VSAG Responds to The Washington Post’s Article on Sustainability

From VSAG’s Dan Simons, in response to the December 7, 2009 article by Jane Black that appeared on the front page of The Washington Post:

We’re thankful to Jane Black for bringing such an important topic – sustainable agriculture and what it means to be a green restaurant committed to sustainable business practices – to the front page of The Washington Post. How much more important can this topic get for foodies and restaurateurs? Not much more, but we’re glad that there is focus on a successful business in Washington, DC, that is working to help American family farmers and pushing the envelope on a broad array of topics that go well beyond the superficial, easy topics.

We agree with Ms. Black in her statement that “sustainable” and “green” are often misconstrued and misunderstood, and we’re doing all we can to help. Although there are no strict definitions for either, it really is worth it to take the time to read and understand what sustainable agriculture is all about and what the true standards are for operating a Certified Green Restaurant.

As Ms. Black points out, “…some believe that food is sourced from smaller, local farms that do not use industrial methods to raise produce and livestock and do not ship it over long distances…” it can be confusing for people, and we provide information on our web site, on our menus, and through our servers to help keep guests as informed as possible in a constantly changing environment. Our culinary teams and our chefs are continuously sourcing the best products from the purveyors that will satisfy our quality, taste, and mission standards. Sometimes we can’t hit on all three. But the food will taste delicious, will be served by knowledgeable staff, and will be fresh.

Ms. Black is right on several points, but as any subject matter in context, it’s important to have all the facts in order to be entirely right. Her article states that, “The restaurant serves farmed Atlantic salmon, a no-no according to seafood watch groups that condemn the pollution and other environmental impacts of salmon farming. Its supplier, Cooke Aquaculture, is one of the largest salmon farms in North America.”  I spoke with our seafood distributor, ProFish, as soon as this article was written, and they assured me that currently our salmon comes from Maine, via the Maine Aquiculture / Sullivan Harbor Farm; and I also understand, but haven’t personally verified, that in the past we have sourced our salmon from Loch Duarte in Scotland, which is the source used at times by Thomas Keller at the French Laundry (see the CleanFish Alliance for more information).

Now, for anyone that knows about salmon, they understand that the freshest salmon runs at different times of the year and in different regions. When Copper River salmon was running in June in Alaska, we brought it to the restaurant because it was all natural, line caught, and the best salmon that could be had. We sold out for three weeks straight and offered this specific salmon during its season. Ms. Black fails to mention that we change salmon providers multiple times throughout the year. Ms. Black also fails to mention there is enormous debate on all sides of the “wild vs. farmed” fishing topic; depending on the perspective, there are cases to be made for the farmed fisheries—it prevents the destruction of the wild fish population. There are also cases to be made against fish farms, especially depending on how they are run and the pollution and genetic impact they can have—as one of my guests pointed out to me, if you truly cared about the planet, you wouldn’t serve any fish, and you certainly wouldn’t serve beef, as cattle are a huge producer of emissions that harm the environment.

In reality I suppose, that if I put the Planet’s Survival above all else, why would I open a restaurant at all? But since I, and my team, believe that it is about balance, and we do want to have a business that is sustainable (meaning it lasts and thus is profitable) and shows respect for the planet and the community, we address this balance in everything we try and do: the food we buy, from whom we buy it, the building we built-out, how we clean and maintain the building, the culture/environment we create for our staff, the list goes on.

Just something as simple as composting would be an important topic for the Post to research and write about—at Founding Farmers, we compost the food waste—an additional cost because the city doesn’t offer this sort of trash/recycling program (yet) but one that does support a few local farms who use the compost, so if you care about being green, you need to also be more interested in how the restaurant you patronize handles it food scraps, not only the geography of where the carrots come from this week. Again, it’s about balance, we can’t be utopian on all of these topics, but we can be open, interested, and committed to progress. I realize that the farm-to-table topic is sexy and interesting and easily made superficial, and that food scraps and other business practices might not be so interesting to write about—but when you want the whole picture about Founding Farmers, you can’t just take a few snippets on one part of the process.

Ms. Black alludes to the unclear definition of our restaurants’, Founding Farmers and Farmers & Fishers, shared mission to create menus from sustainably grown and harvested foods. What’s important to know is what we’re doing is much more than just about produce that is or isn’t in season. We know that you can’t get good regional tomatoes in November. We never claimed we would or could. It’s about good food and drink and knowing where your food comes from. We do and we share it on our menus when we can—if I’m late reprinting a menu, it does not speak to our mission; if I have a farmer listed on the menu that I bought from a few months ago, and plan on buying from next season, it is not a deceitful act—we do source from that farmer, but not 52 weeks of the year. Also, and trust me, that Farmer does not want me to drop the name and or to plan on not buying from them next season.

Ms. Black helps to make our point  — that it’s just not possible to get regionally sourced products year round from a Family Farm or a local / small producer: “Finding sources of regional and sustainable food — whatever the definition — is more time-consuming and expensive than ordering from a national distributor that arrives once a day with products from around the globe.” We know this, and it’s part of the reason why we can’t change our menus on a daily basis in a restaurant and menu of this size. We rarely source from around the globe, but if our guests want a certain product at a certain time of the year, so be it  — and we’ll continue in our kitchens to focus on in-season produce that hasn’t crossed an international dateline whenever possible and realistic because we’re striving to keep true to our mission and because sourcing from foreign countries doesn’t make sense, in our earth-friendly operations. But when we do it, we’re honest about it. What Ms. Black failed to do was focus on the high-volume items that we sell in the restaurants; I’m not moving a ton of peas right now, but that was one item we could find that came from far away. Ask about eggs and milk, of which we use a ton, and you’ll get a local earth friendly answer—but I suppose that might not be as interesting for the newspaper article.

I recently flew to North Dakota for a detailed tour and meeting at the N.D. State Mill (owned by the state and run as a business that benefits the citizens of N.D. via its service and profits) in order to see the quality of the flour and to work on solving the distribution hurdles so that we can get this incredible product. We will use it in everything from flour for our breads that we make fresh daily at the restaurants to our pizza dough, even in our pancake batter.  After the Mill, I went to a Beef Fabrication Plant that shares several of the same investors/owners of Founding Farmers and Farmers & Fishers, and took a detailed tour, and then had a meeting on ensuring that the supply, the cuts, the quality, and the all-natural criteria align with what we want to serve to our guests. We’re exploring this source of North Dakota beef for the restaurants; but this sourcing takes time, research, resources, and money—it is difficult for a restaurant to afford to send its staff traveling around to validate suppliers. But we believe in our mission and try to do this, we will continue to try.

We’re sharing this sort of information so that it’s clear to our guests and to Washington Post readers and all the bloggers out there that we might change beef suppliers, and change flour suppliers again, and then we might change back because the realities of supply, price, quality, and distribution are vital to our business. But we will buy all-natural, sustainably raised animals, and if we ever learn that a farmer/supplier isn’t doing what they promise, we’ll make a change. If we list a supplier on the menu, and then we change suppliers, I’m not going to reprint menus immediately—it isn’t feasible nor is it very sustainable—but our menu, where it lists suppliers, should qualify it with a statement that these are vendors we support. When I do fast reprints, I can’t use soy ink, so when we do sometimes have to do a fast reprint, I can’t walk my talk on soy ink (but I still can on recycled paper) but our business cards and our other collateral are as green as possible. It is a tiny debate like this that my team has internally all the time. We care and know there’s a difference between recycled paper and soy ink vs. traditional; we also know that there’s a sensible frequency with which to reprint menus.

Just as we strive to maintain a menu driven by sustainably grown and produced products, we strive to run a sustainable business. We employ more than 250 people between both restaurants. We’re a business that is working to improve our community, influence positive environmental trends in our industry, and provide great food and drink. That’s the good news we want to share and that we work VERY hard to accomplish every day.

Strive is a critical word; we don’t promise 100% of anything—even hot food and great service—we strive to do it every table every time, but we all know there’s not a restaurant in the world that delivers on that elusive thing we strive for—perfect service/food. What we print on our menu, and what we say on our web site, and what we verbalize, is about explaining to the guest The Things We Care About, The Things We Value, and Our Overall Mission with Regard To How We Run Our Business. If I tried to buy 100% local, I’d be out of business. What would we put on the menu in January? And what about local suppliers who can’t meet our volume, price, or quality requirements?  If we had 90 seats or less and more flexible menus with the ability to charge higher prices, we might be able to follow that model, but our model is different.

We need strategies that are feasible, just as Chef Todd Grey of Equinox explained in the same article. We are a different restaurant from Equinox, for anyone that’s dined at both places that is clear. We have huge admiration and respect for Chef Todd Gray; we dine in his restaurant, we think he and Ellen are great and run a fantastically important, industry-leading business, but most importantly for you foodies, we think it is delicious, with great service. Our concept and approach are different and we don’t offer the exact same experience.

Another important point that the general public is not as clear on is the whole organic question. There are restaurants in DC that make a statement about local/organic, but might have bok choy on their menu in the fall (I ate at one of those last week); at Founding Farmers we are NOT striving for the local or organic labels—we’re not focused on organic, but if we have something organic, such as our Square One Organic Vodka or our coffees and teas, that is super. Similarly, we’re not making “local” a fundamental promise of the brand—when we have local (and I think the local produce farmers from whom we bought +35,000 pounds of fresh produce this past summer would agree), that’s super. It has to be a win/win/win: for the guest, for our farmer supplier, for our business.

But, our mission is more comprehensive than any one single food item. Its about the business’s impact on the planet, and on the community and on the industry, all the while ensuring we earn a profit because that’s what being in business is all about and what allows us to continue educating the public about our model of sustainability. Knowing that our purchasing could be from far and wide, we buy Carbon Offsets, and to date have purchased offsets for 70 tons of CO2 emissions.

Even better, we’re working on a deal to buy offsets on the Chicago Climate Exchange that are actually credits sold by the farmers who own/invest in the restaurants. It gives these farmers carbon credits for activities like no-till farming that I can buy to offset the distribution related to our purchasing. THAT is a full-circle, very cool story of how the businesses are interconnected and showing care/concern for the planet—the real story of sustainable agriculture, one that allows a farmer to earn an income in a manner that helps the environment. On that topic, another debate can be raised, as there are many sides to the carbon offset dialogue happening around the world—but at least we’re involved, we care, we’re participating, and we’re trying to make a positive impact while we constantly learn new ways and research better ways to achieve our goals.

If you’ve read this far, THANK YOU, and I hope that anyone that reads this, does some research and comes to the restaurant will see that we are an honest business with a unique concept, an award winning restaurant, DC’s first LEED restaurant—and Gold at that, Green Restaurant Association Certified Restaurant for our processes as a whole, and so much more, including yummy foods, great service, and menu pricing that regular people can afford. I especially hope that anyone who’s got enough time to tweet and post about it will take a moment or an hour—a cocktail or a meal—and come and see for yourself. Our doors are open, come and visit, eat and drink, and talk to us. We appreciate the dialogue and thrive on the conversations it sparks, but we want it to be comprehensive and accurate on all sides.


Dan Simons and the Teams at Founding Farmers and Farmers & Fishers