Restaurateur's vision: a hub for sustainable food

By Kristen Hinman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 11:50 AM

Scanning the horizon from the hill atop Woodlawn Plantation in Fairfax County, Michael Babin can picture his agrarian ideal. A produce garden flourishes on a three-acre spread to his right. An orchard blooms on the sloped terrace at his feet. Subdivided plots tended by apprentice farmers stretch across 100 acres surrounding the plantation house. Babin can even see biodiesel-fueled trucks, powered with waste from the nine eateries in his Neighborhood Restaurant Group, carting the plantation's haul to schools and corner groceries, then returning to Woodlawn with food scraps for its organic compost pile.

It's an efficient, regional, environmentally sensitive food system. And it's largely still a vision. But Babin is closer than ever to fleshing out his ambitious, years-old business idea.

Last month, the 42-year-old restaurateur broke ground on the site that will become the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, a nonprofit venture aimed at training young growers, educating kids about farming and, perhaps most significant, scaling up the regional food economy by coordinating sales and delivery of the area's sustainably raised foods to restaurants, schools, groceries, institutional clients and consumers.

"It's all about, how can we make the connections tighter between the urban area and this 11/2- to two-hour rural ring outside of it?" Babin said.

As small and medium-size farms across the country have found that large-scale wholesale suppliers can't help them meet the growing demand for local foods, hundreds of similar ventures have formed. Now, the Agriculture Department is going full throttle to promote these middlemen, or "food hubs" in ag parlance. In October, the agency partnered with the nonprofit development agency Winrock International's Wallace Center to take a nationwide inventory of food hubs in all their myriad forms.

"There are producer-centric models, retail-oriented models, for-profits, nonprofits, co-ops: a variety of types," said Marty Gerencer, who oversees the partnership for the Wallace Center. "A food hub that works in Michigan might not work in New Mexico, and vice versa. There has to be some customization by culture and climate. What we're doing first is trying to come up with the national landscape."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wants a start-up guide for food hubs on his desk by next September.

But that's too long a wait for Babin.

For years, the restaurateur has struggled to help his chefs at Tallula, Rustico, Birch & Barley and other eateries source consistent supplies of locally grown produce and meat. "These small growers do a lot of great things, but their distribution system รข??consists of them and a pickup truck," he said. "We've literally had growers who'll deliver to one of our restaurants but won't go to another just one mile down the road."

Was there a way for the restaurant group to produce its own food?

Babin began to search for real estate. But three years in, he kept finding himself on land more than 90 miles outside the District. He wanted a plot much closer to the city, accessible for visits by urban school groups, chefs and city dwellers, high- and low-income alike. "I didn't want to do a food hub just for high-end restaurants," he said. "I wanted to do one with great reach into food deserts."

The restaurateur found an ally this past summer in Laurie Ossman, director of Woodlawn Plantation, which is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The plantation's history - its first owner, Eleanor "Nelly" Custis Lewis, was known as a great entertainer - seemed to dovetail perfectly with Babin's vision. "A lot of artisan food was being grown and made here in her time," Babin said. "Then, about 15 years before the Civil War broke out, two Northern families bought the plantation and immediately started operating it only with free labor."

Once Ossman had offered some of Woodlawn's 126 acres for the project, Babin chose Erin Teal Littlestar, who helped create D.C. Central Kitchen's successful local-food-buying program in 2008, to become Arcadia's executive director.

The first arm of the center to open for business, by spring, will be a three-acre demonstration garden meant to educate both aspiring backyard gardeners and schoolchildren.

Andrea Northup, coordinator of the D.C. Farm to School Network, says she loves the concept. "Even though we've spent a ton of time growing the local food supply and getting it into some schools, we're learning that the kids aren't eating the food," she said. That changes, she added, if they "get their hands on and feel invested in something."

A mobile produce truck to troll District streets is also on the docket for a spring launch. Babin said Arcadia will establish a farmer-apprentice program to increase the area's supply of local foods. He said he's also interested in partnerships with rural landowners who would lease some of their property for sustainable cultivation. He expects to open a produce stand on-site at Woodlawn and envisions "a monster CSA," or community-supported agriculture operation, that will eventually draw from all of the farmers in the Arcadia network.

A warehousing and delivery system, overseen by Arcadia's staff, is crucial to the business plan. As Littlestar put it, "You can educate people about eating fresh local foods all day long, but unless you get it to them you're not going to do any good."

Establishing Arcadia as a nonprofit entity was important to the pair. "We want to provide complete transparency," said Babin. "The goal is to let the farmers know they're getting a price the end user will pay, less the actual cost." He said he expects restaurants, including his own, to pay more than schools will.

A similar tack is working for the nonprofit Local Food Hub, which launched last year in Charlottesville. According to spokeswoman Emily Manley, spelling out informal contracts with the group's 40 farmers and its institutional clients, such as the University of Virginia Hospital, before the growing season was key to keeping the group in the black.

"The biggest thing we learned is that it didn't work to be a reactive model," Manley said. "If a farmer called us and said, 'Hey, I've got way too many tomatoes,' that meant everybody else had way too many tomatoes as well. We started arranging meetings with buyers and farmers, getting them each to commit to what they wanted and what they would grow."

Other nonprofit food hubs have struggled with the economics of distribution. The Boston area's Red Tomato, for instance, invested in a warehouse and trucks in 1999 to handle deliveries of its 40 growers' produce to grocery stores. Several years later, its largest customer "dropped us overnight," recalled Michael Rozyne, the co-director. "It was very traumatic." Ultimately Red Tomato repositioned itself as a broker. The group now develops sales accounts, handles customer service and coordinates traffic flow for its growers, all of whom sell under the Red Tomato brand. Last year, Red Tomato rang up $2.65 million in sales.

Donations and funds from Babin's restaurant business are providing Arcadia's estimated $300,000 in startup money. Littlestar said the venture will strive to sustain itself with proceeds from a composting operation.

On an unseasonably warm afternoon in November, as she and Arcadia's farm manager, Maureen "Mo" Moodie, first stuck their hands into the Woodlawn yard that will be transformed into the demonstration garden, the mood was upbeat. "Worms!" Moodie cried. "They're everywhere!" Littlestar marveled.

Squirming purple critters in earth that hadn't produced food in decades? A propitious sight indeed.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company