, last week in the Northeast Kingdom, and in Montpelier this coming week. For more information about the program, summits, and to take a survey, go to Farm to Plate.

Reports are that the summit in Orleans last Thursday was a success. Since it coincided with our typically busy Thursday night music, we were unable to attend. However, we do have thoughts about our experience and concerns especially about affordability and availability that we wanted to share, so we sent the letter we've included below. As well, we hope to open up a conversation with other Vermont restaurants on cooking local and support for our communities as part of the Farm to Plate planning process. And we'd certainly love to hear what you think - you can email us or share your comments here.


December 2, 2009

Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund
Farm to Plate Initiative Regional Food Summits
Northeast Kingdom

Dear Friends,

As owners and operators of Claire’s Restaurant and Bar in Hardwick, we write with enthusiasm to support the Farm to Plate initiative, planning for a 10 year strategy, and to commend all involved in this work. We also wanted to take this opportunity to encourage both short term and long term planning for cooperative market development to ensure profitability for farm business, availability of local foods, and affordability for Vermonters.

When we began planning for Claire’s in early 2005, we were committed to a mission focused on two goals. The first is to provide a “third place” between home and work, on Main Street, to foster community, provide a gathering space, and promote the Hardwick downtown core. This aspect of our effort has received the enthusiastic support of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, which envisions cafés, restaurants, and food-related business as key ingredients in the revitalization of small town economic and social activity focused on historic downtowns. We open in the afternoon for coffee and bar service, free internet access, and as a space for business and social activity. We have hosted meetings on agriculture policy, book related events, holiday parties, and tours as well as serving lunch for private parties and informational events such as the USDA and NECI tours. We host art on our walls, providing much needed gallery space as well as an opening reception for the artists. We serve “blunch” on Sundays, and dinner 6 nights per week. We decided to close only on Wednesdays, giving both our neighbors and others who work in restaurants a place to dine on Monday and Tuesday nights, when most other establishments in the region are closed.

The second aspect of our mission is closely related to the first, and the most challenging for a restaurant. From the very start, we have been committed to purchasing as much of our ingredients from local farms and artisans as possible, while providing affordable meals to our neighbors. It is an understatement to say that no model exists within the restaurant business for this mission, and so restaurants like our face a variety of challenges. Two examples illustrate:

· Industry standards for food cost and labor ratios are based on large supplier and processed food models, which reduce kitchen labor and inventory costs.

· Standard business practice in terms of ordering and purchasing is based on long run supply for storable goods without regard to season, with increasing efficiency coming from internet ordering and tracking systems as well as quarterly (at most) menu development instead of daily market dependent menus.

Since we planned to purchase only basic dry goods and pantry items such as flour and spices from distributors for our kitchen, we knew we would need a different business model. We estimated higher food and labor ratios to reflect the cost of goods as well as the need for increased labor to transform raw produce directly from the soil into ingredients for a restaurant menu. We anticipated difficulty in sourcing sufficient quantities of food despite the relative bounty produced around Hardwick, and that daily sourcing would require daily menu development. All of this has an impact on the bottom line – the difference between costs and revenues – in a business notorious for slim margins.

We have learned four inter-related facts during our first 18 months of operation.

First, local restaurants are always sourcing ingredients and revising menus. This is a labor intensive process, as it might involve from 15 to 20 farmers and artisans at any given time. All of this is done directly on the phone or in person rather than through the internet, though some price and product sheets are now available via email. This is a boon to our business model, as our focus is on these relationships that promote cooperation and a mutually beneficial approach to the local market, and it has actually resulted in new products or adjustment in the availability of certain types of produce or products. But it is also time consuming for the farms and for the restaurant, and thus increases costs.

Second, sourcing is not always fruitful. By the end of our first winter last year, we were pulling from nearly the bottom of every root cellar within our market. And when a certain crop or product is not available, it is simply not on the menu. This does not include the kinds of products we anticipated ordering from other regions because they are never available locally, including cooking oils and certain grains.

Third, staff is a key ingredient for success. At Claire’s, we are fortunate to have experienced servers who share our enthusiasms, and a team of young trainees in the kitchen we started with little or no culinary experience and are now developing career skills.

Fourth, it will be difficult to transition to canning and storing summer produce for winter use, as this will require a larger upfront investment for the purchase of produce, the rental of industrial kitchen space, the development of recipes, and the hiring of staff, and such a commitment of resources is not readily available.

Overall, we have spent 79 cents of every dollar of our food purchases within 15 miles of the restaurant, with the bulk of the remaining purchases to farms and artisans within Vermont. To date, this has generated $196,480 in direct purchases from producers in our community, and including labor, totaled an economic impact in our community of $493,080. Certainly, for some producers in and around Hardwick, Claire’s is the number one purchaser or near the top. We are not alone in this effort. Hen of the Woods in Waterbury, Blue Bird Tavern and Sugar Snap in South Burlington, Kismet in Montpelier, On the Rise in Richmond, Bee’s Knees in Morrisville, and the Skinny Pancake in Burlington and Montpelier have made similar commitments.

All this is to suggest that a farm to plate model needs to be carefully planned on the basis of three principles: profitability for farmers and food businesses, affordability for Vermonters, and availability of product. State and other investors should carefully consider and plan strategically along these three dimensions.

Profitability is a difficult measure to assess. With a community-centered business and investment model, our goal is to sustain a business in the long term that serves the community and the economy. We believe strongly in the principles of mutual support and cooperative growth, as well as the need and right of each community to set its own priorities and support its own economy. Any measure of profitability must ensure a return to the business as well as the community that provides for sustainability in the long term.

As a principle, affordability is always a challenge when measured against profitability. Our goal is to provide local food that both sustains our farmers economically and feeds them nutritionally. Any planning must ensure that Vermonters of all means have access to local foods for the bulk of their nutritional needs, whether they are dining at home or dining out.

Availability must balance taste, climate, and cost in determining what crops and products can be grown in Vermont, what value can be added to such products, and how this relates to the nutritional needs of our residents. We do not hesitate to cooperate with other regions when doing so is efficient, when the product is necessary to the plate, and when our relationships outside our community are based on the same principles of cooperation and mutuality as within or community. As well, we recognize the vital economic contribution of products grown within our region primarily for export to other markets, as doing so produces jobs and brings resources. However, we would encourage state support to go to those efforts that do not displace the availability of local food in our market for Vermonters and do not undermine the ability of other markets to feed themselves with their own resources.

These three principles of profitability, affordability, and availability are the three pillars of sustainable local food markets. Unlike the national or regional agribusiness model, local sustainable markets are cooperative, mutually beneficial, and look to the long term. Strategic planning is part of this process, as is an accurate census of current farming operations, value added facilities, markets and restaurants, market needs, affordability and availability, as well as imports into our regions and exports from them.

Given the particular challenges facing restaurants outlined above, we consider three things important in terms of new resources for restaurant operations:

· The development of a new business model and cooperative mechanisms so that start ups and existing operators can share knowledge and share in developing solutions;

· Resources for business development to expand access to local food, in particular for the storage of summer crops over the winter, and the training of staff.

· Cooperative mechanisms to ensure long term planning for availability among farmers, markets, and restaurants.

Again, we support the Farm to Plate initiative and look forward to continuing to work on implementation of a long term plan for sustainable food markets in Vermont.

Cordially,

Steven Obranovich
Chef and Owner

Michael Bosia
Owner

Linda Ramsdell
Owner

Veronica Medwid
Manager

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