Kerbey Lane Café built a reputation on serving from local farms and ranches before the business practice became en vogue for many restaurants. But, as the restaurant grows and streamlines its processes, some familiar purveyors have disappeared from Kerbey Lane’s menus. Diners who take a look at the restaurant’s new spring menu, released today, will not see the name Richardson Farms.
Richardson Farms, located about 60 miles northeast of Austin, no longer provides pork for the Austin-based restaurant group. Owner Jim Richardson, who sells his meat to Austin restaurants like Barley Swine, Jack Allen’s Kitchen and Dai Due and to the public at farmers markets around town, said the relationship ended late last year when he was told Kerbey Lane would only buy his meat through San Antonio-based food-service distributor Ben E. Keith.
Richardson talked to Ben E. Keith about the possibility of selling his meats to Kerbey Lane, using the large distributor as a middle man, but said the logistics, rules and processes required by Ben E. Keith made the arrangement unfeasible.
Richardson and Kerbey Lane had a relationship for at least five years, with the local farm selling about $1,000 worth of product to the restaurant group each week.
“Certainly, I miss having them as a customer,” Richardson said of what was once one of his biggest customers.
Kerbey Lane has grown significantly since opening in Central Austin 36 years ago. With seven Austin-area locations, Kerbey Lane now serves about 75,000 guests per week. Many of Kerbey’s former vendors simply can’t keep up with that type of demand, according the restaurant.
“We source as much locally as we possibly can, but when we can’t source a product locally we go through an extensive vetting process to ensure the product meets our standards for both quality and food safety, two things we won’t compromise,” Kerbey Lane CEO Mason Ayer said in November.”
The fact of the matter is, as we continue to grow, I expect the tension between our volume and the availability of local product will continue to be a challenge. The hope is to do the best job we possibly can of balancing competing priorities and values while also trying to be efficient and profitable.”
Richardson wasn’t the only regional purveyor hurt by the restaurant’s move to Ben E. Keith.
Isabelle Lauziere and Lloyd Wendel of Twin County Dorpers of Harper, Texas in the Hill Country also ended their relationship with Kerbey Lane due to the restaurant’s new relationship with Ben E. Keith. Twin County had about a four-year relationship with Kerbey, selling to them almost weekly.
The delivery logistics, increased production, regulations, and cost and time considerations made selling through Ben E. Keith an impossibility for Twin County.
“We already make so little money; there’s only so much we can take,” Lauziere said late last year. “The little guy is getting squeezed out of the equation.”
Twin County, which sold about 160 pounds of lamb a week to Kerbey Lane, made the decision to go out of business after their relationship with Kerbey ended.
“It was part of the reason we closed, but not the number one reason,” Lauziere said.
A photo of a woman resembling Lauziere holding a lamb remains on the Core Values section of Kerbey Lane’s website.
With Richardson and Twin County no longer selling to the restaurants, Kerbey has sourced lamb, pork and sausage from Superior Farms, Compart Family Farms and Texas-based Pederson’s Natural Farms.
The restaurant says it still serves products from local vendors such as Nile Valley Teas, Third Coast Coffee, Vital Farms, New World Bakery, Fiesta Tortillas, Good Seed, Homeplate Peanut Butter, the Cake Plate, Maine Root Sodas, Walters Bay Teas, Jardine Foods and Segovia Produce.
“Part of the reason we work with Ben E Keith rather than Sysco, Performance Food Group or some of the others is because they are a family-owned Texas-based business and do a great job of bringing in any vendor we ask them to bring in,” Ayer said.
Ayer says that the move to Ben E. Keith will not preclude the restaurant group for buying seasonal produce from Texas farms, contingent on availability.
“With the cooler months upon us, we’re able to source mushrooms from Texas farms. Otherwise most of our produce through the winter is coming from California,” Ayer said in late November. “As we get into spring and summer, much more of our produce will be sourced from Texas farms, as availability increases. Ben E. Keith buys cantaloupes, honeydew melons, onions, tomatoes and broccoli from Texas farms, to name a few.”
Kerbey Lane’s new spring menu is now available at all seven of the Austin-area restaurants and includes items like pulled pork nachos with mango pico, a Philly cheesesteak topped with Kerbey queso, Greek lamb skewers and a baby spinach salad with strawberries.