An old concept is taking on new life: buying the freshest, most locally sourced products available. And the benefits go beyond taste to include healthier bodies and a healthier planet — even a healthier local economy.
This new trend has spread to many fronts — from consumers visiting farmers markets or “u-pick” farms to restaurants that feature regional, seasonal menus, perhaps paired with a glass of locally produced beer or wine.
The concept even got “official” status in 2007, when the New Oxford American Dictionary proclaimed the term locavore its 2007 Word of the Year. It was coined by a group of San Francisco women who proposed that local residents should try to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius. These conscientious epicures, also known as “localvores,” are at the heart of the “slow food” movement.
You know a trend has “commercial potential” when a mega-corporation like Frito-Lay posts billboards and ads bragging about how many million pounds of spuds (472 million, apparently) bought from Michigan farmers go into its Lays potato chips.
On the Home Front
On the local front (of course), the term was tapped by Locavore Food Distributors, a newly established business in Detroit’s Eastern Market. So how did Locavore President Eric Hahn stake a claim to the name? “We got there first,” he says with a laugh.
Hahn tells an anecdote that speaks volumes about how the corporate “food chain” can make it difficult to source locally. While working in northern Michigan as a food rep, he placed an order for cherries for some local chefs. There, in the heart of the self-proclaimed world’s cherry capital, his distributor shipped in cases from Washington! That led him to start up Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City — a concept he’s expanded to the new Locavore business.
“The trend is to go back and buy more local, nutritionally dense foods,” Hahn says. “We’re able to offer restaurants a diverse product line, with access to different farms and growing regions throughout the state. The chefs we’ve been working with develop their menus around local foods, giving them an additional market appeal,” including the ability to trace where the foods come from, right to the name of the farm.
Hahn is expanding beyond produce to source free-range chickens, eggs, turkeys, buffalo, and even some grass-fed beef. And it’s more than restaurants. He reports the company is currently selling produce, including fresh Michigan apples, to more than 500 public schools from Detroit to Chicago. “That’s good news for our growers,” he says. “That’s a lot of apples — and it’s all local.”
A Case for Local
Proponents say local produce tastes better and has more nutrition, having been picked and delivered often within 24 hours, instead of being shipped hundreds — if not thousands — of miles. And with less fuel used for shipping, they feel it’s better for the environment, as well.
Select Michigan, a state branding program that promotes the sale of Michigan products, also touts the health benefits, claiming many fruits and vegetables can lose up to half their nutrients in just five days’ time.
And to top it off, the trend is good for the local economy. The Michigan Department of Agriculture estimates that if every household spent just $10 a week on locally grown foods, it would keep more than $37 million each week circulating in the state’s economy.
So is shopping fresh a new concept? Not really. Any respectable restaurant chef/kitchen manager has been up haunting farmers markets in the wee hours of the morning. But the idea is gaining more traction than ever. Here’s just a taste of what some metropolitan Detroit restaurants are doing to “think globally” but source locally.
Homegrown at Steve & Rocky’s
Ask Chef Steve Allen of the Novi eatery Steve & Rocky’s about the latest “trend” to source locally, and you’ll get a chuckle: “I’ve had a garden since I was 8 years old.”
But the self-proclaimed “hobbyist” has been tilling his own organic “micro-farm” for about 15 years, utilizing some of its bounty at the restaurant. “There’s nothing better than fresh and homegrown … ripened by the sun,” Allen says. His favorite crop: a particularly flavorful heirloom tomato called Brandywine.
“They’re ugly,” he says. But that brings up a major point: Most tomatoes found in stores are bred for looks and durability. “They harvest them hard … you can throw them around like a baseball … so they ripen as they ship,” Allen says. But “they forgot to breed in taste.”
Other items produced at his farm include winter squashes, beans, corn, peppers, and cukes — even a few turkeys — on about six acres in the Hartland/Fenton area.
All of Steve & Rocky’s fresh ingredients are shopped based upon seasonality, and carefully inspected upon receipt. The restaurant has cultivated a lot of local sources, including Gass Centennial Farms in Ray Township and other small farms.
“We’re not corporate or a chain,” Allen adds. “All the employees are made in Michigan, too.”
‘Celebrating Michigan’ at Forté and the Michigan Menu
In addition to what Forté bills as the “wildly popular Great Lakes Whitefish” on its regular menu, the hot Birmingham eatery hosted a “Celebrate Michigan” month last fall.
“What was most attractive was the price point [for customers],” says Chef Stephen Jalbert. “Three courses with wine (from Michigan’s Black Star Farms) was $29, and all the products used were from Michigan.”
The menu included such items as whitefish, braised lamb loin, morel-stuffed chicken, and desserts like ice cream from Northville’s Guernsey Farms Dairy topped with Sanders Hot Fudge or paired with a fresh roasted Michigan peach.
Jalbert doesn’t limit his Michigan sourcing to one month. “As chefs, we’d love to support local as much as we can,” he says. “I don’t know a chef in the world who wouldn’t prefer to do that. We have an obligation to our guests [to serve great food], and whenever it’s coming from here and we know it’s going to be great, of course, we get it.”
Jalbert has also teamed up for tastings with Buchanan-based Wyncroft’s winemaker Jim Lester, whose wines, he says, are “unbelievable.” Jalbert points out that the limestone in Michigan’s soil that helps produce wine is “exactly why we see such great stone fruits — peaches, plums, and nectarines.”
A ‘Local’ View
High atop the GM Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit sits Coach Insignia, the “crown jewel” of the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group.
From that vantage point, it’s a short trip to Eastern Market. According to General Manager Antoinette Whaley, Coach’s culinary team — as well as the other eight eateries in the Prentice stable — use as many Michigan products as possible from Eastern Market and other local farmers to “keep it in the local economy.”
Their world-class wine list also boasts a nice selection from Michigan wineries, including choice bottles from some of the state’s best: Wyncroft, Château Grand Traverse, Left Foot Charlie, and Black Star Farms.
‘Growing’ the Business
When Lorraine Platman first got into the restaurant business, she didn’t understand the idea of getting peaches shipped from Georgia when a great local supply was readily available in her own back yard. She still doesn’t.
The proprietor of three local Sweet Lorraine’s restaurants recently opened a Pennsylvania branch, but expansion doesn’t mean walking away from a longtime commitment to buying the best local products.
“This is a thing I really, really believe in: In Michigan, other than growing cars, we grow produce,” Platman says. “My father worked for Ford.
This is Detroit, and Michigan, and I’m going to do my best to support it.”
And support it she does. Pretty much any week, you’ll find something grown or raised in Michigan on the menu — from Amish chicken and buffalo to rainbow trout. Sweet Lorraine’s develops specials around what they find at local farmers markets.
The restaurant has developed a network of local produce sources and some meats (including grass-fed beef and buffalo from Pinckney), plus corn meal, pastry flour, and buckwheat from a local organic source that does its own milling. Platman also uses Michigan cheeses, in particular, an award-winning raclette from Leelanau Cheese Company produced on the grounds of Black Star Farms winery.
“Mushroom farms are coming back more, too,” Platman says. “It’s exciting. And Ray’s Ice Cream (of Royal Oak) … I’ve been using them since I’ve been in business.”
Seasonal is the key. And it’s hard to source locally in the winter. Platman thinks the recent improvements in hydroponic tomatoes is exciting. “They’re not as great as right off the vine, but way better than what can be shipped.”
Some of what they can’t source, they grow themselves. “My husband has a really big garden,” Platman adds. “When we only had one restaurant, we supplied the herbs for it.” The garden has lots of fruit trees. But within the last few years, the pollination was bad. “We put two bee hives in our back yard. Not to produce honey, but to keep the fruit pollinated,” she says. “Plus tons and tons of quinces and apples — things you can’t find [elsewhere], including tomatoes grown from seeds.”
Michigan’s blueberries are a particular favorite when in season, which Lorraine’s uses in everything from a shrimp and blueberry salad to bread pudding. “I even smoked blueberries,” Platman says, “but not in a pipe — I made a barbeque sauce from it. It’s contemporary sounding, but an old concept.”
Employing another contemporary concept, Platman won’t buy things that aren’t humanely raised. “We’re human beings,” she says, “and we should be using the word humanely better than most.”
Promoting “local” extends to beer and wine, as well. Suttons Bay winery L. Mawby Vineyards has produced a private label for Sweet Lorraine’s for years, and the restaurant also carries selections from Black Star Farms, which, Platman says, has some outstanding reds.
“And some of the microbreweries are just incredible, too” she adds.
Platman takes her staff on occasional “field trips,” and constantly educates them. “I’m always telling them why I bought something,” she says. That way, when she tells them that a trout supplier from Bellaire fishes specifically for them, the staff will relate that story to the guests.
Ambitious Goals at Mind, Body & Spirits
Executive chef Stewart McWilliams, who oversees operations at both Mind, Body & Spirits and the Rochester Mills Beer Co., sources locally as often as possible. “Some things any restaurant can do,” he says, “like potatoes, onions, and seasonal items like strawberries.” But when trying to source meat, cheese, and dairy, it can get a rather complicated.
And at Mind, Body & Spirits, producing delicious “Michigan fusion” fare gets even more complex. “We added another dimension … that narrowed it down even further,” McWilliams says. “Organic.”
Yet narrow it down they did. The eco-friendly Rochester eatery recently became Michigan’s first fully certified organic restaurant — based on an audit by the third-party nonprofit group Oregon Tilth.
Long before the restaurant opened, McWilliams and owner Mike Plesz had to make some tough decisions. “What’s our first priority?” McWilliams asks. “Organic. Local is a close second. Our goal is [to] eventually [be] 100 percent organic and 100 percent local.”
Getting there will take work, but they’ve laid a solid foundation. During their first year, Mind, Body & Spirits found sources for local organic cheese and meat — and started buying certified organic beef by the whole head, using it for everything from steaks to hamburger.
But because of their great relationships with their farmers, McWilliams feels MBS’ greatest strides have come in produce.
Some farms are growing specifically for his needs. “A lot have dedicated a small portion of their land to us,” McWilliams says. “Say I want a purple bean, 2 or 3 inches long. Or Yukon Gold potatoes. They’ll ship different sizes in different boxes that allows me to use the product more easily.” One size for fries, for example; another for mashed.
That’s an added advantage. “If you order from the big guys, you won’t get that attention to detail,” McWilliams says. Now he can meet with local farmers in February, and pre-order a certain kind of squash, for instance.
Another trend McWilliams would like to see: more year-round greenhouses and hoop gardens. And an expansion of the local-sourcing movement can only help. “Farmers need to know they’ll have somewhere to sell [what they grow],” he says. “The more restaurants that get on board with the local movement, the more year-round growing we’re going to see.”
Until then, the menu changes accordingly. Mind, Body & Spirits has an onsite greenhouse for fresh herbs and tomatoes, but when winter comes around “we just won’t have tomatoes, or used dried ones,” McWilliams says. “We have to educate our customers. We don’t want to ship it from California.”
Other items not available locally are scrutinized, as well, such as coffee. But they found a quality Michigan source that roasts organic beans. “We may have to look elsewhere,” McWilliams says. “But we still look closer to home to limit that carbon footprint and limit how far it has to come.”
A Chef’s Dream at The Lark
Working at what national rating service Zagat calls metro Detroit’s No. 1 restaurant has to be a chef’s dream job. And at times, says The Lark’s chef John Somerville, so is buying local Michigan produce.
“I use as much local product as possible,” he says. “A chef’s dream is September and October — and even August — in Michigan.”
Practically every Wednesday and Saturday, Somerville ventures from The Lark in West Bloomfield to a market near Ann Arbor. He’s also developed a relationship with Frog Holler Farms, one of the area’s original organic farms (since the early 1970s), to procure everything from mixed greens and broccoli to red and green cabbage and fennel. “Their butternut squash is perfect product right now,” he says.
“It’s become a big trend, to figure out where your stuff comes from,” Somerville adds. “You want your flavors to sing, [and] locally sourced products have better flavor and better color. Using these kinds of ingredients is capturing a national trend, and making our food better. The results are worth it.”
The Lark also grows its own specialty herbs, including chocolate mint, hot and sour oregano, and gold marjoram. They also have a concord grape trellis and grow fresh gooseberries and currants.
But Somerville voices a common lament about sourcing in the winter: “You have to spend more to bring in from California [and elsewhere, but] you have to have a consistent product [in a high-end restaurant].”
Other trends Somerville notes: single variety apple-cider producers, the rising reputation of Michigan wines, and the growth in local microbreweries. “Artisan is always better than what’s mass-produced,” he says. Aside from the craftsmanship involved in making those beverages, he adds that Michigan’s fresh water is “undervalued” and that it could be a more marketable commodity in the future.
Sure, the famed Stroh’s brewery no longer calls Detroit home, but Michigan now has more than 70 brewpubs and microbreweries. According to the Michigan Brewers Guild, the thriving brewing industry contributes over $24 million in wages, with a total economic contribution of more than $133 million.
In terms of the overall number of breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs, the state ranks No. 6 in the nation. That explains why the guild calls Michigan “The Great Beer State.” Over the last several years, many state brews have gained national and international recognition, earning awards at events such as the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup.
Lots Brewing at Big Rock ChopHouse
Birmingham’s Big Rock Chophouse is known for hand-cut, aged steaks; lamb chops; and fresh seafood (it won Hour Detroit magazine’s Best Steakhouse – Local 2009). It also received the prestigious 2009 Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator. But there’s a lot more on tap here — literally.
The restaurant’s 1,950-square-foot brew-house features four regular brews, plus a host of “seasonal” varieties (their “Red Rock” recently won a silver medal at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival).
Big Rock’s brewmaster, Dan Rogers, began tinkering with recipes as a home brewer in the 1990s. While working as a chef in Las Vegas, he heard the owner was interested in starting a brewpub. “They didn’t have a clue what to do,” he says, “so I got the job.”
When the opportunity came to move back home, Rogers landed at the Michigan Brewing Co., then brought his skills over to Big Rock.
Other Big Rock brews include Norm’s Raggedy Ass Ale (“very hoppy, for hop heads,” Rogers says), a Platinum Blonde Lager, and Flying Buffalo Stout, a potent brew he “tweaks” a few times a year by aging it in bourbon barrels.
Michigan brewers can be a part of the “local sourcing” movement, as well. Rogers uses locally grown wheat and spelt for some of his brews, plus Big Chief sugar made of state-grown beets, and tart cherries for a seasonal sour-cherry tipple (a World Beer Championships gold-medal winner). He notes that a few Michigan hop growers are also starting to spring up to support the local brewing industry.
You can’t find Big Rock’s brews in stores, however. It’s licensed as a “brewpub,” meaning you can only buy their beer onsite. But you can order takeout.
Rogers also coordinates with Big Rock’s Executive Chef Brian Henson for special dinners (a November “brewmaster dinner” paired beers with food items). And Henson uses “house” beers to braise meat, to caramelize onions, and uses some brew in beer batters and even desserts.
Like any fine craftsmen, beer makers are passionate about their vocation. The Michigan Brewers Guild works to promote common interests, and Big Rock is a member. But Rogers also frequents a smaller “focus group.” He and some local brewmasters have informal gatherings of what they call the “beer barons.”
“We drink beer and compare notes,” Rogers says. “No agenda.”
Other Beer Tastings
You don’t have to be a “brewpub” to support Michigan’s beer-meisters. The Town Tavern in Royal Oak has supported local brews since it opened.
“One thing we did early on was have a separate section on Michigan microbrews,” says beverage manager Lucas Grill. The tavern’s initial list of 20 beers has risen to more than 50, and nearly 25 percent of them are from Michigan.
Grill, who’s also worked in Chicago and New York, says Michigan has “one of [the] strongest microbrew networks in America. They’re fantastically consistent beers and sell very well for us.” His main goal is to complement the food, such as pairing amber ale with foods such as cheeseburgers and chops.
The Town Tavern also rotates “seasonal” brews on their chalkboard, such as pumpkin ale in the fall, to “keep it fresh … and give the customer the best product for the money,” Grill says.
Downtown at Iron Chef star Michael Symon’s Roast, the wine list features what they call a “beer list for the wine enthusiast.”
Customers are encouraged to share, just as you would a bottle of wine. Sources include the obvious (Belgium, Germany), and unexpected (Michigan and Sweden).
Some prices evoke a wine list, as well, including a Scottish “Harviestroun Ola Dubh 40 yr. Special Reserve Old Ale” for $30.
There’s a nice selection of Michigan brews, from Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter (starting at $4 a bottle for Dark Farmhouse Ale to the more ambitious “Biere de Mars” French Style Stock Ale for $18). Other Michigan brews include Grand Rapids’ Founders Brewery (whose “Breakfast Stout” Oatmeal Coffee Chocolate Stout can be had for $6).
And if you insist, you can even have a Bud Light (billed as a “lager” from St. Louis, Mo.) for $4. But really, why would you?