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UIX: Lauren Jaenicke brings culinary expertise, cultivation, and community together

Lauren Jaenicke

Farm to table relationships aren’t even the latest in community-centric efforts from Essence Restaurant Group, but, along with B Corp certification, they are a key part of Lauren Jaenicke’s push to make the company more sustainable. UIX editor Matthew Russell has the delicious details.
If you’ve ever eaten at one of the Essence Restaurant Group’s locations—Bistro Bella Vita, The Greenwell, or Grove—then you’ve likely enjoyed food harvested from one of several local farms. And while farm to table isn’t even the latest in community-centric efforts from ERG, it is a key part of Lauren Jaenicke’s push to make the company more sustainable and soon obtain B Corporation certification.
Jaenicke, ERG’s Marketing and Sustainability Director, is helping the company get B Corp certification through the B Lab non-profit, joining a number of other local leaders in social and environmental performance, each meeting an extensive list of social impact points as spelled out by B Lab. Local B Corps Gazelle, Cascade Engineering, and Brewery Vivant each promote a dedication to community in their own way, and ERG is no exception, boasting direct relationships with over 20 different local farms and food producers.
“I’ve finished our B Corp assessment and we’ll be the first restaurant group in the nation to obtain the certification,” Jaenicke says. “We scored very well in the assessment. Largely, a portion of our score was dependent on how much of our food comes from local farmers and purveyors within a 250-mile distance.”
Originally brought on to handle sustainability for ERG, Jaenicke occasionally helps facilitate the communication between guests, culinary staff, and the company’s food producers. Some of the group’s relationships have been maintained for almost two decades now, beginning with Ingraberg Farms in 1998. Jaenicke joined the group in 2007 and Ham Family Farms came into the picture in 2010.
“I make sure that our kitchen team can effectively communicate with the farmers. With a lot of the farms we work with, we buy directly from them and don’t go through a third party distributor,” Jaenicke says. “That’s helpful because the lines of communication are clear and concise. They’ll grow a specific thing for us, and we’re invested in the products that we provide.”
Dan Huber, a farmer at Ham Family Farms, says he appreciates the close relationships he can forge with different chefs in meeting their menu needs and creating new ideas.
It’s nice to just call them up and ask what they want,” Huber says. “Right now we’re growing nasturtium flowers for Greenwell’s cocktails. I really like the flavor. We’re trying out a few other things, too, like shiso pepper, celtuce—an Asian lettuce. You don’t eat the leaves of that, you actually eat the stalk.”
Chief culinary officer Patrick Wise and other chefs at ERG are constantly searching for fresh, delicious product, Jaenicke says, and consider two questions when procuring goods: how is the food being grown or raised? And how far away is the food grown in comparison to the plate it will end up on?
“During the late 1990s, the only way we had access to this information was to form direct relationships with local farmers and purveyors,” she says. “We soon realized that these relationships not only provided our guests with incredible food but also nourished our local economy.”
Any sort of cross promotion that ERG can set up with the farms is very important, Jaenicke says. Events like the recently planned farm tour and dinner at Ham Family Farms help to strengthen the bond between farm, chef, and guest. At the restaurant level, Jaenicke and her team are making sure all the servers are aware of where the product is coming from, how it's grown, and where the guests can purchase it.
Jaenicke has a background in hospitality and a bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Business from Aquinas College, which she says has helped guide her to consider ecological and social implications in the areas ERG is working to improve. That frame of mind has led ERG to consider local chemical-free produce, zero waste facilities, and LEED® Certified buildings, among other efforts.
“The opportunity to work with passionate and driven individuals who share the same values as me is incredibly rewarding,” Jaenicke says. “We are constantly pushing each other to be better today than we were yesterday. I am proud to be a part of a company that seeks to support a resilient and transparent local food system that ultimately enriches our local community.”

For more information on Essence Restaurant Group, visit http://essencerestaurants.com/

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
Photography by Steph Harding 
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