A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between the Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio
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Say you’re sitting on the sunny patio of a local restaurant during the height of tomato season. So, of course, you order a tomato salad. But what arrives is not so much a plate of tomatoes as ghostly impostors, soulless industrial tomatoes with less flavor than a napkin. You look across the street–a literal tomato’s toss away–at a yard full of juicy Brandywines, Yellow Boys and Black Krims and you can’t help but wonder, maybe out loud, why it’s so damned hard for a restaurant to get local tomatoes in August.
Well, because it’s hard to get local food into local restaurants. Despite the sometimes ridiculously short distances between great food and a restaurant’s patio, it takes a surprising amount of time, money and passion to put the two together.
Matt Fuxan knows how hard it is. He’s on his iPhone early on a Monday morning in an attempt to find some particular local produce.
“I’m looking for info on rhubarb,” he says to a farmer’s answering machine. “If you have that as an option this season, give me a call.”
An employee of the adjoining Red Feather Lounge and Bittercreek Ale House restaurants in downtown Boise, Fuxan is doing what few restaurant procurers do: He’s ordering food directly from local producers. He even has a job title seldom uttered outside locavore hotbeds like the Bay Area: local food forager.
“A forager is somebody who goes out and looks for food,” Fuxan says. “That’s constantly what I’m doing in the Treasure Valley–looking for what’s growing, what’s locally available, what’s grown in an organic way and what we can use in our restaurant.”
In addition to rhubarb, Fuxan has feelers out for the season’s first asparagus.
“We’re sort of like hyper geeky about being the first with a certain product,” he says. “And on the other side of that, our chefs and cooks are itching to get some new product in here because we’ve been dealing with onions and potatoes and root crops for three or four months.”
Seasonal variability is perhaps the most obvious hurdle a local food restaurant must jump. It requires a customer base that appreciates the virtues of rutabagas in winter and rhubarb in spring, but it also requires an endless behind-the-scenes search for the next fresh thing.
Few restaurants have the time or flexibility to indulge in Fuxan’s kind of food-induced scavenger hunting. Even Red Feather and Bittercreek must stock half of their larders with wares from national food-service companies that source meat and produce from all over the world, store it in vast warehouses, then ship it via complex networks directly to a restaurant’s back door–kind of like the FedEx of food. They’re fast, efficient and deliver a varied array of products with a single phone call, including, at times, a limited amount of local food. But that one-stop shopping often leads to restaurants stuffed with industrial tomatoes, tasteless strawberries and factory feedlot meat.
That specter keeps Fuxan on the move this Monday morning, checking inventory, making calls and running through a warren of rooms above and beneath Bittercreek–a job that seems tailor-made for a guy who also runs marathons in his bare feet.
“Hey, Karen,” he says into the phone while dodging into and out of a freezer. “Let me do two buckets of fromage blanc and eight logs of plain chevre.”
While an average restaurant might work with two or three food-service providers, Fuxan says he deals with a motley crew of 30 to 40 local farmers, ranchers, cheesemakers and vintners as well.
“That seems like 30 or 40 times more complicated than just going with a food-service company,” I yell at Fuxan’s back as we race down a narrow hallway.
“I don’t see dealing with 30 producers as a problem,” Fuxan says without turning. “I feel like I’m really fortunate to be able to have those relationships.”
Like most advocates of fresh, seasonal food, Fuxan sees the local food movement as not only a way to snag great tomatoes but a way to feed local economies, improve nutrition and wean agriculture itself from its addiction to fossil fuels.
Fuxan checks out a room full of produce, then slows just long enough to contemplate a thought.
“But if looking at it purely with a business mind, it really could be frustrating and it might be a hard sell to a restaurateur to do it this way,” he says.
That’s because it costs restaurants time and money to put local food on the menus–and Red Feather and Bittercreek’s use of 50 percent local food is far above the norm.
“The challenge that we’re coming to is that everything costs a little more across the board because we’re using more and more local products,” Fuxan says. “At a certain point, you have to just stop, look at your menu and say, ‘Does this work or are we pricing ourselves out?'”
Andrea Maricich–who, with husband Mitchell, owned the former MilkyWay and Tapas Estrella and who now owns the new Salt Tears Coffeehouse and Noshery–says price is a big issue but only one of many barriers to local food. Regulations that favor corporate purveyors over backyard growers are also a problem.
“I think it’s silly I can’t bring my chicken eggs in here,” Maricich says. “I have seven chickens at home and they produce amazing eggs. There’s no salmonella, yet the USDA says I can’t bring eggs into my restaurant.”
Nor can a restaurant use locally grown meat and poultry unless it’s been inspected by a small handful of often expensive and distant government approved facilities–a perennial problem for the local food movement.
Even when it comes to garden-fresh tomatoes, which, like other fruits and vegetables, don’t have to be legally inspected, Maricich says regulators often have an institutional mindset favoring restaurants that source produce from those large food service companies.
“When you apply for your health permit, they ask, ‘Who are you buying your produce from?’ And they want to hear an FSA [Food Services of America] or Sysco.”
Maricich also echoes a concern that many other restaurateurs mention.
“I think that the biggest hurdle is helping figure out a way to help the small farmers grow a little bit,” Maricich says.
Larger local farms would help supply the volume restaurants need while lowering prices.
Former chef-turned-farmer Chris Florence of Sweet Valley Organics in Emmett has experienced the local food movement from both restaurant kitchen and farm field. He thinks many of the myriad problems that face the movement will fade as it gains popularity. He saw it happen in the Bay Area, where he got his culinary education, and believes he’s seeing it happen here in Southern Idaho.
“Once people are committed to buying from local guys and supporting us, we can get big enough so that the economy of scale works and our prices start to go down. And that’s really the crux of the issue,” Florence says.
In the last few years, Florence thinks the Treasure Valley has hit a critical mass. As more people support the concept of local food, farmers can respond by growing more and moving beyond the local food beachheads of farmers’ markets into more mainstream restaurants and other institutions.
“Our business plan over the next two to three years is to meet those demands,” Florence says. “We understand that when the customer comes into a restaurant, they don’t care if something bad happened on your farm and you don’t have lettuce that day. They want a salad and it’s up to us to provide that. So we are taking all of the steps that we can to streamline our farm, make it more efficient and produce more of the things we know restaurants are looking for.”
To remain relevant, Florence thinks the local food movement has to become a bigger part of America’s overall food system.
“It’s up to us to make the case. It’s up to the locals to make the case,” Florence says. “It’s not about just being idealistic anymore. It’s about putting the sweat and the blood into it to create what we want to see.”
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.