The “OGs” of Logan Circle Restaurateurs are Farmers Too?

They are. And their new restaurant this fall will take it all to the next level

By AJ Dronkers, photography by Sarah Culver

Farmers at EatWell Natural Farm harvest produce, then deliver to the EatWell restaurants. They also help with composting efforts with each restaurant.

Farmers at EatWell Natural Farm harvest produce, then deliver to the EatWell restaurants. They also help with composting efforts with each restaurant.

“The creativity of incorporating produce from the farm is like a quick-fire mystery basket challenge.” - Madison Han, Head Chef, EatWell Group’s Commissary Restaurant

Sourcing local and seasonal food continues to be a growing trend across restaurants globally. While we’d love to say it is being driven by pure altruism on the part of food businesses, the ones behind the wheel are actually consumers.

A 2017 study by the National Restaurant Association found “local sourcing” and “fresh produce” continuing to rise as business trends. But meeting that demand can be costlier and downright challenging in some seasons, not to mention the fact that lemons and avocados simply don’t grow in the mid-Atlantic. A 2016 exposé in the Tampa Bay Times1 went viral after it documented restaurants doing what some consumers had long suspected: faking the farm-to-table thing. It’s not surprising that trying to benefit from consumer interest in eating locally sourced food opens the door to fraud, or to those only partially walking the walk. (We’ve previously reported on a local start-up, Greenease, that allows users to find restaurants that have a genuine commitment to local and provide audited lists of farms from which restaurants source.)

But if you don’t want to have to wonder about the source, consider a restaurant that not only works with local farms—but owns one. In the DC area, one of the original gangsters, if you will, of local sourcing is the EatWell Restaurant Group, whose eateries include Logan Tavern, Commissary, The Bird, Grillfish and the Pig.

In 2003, the group decided to purchase and operate its own 13-acre farm in La Plata, MD, to source for the family of restaurants. This fall they will launch their newest restaurant, The Charles Public House & Farm Table, also in La Plata, which will bring their farm-based inspiration to the forefront.

In the DMV, sourcing locally plays out in many ways. At various FRESHFARM markets like Dupont Circle or Penn Quarter you can routinely catch Executive Chef Jeremiah Langhorne from the Dabney or Chef Michael Costa of Zaytinya walking around with their teams purchasing crate after crate of local produce.

Chef Amy Brandwein formed a partnership with DC Urban Greens in Southeast DC. She supports their efforts to provide affordable fresh produce in a food dessert by purchasing products for her menu and even volunteering to work the farm with her team. Chef Rob Weiland of the Garrison installed and pulls from multiple small urban chef gardens near his restaurant as a means to get local produce.

We took a visit to the EatWell Natural Farm and chatted with the team—the farmers, the chefs, the manager—about what it’s really like to source from and grow for a restaurant group-sized farm.

Farm-to-table dining keeps EatWell’s restaurants’ menus flexible and innovative.

Farm-to-table dining keeps EatWell’s restaurants’ menus flexible and innovative.

About the Farm with EatWell Natural Farm Manager Keith McNeal

Edible DC: How do you run the farm?

Keith McNeal: We currently operate the farm with one full-time farm manager (that’s me), one full-time crew member and two to three part-time farm crew and delivery members as the season gets increasingly busy.

We hire local folks who have an interest in small-scale, sustainable agriculture. It does help to hire those who have an interest and understanding of farming, as well as those who have experience in production-based agriculture focused on the culinary side of things.

EDC: Does the produce only go to your restaurants?

KM: Currently all our produce goes to our restaurants. In the future, we may sell to our local community, but now it is very important to EatWell DC as a company to ensure we are getting as much of our produce from our farm as we can. 

We have just over an acre under cultivation. Our goal would be to deliver to our restaurants up to three times per week and to source up to 60 percent of the produce that can be regionally grown directly from EatWell Natural Farm.

EDC: Where do you get produce that doesn’t come from the farm? 

KM: We partner with local farmers in our immediate area. At the new The Charles Public House & Farm Table, we will have a perfect opportunity; our menu will reflect the great work our local farmers and food systems producers do.

EDC: What’s coming from the farm this fall? 

KM: On the farm, we are growing vegetables that can be used by all of our chefs, in all of our restaurants. In the fall, we use season-extension techniques to continue to grow a wide variety of baby lettuces, root vegetables and cold-hardy crops to keep things as close to year-round as we can. This year, we are growing some new squash varieties: Blue Hubbard and Delicata. We are introducing Brussels sprouts to our crop list. Farm-pasture-raised hens are here with excellent eggs that usually go to The Bird. We would like to expand our egg production to get more into the other restaurants. We also focus on perennial crops: sunchokes, rhubarb, asparagus and lesser-known baby greens varieties. 

Utilizing local farm produce often results in seasonal dishes, such as this autumn-inspired stuffed gourd.

Utilizing local farm produce often results in seasonal dishes, such as this autumn-inspired stuffed gourd.

We asked the chefs of the EatWell restaurants how they work with their weekly deliveries from the farm.

EDC: How do you weave the EatWell Farm produce into the menu?

Isaiah Ruffin, head chef, The Bird: I base our menu on what is available, so when the farm manager lets us know what he has or what will be coming, the menu gets developed around it.

Madison Han, head chef, Commissary: The creativity of incorporating produce from the farm is like a quick-fire mystery basket challenge. I usually use fresh produce in daily specials or add to items that are already on my menu.

EDC: What are the challenges and benefits? 

William Crutchley, head chef, The Charles: One of my biggest challenges is going to be meeting my food cost margins. I will be serving delicious, quality food—however, I would also like that food to be rather affordable. The Charles is designed to be a place that people will frequent regularly, not a special-occasion-only spot. That said, one of the most fulfilling things is the ability to support the local community. Our dollars spent in purchasing our restaurant’s food will be spent in the community, we will be supporting real small businesses, not being siphoning off cash to some multinational food aggregate with headquarters in New York City.”

Shabier Bahramy, head chef, The Pig: When you get 20 pounds of farm radishes, you have to think on the fly and come up with creative ways to weave them into the menu and specials. Our farm is 100 percent organic with no pesticides, preservatives or additives. The shelf life isn’t as long as commodity produce, so it’s at its peak the moment it comes through our doors. It forces us to think outside the box and reflect a hyper-seasonal menu.

Chef Will Crutchley works on developing seasonal menus, planning ahead for fall farm produce. Pictured here is a tandoori chicken salad with butternut squash, EatWell Natural Farm greens and apples.

Chef Will Crutchley works on developing seasonal menus, planning ahead for fall farm produce. Pictured here is a tandoori chicken salad with butternut squash, EatWell Natural Farm greens and apples.

Getting the message that across with General Manager Heidi Minora

EDC: How do you think the farm helps brand your restaurants, if at all? 

Heidi Minora: Sourcing locally can mean anything—from a farm way outside the city, hours away to one in a different state. The EatWell Natural Farm is literally one hour outside the city. This sets us apart from any other restaurant in DC. Yes, we are serving a burger, but the bread came from a local bakery, the lettuce and tomato came from our farm and the beef was grassfed from a local butcher. This is a product that our staff can be proud to serve. And if your staff is proud of the company they work for, they will pass that along to their guests.

As business owners, we feel very strongly that we have a responsibility to not just take from this earth but also give back to it. We are an eco-friendly restaurant group that composts in house. We use only biodegradable products in our restaurants, do not use plastic bags and have both energy-efficient and water-conservation efforts in our restaurants.

EDC: How do your guests react to knowing you have a farm and grow your own produce? 

HM: Parents especially appreciate any restaurant that’s going to make natural foods tasty and approachable for their children. We offer volunteer days at our farm, which are excellent ways for parents and children to work on a farm and make lunch together. Folks are always eager to know more and we love that we can give them that opportunity. 

It Takes a Village (of Farmers) to Make A Rake's Progress

Chefs Gjerde and Crooks talk sourcing local

By AJ Dronkers, Photography by Jared Soares

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DC locavores, whether foodies or artisans, awaited the opening of the new Line Hotel in Adams Morgan anxiously. The hotel was built to showcase the work of local makers all round, and the positive reception has proven the concept. Each of the rooms was individually curated with both furnishings and art. And that level of individuality was also given to the plan for food service: two restaurants by award-winning chefs, bringing together Chef Erik Bruner-Yang to open Brothers & Sisters and Chef Spike Gjerde and team from Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, renowned for bringing sourcing local to the highest levels.

The Gjerde restaurant group, Foodshed, spent $2.1 million with local growers in 2016, a number that they estimate is to grow with their new operations. We sat down to talk with Chef Patrick “Opie” Crooks and Chef Spike Gjerde to hear more about their inspirations and how they are making it happen.

Edible DC: Before you opened, you held a “Growers Banquet” with all the farmers and producers that you source from here. Why was that evening important to your team.

Chef Opie: For us, it started years ago. Many of these growers are people we have been using since the beginning. For over 20 years we have had them in for dinner at Woodberry Kitchen, but never as a group. It was really important for us to start off this way—because the food we source from this group goes into banquets, employee dining, and our two restaurants at The Line Hotel, A Rake’s Progress and The Cup We All Race 4. And our commitment to local sourcing is how we wanted to kick things off in a very public way. The hotel has been really supportive of our experiments and loving things like our pickled beets.

Chef Spike: The cool thing was how much it meant for our team. I didn’t anticipate that. But the Growers Banquet generated this huge, positive energy—the hotel and lobby were full of farmers, families and their kids. The hotel felt radiant with their presence all night. For days and weeks after, people kept saying how special to them it was that they were there that night. We are feeding big groups of people via banquets with this all-local food. It’s challenge for us and not many people can do it. We had a tech company the night after the Growers Banquet and they had the same food and were very happy. We celebrated a proof of concept that actually works.

“This group has shared a table for many years at Woodberry Kitchen but never shared a table together. Rake team, meet your farmers; farmers, meet the team.” —Chef Spike at the Growers Banquet, a night celebrating all the farmers and producers before the restaurant opened.

Edible DC: From how many producers do you currently source? As you extend into a new regional area (DC) with new restaurants and a sizable operation, how did that change your sourcing and supply chain strategy?

Chef Opie: As of last year, we work with 156 farmers. We’ve gone deeper into Virginia. We were buying some stuff once a week that we now we need twice a week. We buy whatever they need to grow. Dead of winter is the roughest time. We work with co-ops since they can pull from many different sources to meet our demand. Two weeks ago I randomly got a hold of 10 dozen duck eggs. So within a day it had to be something with duck eggs on the menu; I came up with duck grits.

Chef Spike: Asparagus, rhubarb and ramps are bellwether for us; they really mark the shift in seasons. On a daily basis, Opie is adjusting and reacting to what’s available. April is frustrating because the world turns green but farms are still catching up.

Edible DC: When you buy what the farmers produce, instead of selectively picking fan favorites, how difficult is it to push patrons toward potentially unknown or unpopular produce?

Chef Opie: I try to sneak in stuff that people don’t know, sprinkle it in to support the farmer. Add rare leafy greens to mix of lettuce or use as a garnish. Heinz Thomet of Next Step Produce was out of the classic orange sweet potatoes but had a white one. People freaked out about this white sweet potato that actually originated here on the Eastern Shore. But on the menu, we’ll just say “sweet potato” to simplify and help sell what we get.

Chef Spike: The most compelling reason to get stuff on the menu is because a farmer grows it. What ends up on our menu is so connected to that—I will never stop thinking in those terms. There is absolutely an economic compulsion here—not just creative. Get it on the menu so we can sell more. Especially if a farmer comes to us with “I have a lot of this and it’s not selling at market,” that’s our call to action. Zach Lester of Tree & Leaf Farm had a lot of savoy cabbage and we came up with a dish to help him push through his supply. Takes a fair amount of communication between Chef Opie and farmers. Daily texts on what’s happening in the field and what he can use.

Edible DC: The menus offer daily updates from the farmers and notes about weather. Why is that important for you to share with your guests? 

Chef Spike: The notes are a low-key way for us to start conversation. The farm lists at some restaurants seems so basic now and we wanted to go a step further.

Edible DC: Chef Spike’s philosophy has always been “local only”—how do you swap out things like limes, lemons and avocados for local produce?

Chef Spike: So far so good. If we are doing it right, we are giving people plenty to think about and try. We wow them with what we have and they don’t miss what we don’t have. The best defense is a good offense.

Edible DC: Any reactions/updates since you opened? 

Chef Opie: We are going to do what we do. The implications of what we do go so much further than our table. We are returning value to our food system. If we get a bad critique about a specific item, I don’t take it off menu. The implication would be that all of that food from a farmer is trashed. We can tweak and react based on feedback but we don’t abandon this supply chain. The core of what we do is source local.

Chef Spike: There is no alternative from buying from local farms. The urgency in what we do is not speculative – it’s economic. We have to pay farmers for what they do or they can’t exist.
 

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Protecting the spaces where ‘Local’ is grown

How residential meets rural in one of Washington’s edge counties

By Whitney Pipkin

 

There’s an imperceptible edge when you leave the city, where the skyline gives way to subdivisions and then to larger and larger patches of verdant fields.  

Perhaps you’ve watched with a sigh as the scenery changed on your way to a wedding, winery or U-pick patch. But if you buy produce at a farmers market, this transition area is also where it was most likely grown—and it is no small feat to ensure that produce will still be grown there in the future. 

This ring of land just beyond the District’s suburbs is a patchwork of open spaces surrounding still-pressing development. A growing portion of it is being protected from development by a mix of government and private programs to preserve farmland or open spaces, but their success can be subject to the whims of a new county board or the funding of a state program. 

But all this pressure also makes these transition zones—as Loudoun County, Virginia, calls its—an ideal place for a new breed of agriculture: vineyards, hops-growing breweries, produce and pastured animals — all sold at a premium to nearby Washingtonians.  

Chip and Susan Planck, now in their mid 70s, began growing produce in that local-food radius of DC 40 years ago at Wheatland Farms, their farm in Purcellville, Virginia.  

“The thing that no one likes to talk about is this: If it weren’t for a well-off Washington clientele, we would not have made the living we did,” says Susan Planck, whose farm sold produce at more than a dozen farmers markets in the Washington area and mentored several of the farmers who are still selling today. 

The couple’s storied farming career led to an interest in preserving the sort of landscapes that had been the basis for their business.  

Before the 1970s and ’80s, “nobody was really protecting farmland, unless it was historic,” says Jim Baird, Mid-Atlantic director of the American Farmland Trust, which has helped preserve more than five million acres nationwide since its start in 1980. “People realized there was an existential need to not pave over all of our farms.” 

 

Loudoun County

While residents might agree on the farmland-is-good premise, when and where to preserve it is another story. Many counties have seen their building boom come and go, but Loudoun County is still in the midst of an iconic land use debate. 

Eastern Loudoun County continues to pursue rapid development while, west of Leesburg, Ashburn and far from Dulles International Airport, a new vision for the county is unfolding—one that is built on the potential of a rural economy.   

“The county sees the economic potential of a local food system,” says Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), which advocates for land preservation in the region. “And this is the same county that has the fastest-growing high tech industry and land loss to sprawl in this area. In the same place, you have both those things going on.” 

The county’s split personality is not an accident. Its comprehensive plan lays out dual visions for the suburban and rural sides of the county, with a transition area in between.  

At the center of that transition zone, where highways 50 and 15 meet, is Gilbert’s Corner.  

A pit stop next to a roundabout that looks primed to welcome a Sheetz gas station, PEC envisions a regional food market instead, one that features the bounty of Loudoun’s farms. To that end, they’ve been painstakingly preserving and acquiring the nearby land for 20 years to make it a gateway to the county’s rural areas and a demonstration of their potential.  

With the help of investors, PEC recently conserved a 140-acre farm south of Route 50 where fall produce was being planted into black plastic mulch one evening in late July. Nearby is a regional park and more land owned by PEC where cattle are grazing on rolling hills.  

“Imagine the value,” says Chip Planck, standing near the corner with his wife, Susan. “Thousands of people go by and you can demonstrate sustainable vegetable growing on one side and pasturing on the other.” 

Not far from the corner, the Willowsford housing development, which features a farm stand and vegetable production—rather than a golf course—at the center of new homes, is also growing food.  

Preserving agriculture on high-value lands has also meant finding a way to add value to those crops. One of the most popular ways? Turning them into booze.  

“When I got a degree in agriculture, I never thought I’d be spending this much time on beer,” says Kellie Hinkle, agricultural development officer with Loudoun’s Department of Economic Development, who has seen dozens of farm-based breweries and wineries open in Loudoun’s rural zone. “To me, the craft beverage industry is the ultimate direct-market-value-added option at this fringe of urban-suburban sprawl.” 

With the help of state funding, brewers in the county now have access to locally grown hops and locally malted barley, too—not to mention hundreds of thirsty visitors from Washington and its suburbs. 

Though driving through Loudoun’s rural areas might look different today, with rows of corn turning into rows of grapes or hops, Hinkle says the changing view represents a stronger farm economy that can push back against the pressures of development.  

“In 2016, in this area,” she says, “this is what ag looks like.”