Are Marfa tomatoes local when you eat them in Central Texas? Can a restaurant that buys from a farmers market three times a year put those farm names on its menu? How much are customers willing to pay for food that’s grown closer to home?
“It’s almost a prerequisite to say you’re buying local,” says Katie Kraemer, co-owner of Tecolote Farm just east of Austin and one of the founders of Growers Alliance of Central Texas, an organization that in 2010 — in response to localwashing, in which a restaurant intentionally or accidentally misrepresents where its ingredients are sourced — published a farmer-generated list of restaurants to which they sold.
Most stakeholders in Austin’s food community agree that localwashing doesn’t happen here as much as it might in other markets, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some farm-to-table fibbing.
Not every restaurant can afford the typically higher-priced produce and meat from small-scale, often sustainable or organic producers, but thanks to a heightened interest in local food in the past 10 years, Americans are putting more pressure than ever on them to do so. Kraemer says that exaggerated claims can make customers think they are fulfilling an obligation they might feel to support local food, without knowing that they are consuming produce from 400 miles away while farmers 15 miles away are trying to get rid of all their onions.
The growers alliance is working on an updated list this year because Kraemer says she continues to see the farm she runs with her husband, David, and others misrepresented in restaurant marketing. “As the local scene has grown, there’s more competition,” she says, but also more spin. “Everybody wants a little slice of the local pie.”
The willingness of chefs in Austin to buy from local farms today is much different than when the Tecolote farmers moved here in 1992 from San Francisco, where they had been selling exclusively to restaurants. “The only chef who was interested here (back then) was David Garrido at Jeffrey’s,” Kraemer says.
Tecolote switched business plans and started one of the first community-supported agriculture programs in the South, which remains its bread and butter. But even with a strong CSA base, they sell to restaurants wholesale or through Farm to Table, a local food delivery broker run by John Lash.
One of their longtime customers is Vespaio, which Kraemer says she thinks doesn’t get enough credit for its local sourcing. “After the farmers market, I’ll go by Vespaio and I might sell 25 percent of what I just sold at the market to them. They’ve been doing that for 17 years.”
Many restaurants can only afford to order a portion of their produce directly from local farms like Tecolote. Some chefs will place an order for $10. “I have a lot of compassion for restaurants,” Kraemer says. “Their profit margins are tight, too, but we can’t deliver for that. I say, ‘Why don’t you just come to the farmers market to buy those garlic chives?’ ”
Michael Mosley, the wholesale manager at Johnson’s Backyard Garden in East Austin, says that localwashing is at a minimum in Austin, in part, because more restaurants are sourcing locally every year. “Maybe they don’t source everything locally, but they’ll have a local veggie plate or a special. They aren’t purists, but they are still participating in this local economy.”
Some restaurants order from him only a few times a year, while others send him emails several times a week with orders.
Every Monday, he sends out an email with what produce they have available and what’s going out of season or in limited supply. Restaurants order for next-day delivery five days a week. It’s a huge operation that now includes weekly trips to San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, an expansion that some might say pushes the boundaries of what you can call “local.”
For the most part, chefs have adjusted to local sourcing, even if that means spotty availability or higher prices. “The chefs know how to sell it, the customers want to buy it and we’re getting a price we need,” Mosley says. “I think the whole market has figured itself out.
Even so, he has received emails from diners who wanted to check to see if a restaurant’s claim to serve Johnson’s produce was true. The farm has been misrepresented, but only a few times, he says.
Farm to Table owner Lash is one of the few food supply companies that specializes in the kinds of small to medium farms that usually can only sell at farmers markets. He sells that produce to restaurants such as Tacodeli, Hopdoddy or P. Terry’s that can’t send a chef to those markets or who can’t get enough of whatever ingredients they need from the markets.
“For many restaurants, they have to stick their toe in the water and see how local works and be comfortable with the quality and consistency,” he says. Not all restaurants can be as flexible to change their menu every day based on what produce is available.
Farm to Table produce comes from all over Texas, but some restaurants, or maybe servers answering a diner’s questions, might exaggerate the locality of his products because they don’t realize it’s not coming from 10 miles away. “It’s a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing,” he says.
Restaurant sales are profitable for Rockdale meat producer Jim Richardson, but “I’ve never put all my eggs in that basket,” he says. “We sell as much retail as we can and keep the good wholesale going on the side.” To further diversify his income stream, Richardson recently added a dairy, which will allow him to sell more value-added products to bring in income to supplement the products with lower profit margins.
Last fall, one of Richardson’s longtime customers, Kerbey Lane, called to say they wouldn’t be ordering from him anymore.
Richardson said he understood why they dropped him: Kerbey Lane, having grown to seven locations, wanted to streamline its ordering process. Buying directly from a number of vendors costs more and isn’t as simple as buying from a so-called broadliner, the food supply companies like Sysco, Hardee’s or U.S. Foods that can deliver just about every ingredient a restaurant might need.
Kerbey Lane CEO Mason Ayer said it was a matter of trying to keep up with demand. But a few months after it switched pork providers, the restaurant still had photos of Richardson displayed on its website. It was an oversight that the restaurant corrected when reporters pointed it out but a classic example of how easily localwashing can happen.
After losing the Kerbey Lane account, Richardson turned to a group of chefs whose names you hear often on the lips of farmers: Jack Gilmore, who owns Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Bryce and Dylan Gilmore, who run Barley Swine and Odd Duck, and Jesse Griffith of Dai Due. “They said, ‘We’ll find a way to take care of it,’” Richardson says.
One somewhat surprising customer whose dedication he has admired is Chipotle. Although the chain has dozens of stores in the area, Richardson has been selling to the location at 801 Congress Ave. for years. Even though it’s part of a large, national company, that store gets a large delivery of Richardson pork shoulder and uncured ham every Wednesday. “When I tell them there has been a change in the market, or something with transportation or labeling, they say, “Tell me what we need to do to make it work,’” he says.
From Richardson’s view, the demand for his product outstrips supply, and he can’t just keep expanding his farm. He couldn’t produce enough pork for all the Chipotles in Austin.
The truth of the supply-demand equation is that local farmers do not have the capacity to provide every ingredient used in every restaurant in Austin.
The globalized food economy allows for a bounty of choices, and though the farmers and chefs might disagree about whether those endless choices at a restaurant or grocery store are good or bad, they agree that consumers shouldn’t be misled about what they are eating.
If you’re curious about who is really buying from area farmers, Kraemer says you should ask the farmers themselves.
“When you’re at the market, ask them: Who do you sell a lot to?” she says. Many might say Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Dai Due or Barley Swine, but Kraemer would put in a good word for East Side Pies, whose chef calls her to ask, “What do you have that you need to get rid of?”
That’s what commitment to local looks like, and it’s something most diners will never see.