The coronavirus is re-writing the “contract” between the dining room and the customers at the tables, and, in response, Waterloo Region food operations large and small have focused on re-building that confidence.
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 are a few examples of the unique farm-to-table relationships that are growing in Waterloo Region.
At first, it appears to be a David and Goliath type relationship. Lancaster Smokehouse is a large, southern inspired restaurant that is part of the Lancaster Co. group of companies. 5 Chicks and a Farmer is a small farming operation near New Hamburg that, up until a couple of years ago, was just growing chickens and turkeys for family and friends. How is it that two such different businesses came to work together?
“We were connected by Feast On,” says John Moylan, the farmer behind 5 Chicks and a Farmer. Feast On is a certification program that recognizes businesses committed to sourcing Ontario grown and made food and drink. “We’re a Preferred Purveyor with Feast On, and Lancaster Smokehouse is a certified restaurant in the program. Feast On made the connection, and Tim was really open to talking us.”
Tim Borys, co-owner of the Lancaster Smokehouse, takes pride in the fact the restaurant works with the highest-quality of producers, and that many of them are local.
“We always joke that we’ve been pretty bad at promoting how much local we support!” laughs Borys. “However, on our most recent menu, we’ve listed all of our local suppliers, and it’s a pretty extensive list.” Lancaster did that because people were starting to ask more questions about where their food was coming from. “People want to be able to put faces and names to producers – especially when you’re using local suppliers – and they think it’s really cool when they see the list and can say ‘I know that guy’, or, ‘I get my meat there too.’ “
For John, the opportunity that the local food and direct-to-customer model provided, versus starting a large, industrial type operation, led him into farming. “We really appreciate the ‘holistic’ nature of pasture-based farming. It’s holistic in that we’re helping the soil, we’re raising healthy animals, and putting out quality meat. We’re happy we can provide this to the community, and to businesses like Lancaster.”
It’s 5 Chicks and a Farmer’s attention to producing a high-quality product that appealed to Borys. “When John and I first met about a year ago, I was more receptive to talking to him because he wasn’t coming in here saying he could give us bottom line prices. It was probably the first time I had a chicken provider come in talking about the quality of the product and the locality of it, instead of just the price. So, we’re ok paying a little bit of a premium to have a better product, support a local business, and be able to tell our customers that we’re getting our chickens direct from New Hamburg.”
The direct-to-customer sales model that Moylan follows allows him to get to know the chefs who are using his products, and results in a unique relationship.
“It’s cool for us to work with guys like Tim, and to be able to see the interesting dishes they’re making with our products, “says Moylan. “Farmers don’t usually get to see that final product – we’re just shipping our products. Here, we can come for supper and know we’re eating chicken that we personally dropped off earlier in the week. As farms have grown, farmers have become more removed from the final product. For us, delivering right to Lancaster Smokehouse reminds us that we’re producing food, not just commodities.”
For Borys, he has learned that farm to table relationships like the one he has with Moylan provide other positive effects. “Quality is important, but most times, quality becomes a side effect of the relationship you have with the local farmer,” he says. “That relationship may have started because you wanted to support local. However, whenever we develop a relationship with a local supplier, we find the end result is that we end up with a product that is much better.”
Because there’s a face to face relationship, Borys is also willing to be flexible in order to work with Moylan.
“We actually changed how we receive our product and our process so we could take John on as a supplier,” says Borys. “We used to get half chickens that were ready for smoking, but that’s not a product John supplies. Because we wanted to work with him, we changed our process; so now we receive his whole birds and split them ourselves, even though it’s a little more labour intensive.”
And Moylan appreciates the compromise. “That’s a benefit of the direct relationship; they were willing to make that adjustment so they could support local, and use our product.”
“These relationships are of huge importance to us,” says Borys. “It’s nice to know that this restaurant helps to feed John’s family too. We’re able to draw a direct line to somebody whose life we’re helping in a symbiotic relationship – they’re helping us by providing us with a better product, and we’re helping them and their quality of life by supporting them.”
Want to find out more about the Farm-to-Table relationships that are growing in Waterloo Region? Check out these articles: