In effort to define 'local,' area farmers make top 10 list of restaurants buying local produce
Eating local doesn't mean what it used to.
When advocates like Alice Waters first started popularizing the idea of buying produce and meat directly from nearby farmers and ranchers, "local" meant within a short distance, usually of less than 100 miles, so the money spent stayed in the pockets of business owners and employees who lived in your community.
But the term "local" — and its equally buzz-worthy cousin, "sustainable" — are now as much part of a restaurant or grocery store's branding plan as its business philosophy, and for many in the food industry in Texas, "local" has come to mean anything from within the state. In the past few years, many consumers and farmers near Austin have expressed concerns about what critics call "local washing," in which a business exaggerates its use of local produce and meat to attract the growing number of consumers who are concerned about where their food comes from and how it is grown.
"Grocery stores and restaurants call anything from Texas local, which is still great," says Katie Kraemer of Tecolote Farm east of Austin, who recently helped form the Growers Alliance of Central Texas, a coalition of farmers and ranchers within 150 miles of Austin. "There's nothing wrong with that produce, but the word 'local' used to mean produce that a farmer was picking it one day and was on the shelves or in the restaurant the next."
Proponents of local food say not only are locally sourced fruits and vegetables fresher because they haven't had to sit in a warehouse or travel in a truck to get here, the money spent on the produce stays within the local economy, supporting business owners and their employees.
Kraemer said that during a weeklong promotional event in Austin at which restaurants claimed to be serving locally sourced meals, she and her husband went to a high-end restaurant downtown and asked what in particular was being served that came from nearby farmers. "None of the waitstaff or anyone in the kitchen knew what we were talking about," she says. During that same week, Erin Flynn of Green Gate Farms in East Austin had a bumper crop of late fall tomatoes and said she couldn't get any of the participating restaurants to buy them.
"Restaurants almost have to say they buy local to appease the crowd that says they want it," Kraemer says. "But it's much harder (to get food from local farmers) than calling (food distribution company) Sysco and getting everything you need in one place."
In one of the alliance's first projects, Kraemer, Flynn and Marisol Valle of Urban Roots reached out to fellow Central Texas farmers to compile a list of restaurants that buy directly from the farms or from the farmers at farmers' markets in and around Austin.
At the top of the list is Odd Duck, Bryce Gilmore's all-local trailer on South Lamar Boulevard. Rounding out the top 10 are East Side Show Room, Texas French Bread, Somnio's Cafe, Jack Allen's Kitchen, Olivia, the W Hotel, La Condesa, Peche and East Side Pies. To find a list of restaurants that earned an honorable mention or received even one vote from local farmers, to go to www.gro-act.com.
This list comes directly from the invoice books of area farmers, Kraemer says. The growers alliance sent a list of more than 130 restaurants that have participated in events such as Edible Austin's Eat Local Week or Austin Restaurant Week that promote ties to about 80 local farmers and asked the farmers to mark which restaurants they have sold produce to — either at a farm stand, farmers' market or via delivery — in the past year. Farmers also could write in restaurants or chefs they sell to who weren't on the list.
"Ultimately, when people serve produce that they say is locally sourced and it isn't, it hurts the local farmer," says Sonya Coté of East Side Show Room. Like many chefs whose restaurants are being recognized for their efforts to use local produce, Coté does much of the shopping herself, either by buying from a farm stand or by working with farmers to coordinate delivery straight from the farm.
Michael Freid of East Side Pies has been known to go to the farmers' market early on a Saturday, return to the restaurant to make a pizza using the ingredients he bought and then go back to the market to serve pizza to the farmers, Kraemer says.
You'll find chef Jack Gilmore at three or four farmers' markets every Saturday buying hundreds of dollars in produce for Jack Allen's Kitchen. "I'm as local as I can be," he says. "It's hard for me to pass on the extra cost to my customer, so sometimes I'll do something like make a smaller portion to make up for the extra cost." Farmers can even bring leftover produce to the restaurant and he'll buy what they don't sell at the market.
Restaurant chefs are balancing both the demand to serve locally sourced produce and the demand to offer a variety of dishes, all while keeping their bottom line in mind. Gilmore knows it's not ideal, but in some instances, he'll go outside Central Texas to buy things that he can't get from local farmers, but he tries to stay within Texas. "I'm paying $30 more for a case of limes right now to buy it from the (Rio Grande) Valley instead of Florida."
Coté says that when she eats out at other restaurants, she always asks her server about where the ingredients are coming from.
"It's getting better," Coté says. "Servers are more knowledgeable, it seems." She briefs her own staff members before every service about any changes in sourcing, and they often give customers sourcing information before they have a chance to ask. "It's the public's duty to ask as many questions as possible about where the food comes from, and it makes the server have to know where the food comes from."
Kraemer says that some restaurants and grocery stores buy produce and meat from brokers who buy the food from all over the state but then let it sit in a warehouse before delivering it to the restaurant. Just like the separation between local, state and federal governments, Kraemer says there's a need for differentiating produce that's grown locally from produce grown anywhere in the state. "It was time for us to take a stand and define what local is."