North Dakota farmers have spent $6 million to open a pair of Washington, D.C., restaurants, one just blocks from the White House, to showcase food from family farms. The newer eatery aims to be "Washington's greenest restaurant."
"We believe we are doing the right thing, doing it the right way, and the profit will come," says Ralph DeRose, general manager of Founding Farmers, a modern space with an environmentally friendly design.
The North Dakota Farmers Union, which has 42,000 members, has made the investment despite the economic downturn, high food prices and risks inherent in running a restaurant. With Founding Farmers, which opened this month, the group is betting on the success of a growing trend in the business: food straight from the farm, in a place with a green focus.
The first restaurant, Agraria, was built in a massive, darker space in the city's Georgetown neighborhood. While popular with tourists, it has struggled to catch on with people in the city since opening in 2006.
DeRose says the management team is trying to get it right this second time. Unlike Agraria, Founding Farmers was built to comply with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a third-party certification for the design, construction and operation of green buildings.
"To do farm-to-table the way you envision it, you need to do it like this," said DeRose, sitting at a sunny table in the restaurant less than a week after its opening.
The restaurant focuses on serving food from family farms in the United States, delivered by co-ops that buy the food directly from smaller, noncorporate farms. Much of the food is bought locally, though the restaurant gets food from more North Dakota and other states farther away.
That is a more complicated and expensive business plan compared with restaurants that use large distributors. But the owners say it allows customers to know where their food is coming from.
Founding Farmers is not the only restaurant trying to bring in customers by appealing to their environmental and food safety concerns.
Pizza Fusion, a Florida-based chain, has sold 75 franchises in 15 states by using locally grown foods, building their restaurants with recycled materials, delivering pizza in hybrid cars and giving customers discounts if they recycle their pizza boxes.
"It absolutely is tough times and everybody is fighting for the dollars that are dwindling," says Randy Romano, Pizza Fusion's executive vice president. "You need to stand out."
It's a growing trend as restaurant operators face the most challenging financial climate in nearly two decades, said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association. It's about "consumers connecting with their food," he said.
Robert Carlson, the president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said it also is about making money. He said it was not that much more expensive to construct Founding Farmers according to LEED standards, especially because the space was recently built. Plus, saving energy saves money, down to the high-efficiency hand dryers in the bathrooms.
"It was really a question of money," Carlson said. "We thought it would be an added draw to be LEED-certified and environmentally friendly," he said.
The decor is contemporary and has a farm house feel. Puffy cloud sculptures hang from the ceiling. An old West Virginia farm house is incorporated into the interior, and floors and tables are fashioned from trees that fell on their own — without being cut down — in Wisconsin. Menus are printed on recycled paper with soy-based ink and the restaurant is flooded with natural light.
The menu focuses on comfort food — think fried free-range chicken, deviled eggs and huge bowls of salad.
Other restaurants take the concept even farther.
The Balanced Kitchen, a tiny eco-friendly restaurant in Chicago, is not only built to comply with LEED but serves vegan, gluten-free food. Business manager Joshua Alper said it's "the whole package."
The concept does not always translate into dollars, though. The 20-seat eatery is still not breaking even after opening at the beginning of this year, though the owners are hopeful.
"There is a certain percentage of the market who need, or want or appreciate what we are doing," Alper says.