Think you're dining 'green'? Menus won't always tell you.
Founding Farmers still strives for goal of 'sustainable' food

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 7, 2009; A01

At Founding Farmers restaurant, the cedar-smoked salmon is advertised as "sustainable." On its November menu, the green-certified restaurant boasted of partnerships with six small farms and dairies. "The difference between institutional/corporate farming vs. family farming affects everyone: our health, our land and our lives," the menu read. "You can trust we understand this difference."

But being green isn't always what it seems.

The restaurant serves farmed Atlantic salmon, a no-no according to seafood watch groups that condemn the pollution and other environmental impacts of salmon farming. Its supplier, Cooke Aquaculture, is one of the largest salmon farms in North America. And three of the small farms named on that November menu had not sold to the restaurant in nearly six months.

In an eco-conscious era, "sustainable" and "green" food are buzzwords that sell. Although there are no strict definitions for either, they suggest to many that food is sourced from smaller, local farms that do not use industrial methods to raise produce and livestock and do not ship it over long distances. The 2010 Zagat survey of U.S. restaurants reports that 61 percent of diners are willing to pay more for green products and menu items, up 5 percent from last year despite the tough economy.

Founding Farmers shows that the so-called farm-to-table model can be a successful one. Owned by the North Dakota Farmers Union, the 263-seat restaurant in Foggy Bottom serves more than 600 meals a day, including homey plates of Southern fried chicken, oversize salads and skillet corn bread with honey butter. In May, Travel and Leisure magazine anointed it one of the best new restaurants in the country, the only Washington eatery to make the list.

But with business models built on sustainable food, the hype can get ahead of the execution. Even when intentions are good, there are questions about whether it is possible for a high-volume restaurant to practice everything it preaches -- if it also wants to turn a profit and serve customers what they want. Small family farms don't have the quantity or consistency of huge national suppliers. They usually can't compete on price, even at the height of the growing season. And although diners say they want to "eat green," many would not be happy if they couldn't get tomatoes on their burgers in December.

The phrase "farm fresh was ruined in the American grocery store years ago. The American restaurant business is perfectly capable of ruining 'farm-to-table,' " said New York restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. "It's called 'farm wash.' And the other term is 'B.S.' "

Dan Simons, chief executive of VSAG, the management company that runs Founding Farmers and sister restaurant Farmers & Fishers (formerly Agraria) in Georgetown, said the restaurant is delivering on its goals: It is the first restaurant in Washington to receive the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. It uses organic cleaning products and biodegradable trash bags. The restaurant strives to buy from American family farms, some of them regional. But providing great service and affordable prices is as important. And, Simons said, Founding Farmers' brand is about more than just food.

"We're not Equinox," he said, referring to the Washington restaurant that has built its reputation on a decade of promoting local farmers. "Is green [only] about what people put in their mouth? Or is it about the whole experience?"

No clear definition

The absence of an industry or government standard for "sustainable food" creates ample wiggle room for brands looking to cash in on eco-consciousness. For some diners, it describes food raised with minimal environmental impact; for others, it suggests food sourced from a local "family farm," an equally vague term.

The North Dakota Farmers Union, which became involved in the business as a way to promote family farms, defines a family farm as one owned and operated by a family that makes its living off the land. That could include multimillion-dollar companies with national distribution and farms with thousands of acres. Such farms have come under fire for their intensive use of pesticides on fruits and vegetables. They are also criticized for excessive use of hormones and antibiotics in livestock, which often are housed in crowded conditions with little or no access to pasture.

Chefs say it is a challenge to work with small local farms, especially if a restaurant serves thousands of meals a week, as Founding Farmers does. Finding sources of regional and sustainable food -- whatever the definition -- is more time-consuming and expensive than ordering from a national distributor that arrives once a day with products from around the globe. At Equinox, which has just 90 seats, chef Todd Gray has a different supplier for beef, pork and chicken, each of whom delivers at a different time and must be paid separately. The meat is pricier than that of big producers, who achieve economies of scale at the slaughterhouse and in transportation. Gray estimates that he pays his meat producers between 50 and 100 percent more than he would a corporate supplier.

Being sustainable also means being flexible. If the veal supplier doesn't have a tenderloin, chefs reprint the menu and serve scaloppine. It's a freedom that restaurants with set menus and recipes developed to be replicated on a mass scale don't have. To keep costs in line, chefs also use cheaper, more plentiful cuts of meat such as pork shoulder and beef brisket instead of the popular rib-eyes and tenderloins that customers expect. "To be sustainable, you need to be adaptive," said Barton Seaver, executive chef at Blue Ridge restaurant in Glover Park and a vocal advocate of sustainability.

Still, chefs say, it's not all or nothing. A restaurant might use bigger suppliers for menu standards, Gray said, and turn to small farms for rotating specials. "If you're hellbent on saying you use small farms, then you have to live up to it," Gray said. "Have a section that says 'local today,' or whatever. It takes some wherewithal. It takes work."

Early missteps

Founding Farmers acknowledges some early missteps in its sourcing. Its opening menu in September 2008 stated that it sourced "the finest meats" from Harris Ranch of California. Harris Ranch Beef Co., while family-owned, produces its meat on an 800-acre feedlot in California.

It was the "horrible stench" of Harris Ranch, dubbed "Cowschwitz" by critics, that moved author Michael Pollan to begin an investigation of the industrial food system in 2001. The resulting bestseller, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," is regarded by many as the bible of the sustainable-food movement.

"I'm vulnerable to being duped," Simons said. "But when we learned about it, we changed."

On its Web site, Harris Ranch says it "takes exceptional care to ensure the well-being" of its cattle and offers large, well-maintained pens for the animals. Founding Farmers now purchases its beef from Meyer Natural Angus, a privately held Colorado company that processes about 10,000 head of cattle per month from 450 ranches and has $150 million in annual sales.

Founding Farmers' brand is built on promoting American family farms and seasonal menus. On a November visit, however, the menu offered a "Spring 17 Vegetable Salad: a best of the season mix" that included asparagus, peas, beets and cherry tomatoes, although none were in season. The vegetables were from around the world, the restaurant confirmed: The asparagus was grown in Peru, the peas in California and the red beets in Canada.

But what is a busy restaurant to do? Between June and August, Founding Farmers said it bought at least half of its produce from local and regional farms. Is it obligated to buy only from American farmers? Only small farms? Is it responsible for verifying that every supplier is who they say they are?

For many diners, Founding Farmers' efforts are enough. The portions are generous, the prices, moderate and the vibe is hip. (What other restaurant has puffy clouds hanging in the main dining room?) Many guests who rated the restaurant on the online review site Yelp.com seemed more interested in the signature bacon lollipops than the restaurant's sustainable ethos.

Others expect the restaurant to meet a higher standard. Michelle Stevenson, a digital cartographer in Toronto, visited Washington with her husband for a biodiesel conference in September. Stevenson, 38, is a regular at farmers markets at home and she said she chose Founding Farmers because it appeared to support her values. Stevenson praised the restaurant's food and service. But she was "disappointed" when informed by a reporter that large corporations supply the restaurant's salmon and beef and that not all the small farms listed on the menu supplied the restaurant.

"It definitely projects a different feel," she said. "I feel misled."

Simons said he regrets any misunderstanding. The restaurant is busy, he said, and has been behind schedule on rewriting and reprinting menus. It's not always easy to tell from a Web site or marketing brochure how food is produced, he added. In many cases, Simons said, he trusts a brand and hopes that his distributor has validated a producer's claims. "There's no way I can make a phone call for every vendor in a timely manner. I will eventually catch all of these things, some early, some late," he said, adding: "And I will take corrective action."

On Nov. 27, after inquiries from The Washington Post, the menu was updated to read:

"We strive to buy from family farmers whenever possible. Our focus is more on quality than geography (we buy carbon offsets relating to our distribution costs) and purveyors change seasonally and with price and availability. We remain committed to supporting purveyors who value sustainable practices and methods."

The rest of the new menu, however, remains largely unchanged. The 17 Vegetable Salad is still on offer, although it no longer suggests it is made from seasonal ingredients.

"There are some things, based on the feedback I get, that I change my behavior," said Simons. "There are some things, based on the feedback I get, that I change what I say."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company