Thinking globally and eating locally at the Farmers Diner
The first time you go to the Farmers Diner in Barre, you might have no idea what you're walking into. It might just be a place where a friend has suggested grabbing a bite. Sitting down at the counter -- which bustles with waitresses and is lined with comforting cakes and pies -- you might feel like you're in Smallville, or everyone's ideal hometown. Part of the inviting feeling comes from the wholesome face of the woman grinning back at you from the cover of your menu. By the caption, you might assume she's some local farmer who sells food to the diner. The placemat adds to the homey feel with a picture of a smiling Monty Adams, the guy who raises the diner's beef.
But the text below the photo provides some surprising information. The cowboy-hatted Adams is not from cattle country -- unless you consider Starksboro ranching territory. According to the placemat, the diner's managers think it makes more sense to buy from Monty than from some feedlot 1500 miles away, which is how far the average burger travels from hoof to plate. This is not the usual state map and local business ads you'd expect to slosh your coffee on. Something's going on here, and the motto on the coffee mug clinches it: "Food from here."
A diner with a social mission? What's the deal? Ask a waitress and she'll probably direct you to Tod Murphy, the tall guy in the T-shirt sporting a ponytail.
"I had no burning desire to be in the restaurant business," Murphy confesses, sitting down for a chat. "The diner is really rural redevelopment masquerading as a restaurant. It's really about farming."
Ultimately, then, it's really about food. Murphy makes the point by emblazoning many of the diner's mugs and T-shirts with this quote from poet-farmer Wendell Berry: "Eating is an agricultural act." If you want local farmers to stay in business, Murphy believes, you'd better put their food where your mouth is.
The Farmers Diner is trying to make sure you do just that. At least 65 percent of its food budget is spent within 70 miles of the restaurant. Since opening in July, the eatery has done roughly $50,000 worth of business with local farmers. And the Barre venue is just the start -- the prototype for a chain of 400 restaurants Murphy and his business partners hope to open across America. The plan calls for Vermont to get the first three or four -- Murphy is scouting sites around Burlington, Rutland and the White River Junction area.
Restaurants in this cluster, which Murphy calls a "pod," will get their local food from two processing plants -- one for meat and cheese, the other for vegetables. The company has a smokehouse plant in South Barre, which supplies the diner's sausage, bacon, ham, smoked turkey and other meat and cheese specialties. The vegetable processing plant, which is still in the works, will create foods like tomato sauces, allowing the diner to serve local produce all year.
Though Murphy would like to add two more Vermont restaurants by spring, he's also already eyeing Boston, Ohio and Oregon, where he knows local farmers. The Boston-area pod would contain 15 to 20 restaurants. "Think about what that does for eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire agriculture," he says.
Can't imagine? The company's Web site (www.farmers diner.com) offers some numbers. Every $1 million in sales at a diner -- and each one should easily eclipse that figure annually -- would keep 350 acres of farmland in production, produce an additional $50,000 in sales for five farms, and create 13 new farm jobs. And because most of the food would be local and delivery routes short, each $1 million in sales would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from trucks by 10 tons.
And those smaller farms will produce healthier food, Murphy adds -- a fact that is often overlooked. "[During the same week] when the sniper had killed two people, a turkey processor in Mary-land had already killed four [in a listeria outbreak]," he notes. "The snipers were on TV every night and the turkey guys were off in about four days. What's up with that?"
What makes Murphy think he can start 400 restaurants? He smiles and takes a sip of coffee before answering, "Because that's the number people will believe." The real potential is much larger, he suggests, the smile growing wider. Comparable conventional chains like Applebee's and TGIFriday's operate in the thousands. "So I think 400 is conservative," he says.
The Farmers Diner might also mimic those chains in picking locations. The Barre restaurant is downtown, but some future diners might be located on a commercial strip. Murphy has explored putting a restaurant along the neon-lit strip in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and even amid Vermont's most notorious sprawl in Williston. He's just looking for good business locations. But some potential investors dropped out when they learned the first diner might go in at Williston's Taft Corners, a development location that represents everything most environmentalists want to avoid.
"They said, 'This used to be a beautiful farm,' and I said, 'Maybe you can look at us as the redeemer,'" Murphy recalls. Then he winces slightly at the memory. "That didn't fly so well."
In defense of the possible strip locations, Murphy argues that the land in question has already been malled. "I'm coming to the table afterwards," he explains, noting further that the Conservation Law Foundation has said that by making urban fringe farms viable, his restaurants might actually help stop sprawl.
Ultimately, though, Murphy's success will depend more on food than philosophy. And there Farmers Diner delivers. Homefries -- probably the single most important indicator of a diner's quality -- come piping hot, fresh and slightly crispy without being greasy. And the coffee is good, especially by diner standards. The diner serves breakfast food until closing at 9 p.m., so fans of that fare may never sample the menu's entire offerings. Those who do will find milkshakes too big and rich to finish without help. Vegetarians can find plenty to eat. And knowing that the chicken, beef and sausage on the menu is all local and fresh may be enough to encourage the carnivore in others. Late diners should beware, however: Toward the end of the evening, dishes like meatloaf and lasagna can be on the crumbly side. That's probably a good time to stick with every diner's specialty -- the grill.
The only unevenness about the place is in the service. Though the staff is friendly enough, it sometimes seems a little slow for a diner.
Murphy cast his restaurants to attract a broad customer base, from locals looking for a good meal to "true believers" who would make it a destination for its principles. A third kind of regular is someone who first drops in just to eat and then becomes a believer. Murphy recently met one such convert, he says, when a beefy truck driver approached him at the register and said, "Well, I completed the act!"
"I'm thinking, 'I don't need to hear a sexual joke in the middle of lunch,'" Murphy recalls. But the trucker quickly elaborated, "I mean, the agricultural act. I had that great hamburger from Starksboro. I'm going to tell the guys at the shop."
For this customer, Murphy explains, the Starksboro label "was like 'Made in the USA.' It was about here." When he told the story to his father, a psychiatrist, the elder man raised an eyebrow. Perhaps, he suggested, the diner is tapping into a Jungian archetype of tribalism.
Does this mean the "food from here" mugs have to go? Murphy laughs. "We could say, 'It's a Jungian Archetype. Be a Member of the Tribe.'"
For all his "be here now" talk, Murphy -- the tribal chief himself -- isn't actually from "here" originally. He and his wife bought a farm in the town of Washington six years ago and now raise sheep. Vermont reminded him of growing up on his great-grandparents' farm in Connecticut. As an adult, Murphy has led a nomadic life. One of his jobs was at Starbucks in the boom years in Seattle. Later he helped launch a different chain of 26 coffee shops at prestigious spots around the country, such as MGM's headquarters in Los Angeles and LaGuardia Airport and the World Trade Center in New York. His work kept him slingshotting between Seattle and some other burg like New York or Atlanta.
A book on tape cured his wanderlust. Driving out of a supermarket parking lot in a pouring Seattle rain, Murphy heard a quote from Wendell Berry: If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are. "I distinctly remember hearing that line and going 'Oh, my God,'" he says, "because at that point I'd had 13 addresses in nine years."
He rushed out and got a book by Berry. The moment he opened it, Murphy says, "It was like being with my great-grandparents again, the same feel, the same sense of place. I just wanted to get to that place again." And, perhaps, bring it to others.
In downtown Barre, those "others" include all kinds. "The other day, we had the judge, the cop and the three-time DWI guy," says Murphy, pointing to the row of counter stools. "I said, 'OK, this works.'"
As Farmers Diner expands, Murphy's commitment to doing it his way will surely be tested. A board member once asked him, "If it was all organic, it was all sustainable, it was all everything, but just not from here, would you still want it to be from here?" Murphy told him, "Yeah. Food from here. It's like... tribal.
Cynthia Barstow, author of Eco- Foods Guide: What's Good for the Earth is Good for You, will lead a round-table discussion about the new organic standards and genetically modified foods at the Farmers Diner, 240 N. Main St. in Barre, this Wednesday, November 20, at 5 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.