The Farmer's Table Cafe
There’s something wonderful about a food culture that celebrates the notion of locally grown – glorifying heirloom vegetables, heritage breed livestock, and the farmers who produce them. Value is placed on local products both for flavor and also the sustainability credentials.
To say you eat seasonally, from scratch, with local ingredients is to say you care. Businesses take notice, and there are plenty of restaurants that proudly label themselves “farm to table,” bragging about local sourcing when, realistically, their buying power is only a slight nod toward local farms.
The Farmer’s Table Cafe in Fayetteville is not such a restaurant. Their kitchen serves customers six days a week, year-round, using 80 to 90 percent local products. Those numbers sound impressive as an abstract concept, but the reality is no easy feat. To understand why their model is an exception and not the norm, it helps to know how a conventional restaurant delivers a finished plate
It starts with a menu. If the restaurant is chef-led, the menu is built from the imagination, which means the resulting plates may or may not correspond with what is actually in season or available locally. If the chef is good, the menu will tell a story of place, reflecting his or her interpretation of what it means to eat well. Sometimes that means cherry-picked produce from the farmers market, but the bulk of the ingredients still comes off the delivery truck – the opposite of a farm-to-table approach. Mass-produced, commercially farmed ingredients travel an average 1,500 miles before arriving at a restaurant.
Planning a menu for restaurant service is an intricate dance of design and strategy. Chefs have to consider their customers – what they expect to eat on any given day – and they have to consider the skill of their staff and the labor expenses their budget allows. When the goal is efficiency and balancing a profit and loss statement, a consistent product with reliable delivery times is the first step to turning out plates on a busy Friday night.
The national brand trucks have made big business out of delivering on these logistics. Placing a produce order at the end of dinner service – knowing it will arrive tidy, free of blemish, and ready for prep the next morning – is one less thing an over- extended chef need worry about. And even if she would like to work in more local produce, there just isn’t the time or the budget to shop from the farmers market. Those purchases are reserved for daily specials, those pieces of the menu that can change as the produce runs out.
This is where The Farmer’s Table is different: It starts with the season. A commitment to local ingredients means a menu based on f lexibility. Some things are predictable: Spring will arrive with tender, bright greens that give way to the glut of colorful squash, peppers, and tomatoes in the heat of summer. Fall brings a return to leafy greens and the harvest of winter squash, as well as a medley of roots to store through the winter.
But where this is the expected framework of the growing season, forming the bones of a quarterly menu, the transitions are not always so neat and tidy. This is, after all, Arkansas, where the old-timers joke that if you don’t like the weather, just stick around for another day. A late frost wreaks havoc on tender summer shoots, and an early heat wave sends lettuce to seed. And that’s not even mentioning the bugs.
When all goes well, with the menu singing the tune of the current crop, a busy brunch service might blow through all of that week’s radishes, and the farmer won’t have more for days.
Rolling with the punches requires remarkable adaptability from both the kitchen staff and the servers. The front of the house staff at The Farmer’s Table see themselves as informers, a role essential to guiding customers through a frequently changing menu. During any given service, they keep a close eye on the “86 board” – the list of sold-out items – and inform their customers about changes to the day’s menu as they occur.
This is part of the customer experience that The Farmer’s Table provides, with an understanding that food is a finite resource, grown and prepared by human hands. The large chalkboard in the dining room is a visual reminder of this, listing all of the local products they serve, naming the farms, and establishing a sense of connection between farmer and plate. But not all customers are familiar with this model, requiring patient explanation from the staff that Dripping Springs Garden would have more kale to them by Tuesday, but, until then, those greens are still growing.
Adrienne Shaunfield, who co-owns The Farmers Table with her husband, Rob, recalls the time they ran out of bacon before brunch service was over. The customer was outraged, expressing disbelief that they couldn’t just “find a dead pig somewhere?!”
The short answer is, no, they can’t because their farmers don’t raise an endless number of pigs. Each pig they take to the butcher only yields two sides of pork belly, which in turn, can be cured, smoked, and sliced into some 30 pounds of bacon. But there’s much, much more to a pig than bacon, and a small farm can only produce so many pounds of livestock at a time.
And while the restaurant now takes extra care to order ample amounts of bacon, sourcing from a cooperative of 12 pork farmers, predicting volume for service is not an exact science. But this, too, is part of their model, educating the public about the amount of resources it takes to produce a plate of food.
A Focus on the Farmers
Before opening The Farmer’s Table, Rob managed a local pizza restaurant, where he was growing tired of conventional restaurant practices. Adrienne was the executive director of Feed Fayetteville, a former project of Feed Communities. (Feed Communities, also the publisher of Edible Ozarkansas, is a local nonprofit organization that works to alleviate hunger and increase healthy food access by cultivating sustainable food networks.) Together, they dreamed of opening a restaurant that genuinely brought local food to the customer’s plate.
In her work with Feed Fayetteville, Adrienne saw firsthand the amount of food left on vendors’ tables as markets closed for the day – produce that farmers spent hours growing, harvesting, and bundling for sale, with many farmers also balancing a second job to make ends meet. Rob and Adrienne began to plan a restaurant that would alleviate some of this inequity, bringing local foods to consumers’ plates with the keen awareness that a sustainable local food network begins with the success of the farmers.
Rob and Adrienne quit their day jobs and opened The Farmer’s Table Cafe in April 2014. It was not an easy start. The dreams of direct sourcing were soon tempered by the reality of shopping at the farmers market, buying baskets of similar produce from multiple farmers, trying to accumulate enough to warrant a menu item.
During that first growing season, The Farmers Table served produce from a dizzying 120 produce vendors. Adrienne recalls lugging 200 pounds of tomatoes to the restaurant, and with that, the stress that went along with negotiating consistent pricing from farmers who were wary to sell wholesale because the relationship between restaurant and farmer is often fraught with unfulfilled promised purchases. Before a farmer will grow for a restaurant, they need assurance that they are in a trustworthy relationship. Adrienne and Chef Anne Carroll have worked tirelessly to build a positive rapport with area farmers, which initially meant that they did not turn down produce. It soon became clear that this was not going to be a sustainable model. The unpredictable stream of produce led to an embarrassing amount of food waste for a restaurant built on the precepts of eliminating gaps in the food system.
But these early growing pains made way for a more strategic approach, and The Farmer’s Table consolidated its buying power to a select number of farmers willing to grow specifically for the restaurant. With this arrangement, both the restaurant and the farmer benefit. The stability of a guaranteed buyer makes an unpredictable growing season less fraught, and the stability of a dedicated grower makes ordering less of a burden for the restaurant.
Even so, Anne still spends a solid five to seven hours on ordering every Monday, the one day each week that The Farmer’s Table is closed for business. It’s time consuming: contacting the farmers, checking in on anticipated harvests, and coordinating with market managers to track down substitutes if one farmer has a setback. And just because she places an order on Monday does not mean Anne should expect produce delivery the next day.
It comes in waves, as the different farmers harvest their crop and find time to deliver to the restaurant. More often than not, the moment a farmer steps through the back door with 30 pounds of kale, the kitchen will be slammed, with order tickets lined up across the rail during a busy lunch service, and the farmer expects payment then, not later.
There is nothing convenient about this dedication to local products. In addition to all of the logistics it takes to get the produce from the field and into the kitchen, limited storage space is an added complication. As this magazine goes to print, the restaurant should be well on its way to completing an addition that includes a walk-in refrigerator.
Imagine the amount of storage space it might take to refrigerate 30 pounds of kale, along with all of the other produce that goes through the kitchen over the course of a week. Up until this point, the restaurant has been functioning with a three-door, reach-in refrigerator, with additional refrigeration space across the parking lot in a nearby building and a bit more cold storage in the basement. The amount of running around this caused, and the amount of scrambling it took to get that delicious brunch plate to a table, speaks to the commitment and care Rob and Adrienne pass to Anne, and to each and every employee at The Farmer’s Table.
“If they don’t care, they don’t last long,” said Anne. “Because this is hard.”
They are paving the way for a new way to dine. Anne, her cooks, and the servers who dish up every plate do so with the awareness that they are creating something bigger than brunch.
The relationship between The Farmer’s Table and area farmers has continued to evolve with the emergence of New South Produce Cooperative and other local food cooperatives, a model that enables farmers to sell to a central distributor who then delivers to restaurants with a set delivery schedule. Think of this as the big-name food vendors, but without all of the food miles, and, instead, with a wealth of local produce and the responsibility to find buyers for the current bounty.
This is where Adrienne sees a genuine commitment to local foods as something more than an experiment. With the buying power of the cooperative, local produce becomes not only accessible, but also stabilized and sustainable. No longer does local produce strictly resort to haggling with individual growers at the vendor’s table on an early Saturday morning. Instead, restaurants receive weekly updates on the growing season, and they place orders accordingly.
These actions are stabilizing the food systems, giving restaurants access to farmed produce, and also – and perhaps most importantly – giving farmers access to a reliable purchasing network. This is where an already vibrant local foods scene can really take off. The team behind The Farmer’s Table Cafe is not just laying the groundwork for what could be, they are already making it happen. ■