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From chef to sharecropper: One locavore’s story

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

This post is by SmartBlog on Restaurants and Restaurant SmartBrief contributor Janet Forgrieve.

Sondra Bernstein’s three restaurants aren’t just serving up dishes made from locally grown produce. The Sonoma, Calif., restaurateur and the chefs on her staff are getting their hands dirty, taking turns tending an acre of herbs, cucumber, tomatoes and other produce destined for the restaurants, under a two-year sharecropping project with nearby Imagery Winery. The Farm Project was the logical next step for Bernstein, who has had a passion for serving local, seasonal cuisine since she planted the first small garden on the original site of The Girl & The Fig when it opened in 1997, and the passion has grown along with her company — her business now includes country French cuisine at The Fig Café and Italian-accented country food at Estate.

While certain local products will likely never be in the budget — $20 organic, free-range chickens, for example — produce makes perfect sense.

The economics

Now that the first year’s harvests are coming in, Bernstein is taking a look at the numbers beyond the initial costs of hiring a consultant to guide the team through the first year and paying for startup equipment.

“Before I started looking at what we would have saved, I was kind of freaking out a little bit. I mean, $400 on tomato stakes? What am I thinking? What if this doesn’t work?”

“Right now, we’re starting to evaluate how much we’re saving, in straight product costs. We’re trying to pull all the information together. Part of the sharecropper agreement is that we give back 30 percent of our harvest to Imagery Winery. They don’t need it in the form of produce, so I’m creating a jarred food label called Sonoma Valley Sharecropper; it will include the bread and butter pickles used in the restaurant, so we planted cucumbers for that. We’re also going to do pickled watermelon rind and squash and some other things they could sell at the winery if they wanted.”

“At the beginning, we took the time to figure out what we use the most and what was most cost-effective to grow and be successful with, versus doing things that are really hard and make us frustrated.”

Local vs. organic

The produce grown under the auspices of the Farm Project is organic because that’s what landowner Imagery Winery requires. That said, the local aspect is much more important to Bernstein.

“Our focus has always been local, not organic. It’s more about where the food comes from. The cost of the certification and the parameters of the bureaucracy around it — I don’t care about that.  If there’s a farmer doing it the best way they can, that’s much more important than whether the government stamped it organic.”

Beyond the produce

Bernstein’s local focus goes beyond produce. Her restaurants purchase whole pigs and make their own bacon, pancetta and other pork products, and they also butcher their own lambs from time to time. A word of advice on the marketing value of this endeavor: Guests love knowing the food is made in-house, but they don’t necessarily want all the details.

“We put up some information on our butchering processes on Facebook and the feedback we got told us the public definitely isn’t ready to see the whole picture yet.”

Chef buy-in

Much of the project’s early efforts center on staff training, especially when it comes to turning chefs loose in the fields, Bernstein said.

“Some of them have mixed feelings, because it’s definitely giving them a little bit longer of a day.  For some, though they’re just really feeling like they’re a little part of it, they’re going and picking the food out of the ground — there are a couple that are really enthusiastic. The chefs’ and sous chefs’ bonuses are performance-based, so we want to try and bring them into the different aspects of the business. From a cost perspective and a cause-and-effect aspect — they can see that, through their efforts, not only is it a good project but it’s also probably going to help their bonuses.”

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