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G-Sync: Farming Some Good via Restaurant Week

The changes in the last twelve months to the Grand Rapids food and beverage scene have included some exciting restaurant debuts: the raw vegan/vegetarian workers’ cooperative Bartertown, Essence Restaurant Group’s The Grove in East Hills, and this summer's latest farm-to-table sensation in Eastown, Trillium Haven, owned and operated by the farm of the same name.

These new restaurants reflect a growing reality. You can practically toss an ear of corn down any neighborhood street and hit an eatery offering an entrée item or an entire menu sourced almost entirely from a Michigan farm.

We have also witnessed the remodel of the historic Fulton Street Farmers Market in Midtown and anticipate the upcoming, year-round downtown farmers’ market. Then there's Michigan's first organic brewery opening this fall, the Grand Rapids Brewing Company, situated in the heart of Beer City USA.

Many of these changes are occurring because people who own these restaurants believe in the power of good food, and locally sourcing from area farms can indeed fuel positive changes for our region.

But on the eve of Restaurant Week’s third year, do you believe as they do?

Many of these changes come in big and small packages.

On the larger side of business, our local food distributor Sysco Grand Rapids (part of a national chain of distribution centers across the entire U.S.) has made huge strides, not only changing our region’s food landscape, but also how we access our farms. Sysco’s new approach, beta tested here, is making big changes across the country in their other branches, too.

“We are the people in the middle to moderate their quality of their produce and by doing so, we bring peace of mind," says Aaron Katz, CEO of Sysco Grand Rapids. “Our commitment to make a new model work here means that we are leading the local farm movement in the country.”

Sysco helps Michigan farmers by providing ways for our farms that may need to adapt to the Generally Accepted Agricultural Principals (GAAP) so they can take the steps needed for certification.  

It is a win-win, as our quality products are now being demanded not only statewide, but also across Michigan’s borders.

Sysco acknowledges many restaurants do indeed contract directly with local farmers or through co-ops. However, Sysco’s recent move to include steps to infuse more fresh, locally raised produce is exemplified by their new logo that proudly displays a symbolic green leaf. They help fill the massive pipeline that distribution provides to feed people in our cities.   

The key for why local is starting to happen here is not only the desire for quality possessed by restaurant owners that Sysco serves, but also because the public is indicating that they want to support Michigan-based farms.

They want you to know that you can feel good about what they provide to a restaurant so that you can feel good about what you order, knowing that the money spent is impacting our local food industry for the better.  

With more than 100,00 cases of food moving from local farms to market, their commitment to their new slogan -- Good Things Come From Sysco -- should make all of us proud for the steps they have taken in this area.

Another success locally has happened on a smaller scale, at the neighborhood level.

Melissa Wild, a nurse at Spectrum Hospital, recently quit her job after her homemade Momma’s Pies took off at a local Creston neighborhood restaurant, the Red Jet Café.

Wild, like many of us, prides herself on using fresh ingredients in her cooking and has created a line of pies and baked goods in the basement of this northeast Café.

“She asked if she could create a few pies in our kitchen,” says Patrick Kruisenga, general manager of Red Jet Café and Wild’s son. “Almost as soon as we put these pies out for sale by the slice or whole on our menu, the community would just gobble them up or stop by to take them home.”

Within a short period of time, Momma’s Pies not only grew to include a revolving portfolio of 20 different pies (including their most popular one, a spring-form baked key lime pie), but these treats have now been exported to many of the Gilmore Collection Restaurants in our city and appear at the Fulton Street Farmers Market every Wednesday night.

“What we have done with my mom is also closely related to what the Gilmore Collection restaurants have done with our other suppliers, including our local Ingraberg Farms where Farmer Dave supplies the chain with produce year-round from its Rockford location," Kruisenga says.

I also have learned over the years the importance of feedback through patronage of our neighborhood businesses. Our dollars not only make a big difference in what stays in a community, but the dialog provides room for growth. Patrick and I have had conversations back and forth on how to make culinary steps to create healthy changes not only for our bodies, but for our community as well.

The result of communicating with restaurant owners or managers is that we get to be a part of the incubator process in places like Red Jet Café, where Momma’s Pies were successfully launched, but also in other kitchens like Bartertown, where their venture with Burritotown also launched an exciting new chapter in our local cuisine story.  

After the farming is complete and the restaurant has assembled the ingredients, the change to our region is ultimately fueled by you.

“Eating local is one of the easiest ways to positively impact our community. Did you know that agriculture is the largest sector of our economy? And that if we, in Kent County, can shift $1 in $10 that we’re currently spending to locally-owned businesses, it would create 1,600 jobs,” says Local First’s Executive Director Elissa Hillary. “By taking advantage of the 30-plus Local First Restaurants participating in Restaurant Week, we can make that change begin to happen as we enjoy fresh food and beverages sourced from our region. In doing so, we create jobs for your friends and neighbors. Doing good could hardly be tastier!”

As we begin Restaurant Week 2012 in our new timeslot, it is fitting to place our focus on all things local and remind ourselves we are local, too.

This change cannot be sustained into the future without you.

And just like in the book The Accidental Tourist, where the main character preaches the joys of seeking out the risk-free creature comforts of what is known (i.e. our well-worn beaten paths), please choose another route and take a chance on a few local restaurants who have published their menu offerings in advance on the Restaurant Week site.

Or, as my partner Michael Pfleghaar says whenever I hesitate to take a leap on a new menu item: “It’s only one meal out of many you will have in your life. Don’t worry about it too much.”

So, West Michigan, it's time for me to take my own advice and try something new, something fresh and something really quite old-fashioned.  

Farm-to-table is not a new concept, but a practice we have fallen out of step with over the years. It is refreshing to see it making a comeback here and I hope in the years ahead, we will see it become more widely accessible in our city.  

I applaud Restaurant Week for having two pricing structures, which is very unusual for many of these types of ventures celebrated around the country.

Restaurant Week should inspire us, but also encourage us to come out of our homes and into our neighborhood streets and sample the goodness that is waiting at the tables of the more than 60 restaurants participating August 15-25.

Restaurant Week brings us together to eat, but most of all to celebrate a regional bounty. I cannot think of a better time to take a chance at a few places you have often wondered about or were curious to try.

But without you…the change will not happen. Bon Appetit!

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor
Email:  RapidGSync@gmail.com

Click here to continue to this week’s G-Sync events.

Photography by ADAM BIRD

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