The Hippo


Aug 22, 2019








Smoked 1/2 chicken with lemon fingerling potatoes, spinach and a dried cherry relish. Courtesy of The Foundry.

What exactly is “local?”

Farm to table, farm to fork, local business to table. These buzzword phrases in today’s vocabulary all point to the same idea — restaurants cooking with ingredients raised or grown nearby. 
For The Foundry’s Matt Provencher and Bedford Village Inn’s Peter Agostinelli, it denotes a relationship with the farms, knowing who grew or raised their products.
According to the state Department of Agriculture, labeling a product as “local” means that it came from New Hampshire.
“We’re promoting New Hampshire, so local is New Hampshire,” said Gail McWilliam Jelly, director for the Division of Agricultural Development.
However, a lot of variability exists within the parameters of what is “locally sourced” and therefore what a farm-to-table restaurant is. For some, like Agostinelli, that could mean vegetables from New Hampshire and cheese from New York.
“We don’t shoot for local here, we shoot for the best [quality] we can find. And if it’s a local product, great, that’s even better,”  he said.
It’s often assumed that local products, what’s grown or made nearby, are inherently best, and sometimes that’s not the case. 
“If I had the option and it was the exact same quality product, I’d buy from Vermont all day,” Agostinelli said. “If local beef is super expensive and it’s lesser quality, then why wouldn’t I buy a 45-day dry-aged steak out of Iowa that’s from a reputable vendor and raised humanely [rather] than just getting it because it was a state touching New Hampshire?”
For Provencher, “local” rests on size — the bigger the restaurant, the bigger the circle for locally sourced — while Jeff Paige, co-owner and chef at Cotton, defines their local as from New England. 
“Different restaurants and businesses define what local actually means to them,” he said. 
Some set tangible guidelines, like Republic’s Edward Aloise, who defines local as within 40 miles of the restaurant, and Keith Sarasin,  founder and owner of The Farmers Dinner, who uses a 100-mile radius.
“I think the intrinsic principle is we’re supporting hard-working, smaller, local farms,” Sarasin said. “Some people will view that as a 300-mile radius, [and it] depends on what you have available, but I think it is important to say that the concept is the key rather than the mileage.”
Getting certified
In 2004, farm-to-table dining was still a novelty concept in the state. Most chefs weren’t interested in sourcing locally.
“They all had the big truck plan,” said Charlie Burke, president and co-founder of The New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection. 
Using a questionnaire, the then-new New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection group set out to find the restaurants in the state that were working with farms. 
“We did it because we thought it would raise awareness by using mostly chef-owned restaurants to highlight local foods,” he said. 
Over a decade later, the Connection is the body that evaluates and awards New Hampshire eateries the “certified local” status. Burke said they started the certification program to celebrate the chefs who chose to support farms and educate their staff and guests about local food.
“The certified local restaurant [program] … is a way to certify that a restaurant is truly carrying local products and to a fairly substantial quantity,” said McWilliam Jellie, one of the organization’s founders. “They allow somebody to come and evaluate invoices, look at their purchasing and percent of local products they carry, number of seats available, and we’ve got 13 or 14 that have gone through this process and become certified local.” 
There are multiple levels of certified local status, given to restaurants depending on how many New Hampshire products they feature on the menu — from cheese and fish to honey and wine — and how often. 
“We knew when we started nobody could source a vast majority of product, but we wanted to celebrate people that built relationships with farmers,” Burke said. “Recently we’ve had two [restaurants] reapply and were certified at gold level, which is 90 percent of all the points they could get: Matt Provencher at The Foundry and Kevin Halligan at Local Eatery.”

Where's the (local, farm-fresh) beef?
How chefs and farmers are working to get local produce and meat to your restaurant plate

By Allie Ginwala

On a rainy Thursday, Vernon Family Farm’s box truck made its way from Newfields to downtown Manchester. It was the second stop on her route that day, and Mallory Kender knocked on The Foundry’s kitchen door in the early afternoon drizzle, dropping off the restaurant’s weekly poultry delivery. She handed Executive Chef Matt Provencher a plain, white cardboard box filled with 50 pounds of whole chickens, separated into two clear plastic bags. In two days’ time, it would be brined, smoked and roasted before making its way onto diners’ plates.

Chicken is just one of the many local products used in southern New Hampshire kitchens every day. Meat, dairy, honey, produce and eggs all find their way onto menus at places like Manchester’s The Foundry, Cotton and Republic, and the Bedford Village Inn in Bedford, each supporting their community while answering the public’s demand for farm-to-table dining. 
But if that process sounds simple, it’s not. Chefs, farmers and food industry professionals say that, no matter how much they agree with the farm-to-table concept, making it work for restaurant menus isn’t as easy as just heading to a local farm.
The evolution of farm to table 
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the farm-to-table movement started in the Granite State. Provencher remembers the first time he started working with a Litchfield farm in the early 2000s while he was a sous chef in Manchester.
“He was the first one to say, ‘I’m going to sell to restaurants,’ and he was smart about it,” Provencher said. “During the summer, every Saturday he would fax over a list of what he had, so we would finish Saturday service and [run] down to the office to get that fax.”
Farm-to-table dining has come a long way from planning a menu on one farm’s weekly fax, but not without intensive effort. It took 12 months to get initial sourcing in order before opening Republic six years ago, starting on a “grassroots level,” with co-owner and chef Edward Aloise making lots of phone calls and trips to farms and farmers markets. 
“It takes a lot of energy and work,” said Jeff Paige, Cotton co-owner and chef. “It’s a hassle because you have multiple orders to call in, multiple orders to check [on], multiple checks to pay.”
A decade ago, fifth-generation dairy farmer Lee Robie transitioned the Piermont farm’s operation to include a retail aspect, realizing that adapting to a farm-to-table-friendly business model was more sustainable.
“We were hoping the farm store and farmers markets was going to be the answer,” Robie said. “What happened out of that is we built a wholesale business with raw milk and cheese. Our business changed not because we planned it, but because that seemed where it was heading, into co-op markets and restaurants.”
In the years since, Robie Farm has expanded to include beef, pork and veal, and a year and a half ago, Robie partnered with Upper Valley Produce to create and run a meat program. Now Robie Farm meat, dairy and cheese is delivered to restaurants across the state.
Farm to table challenges
Perhaps the most notable challenge in farm-to-table dining in New Hampshire is product availability. Having a true farm-to-table restaurant in this state is almost impossible, given that produce is only available certain times of the year, and even then there are no guarantees — berry season may be short or peaches might get wiped out by a late frost. 
The Foundry, the largest certified farm-to-table restaurant in the state, balances that variability by keeping the seasonally shifted menus focused on the hardy and reliable ingredients. For example, the summer menu will feature dishes with heirloom tomatoes and corn, while niche products become specials.
Peter Agostinelli, executive chef at Bedford Village Inn, combats product availability issues by sourcing from all over New England when possible. But he doesn’t only use seasonal produce for the inn’s menu. 
“At the end of the day, people still want asparagus year round,” he said. “People want things. Are you prepared to only have strawberries a month a year? Local berries are awesome, but they’re only available for six weeks of the year, in a great year. You can’t offer it [local] all the time, but people still want strawberries,” he said. 
Juggling vendors to get the right amount of product needed for a given week is another struggle. When Aloise opened Republic, he was working with three different vendors just for burgers and three others for lamb.
“We probably burned through as many farmers as we use right now,” he said. “It took almost three years for us to whittle down incident vendors to vendor partners.”
This balancing act of multiple vendors for one product is tough for chefs who are used to using large, one-stop purveyors where you can make a call on Tuesday and have everything you ordered by Thursday. As a response, many restaurants do farm-to-table on a small scale, a little here and there added to the menu.
“It’s very difficult for a lot of chefs to get out of the industrial mode,” Aloise said.
Understanding how to get the needed volume without overwhelming farmers was one of Provencher’s biggest challenges; he too had to learn how to work with multiple vendors. 
“If I called [one farm] and said, ‘Hey, I need 20 pounds of mixed greens,’ [they’re] going to tell me to go fly a kite,” he said.
Instead, he’ll split the load, getting five pounds from farm A on Monday, five pounds from farm B on Thursday and 10 pounds from farm C on Friday. 
During the warmer months, Paige takes a different route in the volume supply issue, working with a refugee farm in Dunbarton that grows specific items. 
“I can tell them that instead of growing zucchini, summer squash, red peppers, tomatoes, focus on something that you can do really well and grow a lot of it and get a couple of us to come in and say, ‘I will buy 10 cases of broccoli every week,’” he said.
While the concept of farms sticking to one or two items is appealing, Paige noted that this model isn’t sustainable for farmers on a larger scale.
“If something was to happen and they lose everything or they lose 50 percent of their crop, they’re done for the entire year or it could put them out of business,” Paige said. “You’ll have certain insects that can come in, like potato beetles that can wipe out your potato crop, and if all you did was potatoes for that year, you can be in huge trouble and say, ‘Damn Jeff Paige for telling me to grow nothing but potatoes.’”
Jeremiah Vernon of Vernon Family Farm started raising chickens because he saw a gap in local markets and an opportunity for wholesale business. What he didn’t anticipate was the price competition from “middle of the road” producers like Misty Knoll Farm in Vermont. 
“[They’re] not factory farms like Purdue or Tyson, but also not local farms,” he said, and competing with them price-wise is challenging because his chickens, at $5 per pound, are more than a Misty Knoll bird.
“There’s been chefs that say, ‘Jeremiah, I can’t afford $5-a-pound chicken,’” he said. “We have to convince the restaurants that it’s worth doing.”
“It’s very expensive to buy local, and people don’t realize that,” Agostinelli said. “Maple syrup is very expensive to make, and could I probably get a pure maple syrup that’s of good quality commercially packed somewhere … and it would probably be good, but I’d rather spend a little more money and get it from a local guy as long as it’s a good product.”
Keith Sarasin, chef and founder of The Farmers Dinner, noted that farms may opt out of wholesale because they fear losing money in the process. Working with restaurants can be time-consuming.
“Anytime a farmer leaves the farm they’re going to lose money,” he said. “Until you get to be a medium-sized farm it tends to not be advantageous to do to wholesale.”
“There aren’t enough hours in the day” is a common mantra among chefs when it comes to getting local products from the farm to the kitchen. 
“It’s a lot of work to work with restaurants,” Paige said. “I have farmers that want to do it all themselves. They get up at 4 or 5 in the morning, they do their stuff and sometimes they’ll come here at 10 at night.”
Vernon is one of the farmers that handles the farm work, ordering and delivery himself. And while he prefers to speak to the buyers, he’s not sure “want” is the right word, noting that for many there’s no choice but to do it yourself. 
“It’s the one face-to-face chance you get. … It just shows authenticity and commitment to product,” he said. “I am very much interested in carrying and distributing others, but not interested in having someone else deliver my product. I want to talk to the chef and have the chef talk to me directly.”
At the end of the day, most farmers just want to farm. Marketing their products to restaurants and dealing with delivery or pickup was never the goal, but something that had to be embraced. 
“We get into the wholesale and retailing to sustain the farm … when you get to the nuts and bolts of it,” Robie said. “In most cases that wasn’t our original goal, but that’s how it worked.” 
Sometimes chefs are the ones driving to and fro for product. Before a ham sandwich hits the table at Republic, the pigs are raised at Kellie Brook Farm in Greenland and taken to Lemay & Sons Beef slaughterhouse in Goffstown before Aloise drives the ham to Fox Country Smokehouse in Canterbury for curing, then heads back to pick them up and take them to the restaurant. 
“A lot of chefs just don’t want to do that,” he said. “So the challenges are not insurmountable, they’re completely outside the paradigm of a normal restaurant’s purchasing.”
Compared to Vermont, Maine and upstate New York, Aloise said New Hampshire’s farmer-to-chef interactions are rather disorganized, operating on a person-to-person basis rather than a core distribution process, because until recently there was no reason to get organized. But now with more restaurants implementing these systems, the need is apparent. 
As a chef and founder of the Farmers Dinner, Sarasin spent a lot of time working in kitchens and working with farmers, which made him a go-between of sorts when it comes to understanding the perspective of farmer and chef.
“I’ve learned to understand growing cycles and what they need for lead time for restaurants. I’ve been a chef for a long time so I understand the need and speak the chef’s language, to be able to understand quantity and how they need things very quickly,” he said.
With two such different perspectives trying to work together, Sarasin said, lack of education is a big obstacle in the way of achieving a farm-to-table concept. Chefs are busy in the kitchen, farmers are busy in the field, and there is a disconnect as to what the other party needs. 
Vernon knows the struggles with lackluster communication. He’d send out 40 emails about his product to chefs and get a 10-percent response. 
“I think the majority of time it’s simply [that] they have what, 50 different vendors? … They don’t have time to filter through every single request,” he said. 
“Chefs work incredibly hard in their kitchens all the time. Farmers do the same thing, but they’re in the field, so to get them together it takes time and scheduling,” Sarasin said. “When they do that it’s important for the farmers to educate themselves on what it’s like to be a chef and vice versa.”
Searching for solutions
There are certainly restaurants, farms and businesses in New Hampshire on the forefront of the farm-to-table movement, making huge efforts to ensure this concept stays viable, but there is room to grow.
Forging partnerships
As a way to ensure he gets the amount of product he needs, Aloise has what he calls farmer partners who agree to supply Republic with a set volume in exchange for a guaranteed sale. Little Brook Farm ultimately ended up increasing their herd to meet Republic’s beef demand. The same goes for Eric’s Farm Stand — they increased their flocks to guarantee weekly chicken and now duck eggs — and Boggy Meadow, which grows every pepper that hits a Republic plate from July to September.  
“They had to increase their volume, and subsequently all these guys have retail stores and because of us their retail is exploding,” Aloise said.
Such a partnership is suited for a certain mindset and business model. Aloise reached out to five growers about year-round greens before partnering with Moulton Farm and Four Seasons Farm, offering the deal of cosigning a loan to build a greenhouse and guaranteeing a year’s worth of volume with a purchase order.
“I will take everything in it all winter long guaranteed, then in the summertime do whatever you want because I got vendors coming up the wazoo,” he said. 
 Convincing farmers of the benefits of selling wholesale can be a big task for restaurants interested in sourcing their products. For farmers used to selling at a farm stand or a weekly market, the switch to restaurant wholesale can be profitable but requires an adjustment. 
Aloise said that many of the farmers he approached were hesitant to take on a restaurant partnership for a couple of reasons.
“One is their preconceived notions that restaurants are going to be short lived and don’t pay their bills … and the second was vine concern,” Aloise said. “[It’s] one thing getting a lot of product one time. It’s a whole other thing every week, on time, and a lot of these farms [had] been making a living in a shotgun way, retailing off-farm, lots of farmers markets, so historically that was the paradigm. When you’ve been in one set of circumstances you tend to be reticent to do another one.” 
Now more farmers are seeing the benefits of such partnerships.
Vernon knew early on that selling wholesale would be beneficial for his farm. 
“It’s good to have diversity in markets,” he said. “Restaurants are a year-round market, where farmers markets are still a seasonal thing for us. We can’t have cash flow just stop in the winter because we’re only doing one market a week.”
“If you can get into restaurants, that’s huge for you,” Paige said. “If you can get into five restaurants that sell three or four hundred pounds of tomatoes as opposed to going to a Wednesday farmers market … restaurants can help move mass quantities.”
The making of a middleman 
One organization making its mark on the farm-to-table movement in New Hampshire is Three River Farmers Alliance.
In 2014, produce growers Heron Pond Farm in South Hampton, Meadow’s Mirth in Stratham and Stout Oak Farm in Brentwood realized they were all delivering to the same restaurants and decided to join forces in favor of a collaborative delivery effort. Two years later, there are 10 producers (of bison, pork, chicken, beef, cheese, fish and produce) that are collectively marketing, selling and distributing to restaurants on the Seacoast, in northern Massachusetts and most recently in Manchester, Concord and Nashua.
Since Heron Pond Farm has the biggest walk-in cooler, it serves as the base for the organization. 
“All restaurants have orders in by Monday, on Tuesday all farms go out and pack up orders individually and then they all deliver [it] themselves to Heron Pond Farm and then I show up the next morning and deliver Wednesday and Thursday,” Three River’s wholesale coordinator and general manager Erin Norton said.
From a chef’s perspective the benefit is that instead of ordering from multiple farms, he can order from Three River and have it all delivered at once. 
“They can go onto a computer, look at what’s available from every farm, place one order and get one delivery and place one invoice,” Norton said.
Agostinelli has been using Three River and appreciates the ease of ordering online and getting deliveries at the same time every week. He also said having a middleman is helpful, because, “We’re chefs, they’re farmers. We don’t understand each other.”
On the farmers’ side, banding together not only streamlines the process of getting product out, but minimizes competition. When the founding farms got together they decided who would grow what items to maximize productivity and avoid overlap.
“There is produce one farmer likes growing especially and one [he] doesn’t care to grow, so it works out,” she said. “[They’re] working together to supply variety for the longest amount of time.”
Gail McWilliam Jellie, director for the Division of Agricultural Development, said there continues to be an increase in interest for restaurants and retailers buying local products, which she sees as the first tier of the farm-to-table movement. As demand increases, the second tier — distribution — will follow.
“There is obviously an interest in local products on the part of these buyers, so the more that increases the more the distribution challenges [increase],” she said. “As demand increases the distributors will start to follow to a certain extent or somebody will see an opportunity to jump on.”
Creating a network
One way to keep farm-to-table going is to help those new to the concept make a smooth transition. Three River Farmers Association is helping to make that happen, but it can be done on a chef-to-chef basis too, by sharing sources and tips. 
“The guys who are really invested in it want everybody to succeed,” Provencher said. “The guy we buy our chickens from, Vernon Family Farm, I got him to come here for me and then I sent him out to the Bedford Village Inn. Then we sent him up to Concord to the Centennial Inn.”
Provencher reached out to those chefs with the idea that the more local restaurants buy from this farm, the better the price. 
“Hopefully I send you to 10 restaurants, you can get four of them and then it just makes [Vernon’s] life better and works for everybody,” he said. 
Robie Farm is also working with other farms to consolidate efforts and combine resources. Since Robie Farm alone couldn’t produce the meat restaurants require, Robie went to other farms in the area and asked them to raise beef, pork and veal to his standards, then let him handle the rest, from slaughter and packaging to ordering and delivery. 
“Half of my time is spent talking to farmers in New Hampshire, encouraging them to raise beef, pork and veal under our protocol,” he said. “What it allows the farmer to do is raise a few more animals without the thought that they’ve got to give them away if they’re not sold because they’ve got this small niche market in their area.”
Circumventing cost tastefully 
Keeping cost low and dishes creative are two major factors in planning a farm-to-table menu. 
Sarasin said that if chefs approach expensive products like meat in a new way, it will keep costs affordable and make for a symbiotic relationship between farmers and chefs.
“Restaurants need to start understanding how to do nose to tail or whole animal or half animal,” he said. “When a farm has to go and process animals and get it cut, money trails that whole way, [but] when a restaurant pledges ... half a pig, it’s actually better for the restaurant and allows the restaurant to run more specials … support a farm, and get a much better price on the animal.”
When planning a Farmers Dinner menu, Sarasin pledges to buy whatever protein farms have too much of at the time. Recently he asked that of Miles Smith Farm and got brisket and flat iron, but sometimes it’s off-cuts or things folks don’t normally go for, like tripe.
“If a restaurant comes in and says, ‘What do you have an excess amount of?’ that helps the farmer and the restaurant and drives the cost down,” he said. “Understanding when things grow and when the peak is and talking to farmers that way, that’s how restaurants should be planning their menus around here.” 
For Aloise, the solution is to surround expensive items like protein with cost-effective grains and produce while maintaining a flavorful and portion-controlled plate.
  “Seventy percent of our menu here is not protein,” he said.
That’s the main way he offsets cost, since he’s paying, per pound, $7 for ground beef and $5.95 for chicken on the bone. But he’s also using only secondary cuts of meat.
“You never see New York strip, never see prime rib. … You’ll never see a chicken breast because it’s just cost-ineffective,” he said. 

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