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The term ‘farm-to-table’ is frequently used to describe a growing movement by restaurants to use locally produced food in the dishes found on their menus. In Waterloo Region, farm-to-table is more than just a fashionable trend: here, farm-to-table is about relationships. With its proximity to some of the best agricultural land in Ontario, farm-to-table Waterloo Region style means it’s possible for chefs to meet face to face with local producers, see where their products are grown or made, and savour those ingredients in dishes prepared in their restaurants all in the same day. It’s a special type of relationship culture that’s happening here, and one that doesn’t happen in bigger centres where producers are farther removed from the restaurants they’re supplying.
In Waterloo Region this close proximity between farmers and restaurants also means chefs often develop special relationships with their local food providers. It allows for a better understanding of how the food has been produced, and ultimately results in the creation of incredible food experiences for restaurant goers in the region.
Here is just one example of the unique farm-to-table relationships that are growing in Waterloo Region.
“Martin’s Family Fruit Farm ticked a lot of boxes for us,” says Fat Sparrow Owner and chef, Nick Benninger, about his 10-year relationship with Martin’s Family Fruit Farm. Buying local is an important part of Fat Sparrow’s food philosophy; however, quality is even more important. Martin’s provides both.
Benninger, together with his wife Natalie, own four restaurants in Waterloo as well as five food establishments in St. Jacobs. Steve Martin is the retail manager at Martin’s Family Fruit Farm – a family run ‘labour of love’ for almost two centuries. While apples are their main product and are shipped Canada-wide, Martin’s also works with other local producers to provide additional fruits and vegetables in its retail store, and for customers like Fat Sparrow.
Their relationship goes back 10 years, when Foodlink – a local organization that works to connect local producers and consumers – teamed the two together at an annual Taste Local! Taste Fresh! event. Since then, the two businesses have supported each other in a number of ways, and have developed a relationship that also extends outside of business.
“I’ve been to Martin’s with friends, I’ve been there for dinner with family: we’ve gone through the tour, so we have an understanding of how everything gets from A to B, and then I instill that information into my chefs so they know the Martin’s products better – that’s an intangible that goes all the way down the line. If I can get my chefs to know the product better, then they want our customers to know about it too, and become the ‘salesperson’ for it by being able to share the story of the product.”
As for Martin, providing a top quality product is key. “We don’t have a philosophy that our neighbours have to buy from us just because we’re beside them. We still believe we have to earn the right to be that local supplier.”
There are several benefits to the type of farm-to-table relationship these two have developed – flexibility being one of them. “I know that some weeks, Nick’s chefs will place an order with us, others they won’t – and that’s totally all right,” says Martin. Martin’s trucks are also out picking up product from other local producers, and at the same time will pick up items for Benninger. For example, Martin’s makes several trips a week to Floralane Produce – a Mennonite owned and operated greenhouse growing operation just outside of Elmira, ON, whose main commodity is tomatoes. Martin’s picks up tomatoes from Floralane several times a week, and he also picks up tomatoes for Benninger – saving him the trip and time. Knowing each other as well as they do also means they know each other’s business needs, and how they can support each other.
“I know that Harmony Lunch (a Fat Sparrow restaurant in Waterloo) makes a cucumber relish once a month for the restaurant,” says Martin. “And I know that once a month they need 8 cases of cucumbers to make it, so I make sure I can get them for Nick.” Martin adds he can usually get produce to Fat Sparrow days sooner than a bigger company could, and he has more control over the quality of the products they’re receiving too. “When Nick gets our apples, he gets them hand-picked, just like our staff would pick them for our retail customers in our store. We literally go through them individually, to pick out the best fruit.”
Benninger appreciates the personalized service he gets from Martin’s. “The product we get is great: it’s very fresh, and I can have a menu that’s 80% produce that’s from the region and from Ontario, that I don’t have to charge extraordinary prices for. And what I am paying is going to support someone I know.”
How important is this farm-to-table relationship to Benninger? “This is a tough business, so it’s nice when you can take a little bit more away from it. Being able to spend time together and know each other better – those are rewarding experiences. It’s nice to find relationships like this, and you don’t get them off the back of a truck. It goes a lot deeper than just the cost and quality of goods; those are important things, but there’s a lot more to it. If you want passionate and creative people to keep doing hard things, they need to be rewarded in multiple ways, and this relationship is one of those ways that makes it worth it.”
Want to find out more about the Farm-to-Table relationships that are growing in Waterloo Region? Check out these articles: