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A Restaurant for the People, By the Farmers

By Tracy Sutton | Lancaster Farming

WASHINGTON — “This country thinks you need food to come from ‘elsewhere.’ But it’s good right here. It’s world class.”

That’s Mark Watne, a grain farmer from North Dakota and an ag strategist for the North Dakota Farmers’ Union (NDFU), speaking about this cooperative of 42,000 Midwestern farmers’ latest venture — a restaurant in the nation’s capital.

The idea was a radical one. In the same way enterprising recording artists own their label, the NDFU’s latest outreach project is to establish its own chain of restaurants to create a “complete food system,” said Watne. A distribution network in which farmers have a built-in market to showcase their products.

Watne said the NDFU researched many cities and chose D.C. as a good “recession proof” place to open a restaurant. They approached the project as a way to “track our food as closely as possible” and encourage “a system where farmers can profit from lots of different ventures.”

NDFU and a group of investors began two years ago with a restaurant called Agraria in Georgetown and last year opened Founding Farmers in Foggy Bottom, well situated near George Washington University and in one of the International Monetary Fund buildings. So far both ventures have been successful, but Founding Farmers has really made a splash. Recently, Founding Farmers was listed in Travel and Leisure magazine's 50 Best United States Restaurants for 2009.  It was the only one in Washington, D.C., to make the list.

The restaurant’s marketing literature promotes sustainable farming. (Watne begs off the term,  saying farmers “have to be sustainable to farm, period,” and emphasizes that the union represents family farms.)

Watne foresees a world in which farmers own their own restaurant chains and family farms have new markets, as well as a measure of independence from the vagaries of other market forces. “We can grow everything right here” in the United States, said Watne. Why would a restaurant need to look any further than its local farmers?

Founding Farmers
Founding Farmers general manager Christian Holmes is an affable host and a man clearly delighted (if exhausted) by his job — serving people delicious food with a friendly side of sustainable farming propaganda.

“This job is a great fit,” said Holmes. “It’s something I believe in and everyone loves the mission (of sustainability). We’ve only got one environment and we have to protect it.”

Aside from a menu of “true food and drink” —food produced with no chemical fertilizers, hormones, and “limited” antibiotics — Founding Farmers is about as “green” as green gets. It is the first upscale-casual, full-service restaurant in the U.S. to have achieved LEED ( Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification.

How does it manage its tiny carbon footprint?  For starters, nearly the entire restaurant is built out of recycled materials — imagine a graveyard for old  barns meets hip modern architecture. The 8,500-square-foot restaurant is built from old barn roofing, pieces of a barn building from Maryland, barn floor boards, and various bits of old farm houses. Founding Farmers also uses Energy Star appliances, LED light fixtures, LEED HVAC systems for reduced energy usage and they purchase carbon offsets for the rest.

Holmes reckons the restaurant pays about two-thirds less for gas and water than other similar sized restaurants. This cost savings makes them competitive and allows them to pay more to sustainable farmers for their food. Holmes says restaurants typically have huge utility and water bills.

When they were planning Founding Farmers, Watne explained, they felt LEED certification was a “good marketing tool” as well as a good fit with their their targeted customer base. According to the 2009 Zagat Dining Guide, 62 percent of  surveyed Washington, D.C.-area residents reported that they are willing to “pay more for sustainably raised food.” 

“Our mantra is to support regional, local farming where possible,” said Holmes. Some of the products served are from NDFU members (sustainable but not local), but many featured foods are from Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland farms. “It makes more economic sense to buy local and not pay for all that shipping,” explained Holmes.

How do they find farmers?
Some farmers, said Holmes, they literally stumble across. He related the story of driving a van with the restaurant logo and being approached by a West Virginia beekeeper as he was pumping gas. “Do you buy honey?” the man inquired, and from there a  beautiful business relationship was born.

Mostly, said Holmes, they use a small farmer middleman outfit “Fresh Link” that sources products for them from the Harrisonburg, Va. area. “We tell Fresh Link what we want and they find it. It also works the other way, they tell us what they have and we devise a menu around that.”

Holmes delights in showcasing specific farmers and their products like ribs from Papa Weaver’s pork from West Virginia. Other regional products include Cowgirl Creamery in D.C. that sources several local cheeses for the restaurant as well as  beef from Pineland Farms in New England.

Holmes said they don’t have much from Pennsylvania, aside from Kreider Farms egg and dairy products, but he welcomes hearing from Lancaster Farming readers who could set him up.

As part of the restaurant’s commitment to local farmers, they are currently in the research process to start a farmers’ market one day a week with four or five vendors on Fridays. “The D.C. government is pushing green initiatives,” said Holmes and he relishes the idea of being able to purchase produce from his back door.

So how’s business?
“Fantastic,” Holmes enthused. When they started last year, Holmes said,  they weren’t sure if the concept would sell. He’s been pleased with the response and feels validated by the mission of promoting local farmers.

“Really it could’ve been Flopping Farmers. I’d still want to do it.”

Founding Farmers is at 1924 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. and on the web at

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