What Does Farm To Table Mean?

I was recently asked what Farm-To-Table meant to me, and of course, my first answer was simple. Sustainability. But let’s ask Wikipedia what it thinks. Wikipedia defines “farm to table” as:

“Farm-to-table (or farm-to-fork) refers to the stages of the production of food: harvesting, storage, processing, packaging, sales, and consumption.[1] Farm-to-table also refers to a movement concerned with producing food locally and delivering that food to local consumers. Linked to the local food movement, the movement is promoted by some in the agriculture, food service, and restaurant communities. It may also be associated with organic farming initiatives, sustainable agriculture, and community-supported agriculture.

Farm To Table As a Lifestyle

I grew up in Scotland, so Farm-To table there was not a trend, but a lifestyle. We lived in a small village named Killearn, length of 12 miles, population just over 1700, and no, we did not have a grocery store. We had a butcher where we bought our meat from the local farmers (cows and sheep could be viewed from my bedroom window). The butcher shop often had pheasant and other foul hanging which they would clean for you and send away with the normal warning to “watch for buckshot”. A few doors down was the Fruit & Nut shop, which as you can imagine, had the produce that you would need as well as a variety of grains and of course, you guessed it, nuts. The produce was quite limited, as it came from the local farms, not many people did imports to the little town…For our bread, of course we moved onto the Baker, where it was obvious that the bread was baked fresh daily, on occasion they would have some local farm cheese, but our favorite place for cheese was I.J Mellis on Great Western Road in Glasgow. This is one of those shops that you can barely stand to be in as the smell is so pungent, but the selection of cheeses (over 80% of which were from Scotland was unbelievable. They would often shave off pieces of cheese from gigantic wheels for you to taste, and so inevitably, you would end of with 2 lbs more of cheese than you originally intended. Don’t get me wrong, we did have a “Grocery store”, but it was about a 30 minute drive, so we would take the trek once or twice per week to pick up the “necessities”.

We often traveled to Europe for the summer, my parents were big fans of renting homes in the country side of France, Italy and Spain for us to retreat to. I came from a family who’s whole world was about food, and after our morning routine, we would pile back into the car and drive to a nearby town to explore. We would spend the first 30 minutes trailing behind my father as he scoured every menu for the one that he was most interested in. He would become increasingly crank as he became more and more hungry, and we would tell him “Just Pick One!” and he would remind us that he could not make an “informed” decision until he had seen all of the menus. After lunch, we would head to the local markets to look at their offerings of bread, produce, cheese and any fun meats, charcuteries or pates. We would stock up and go onto our afternoon activities of either more exploration or heading back to the house for games of boules, croquet, swimming and reading (No television allowed during these family holiday’s). The evenings, my mother would prepare platters of the vegetables, meats, breads and cheeses which we had purchased earlier, and we would eat and play cards until it was time for bed. These are some of my fondest memories of my childhood, and that is where I believe my passion and understanding of farm to table is rooted.

local village in scotland

(Killearn Main Street)

The Slow Food Movement

My personal belief is that Farm to table is explained in the life I describe above. It is not a trend as it has become in the past 10 years, it is going back to the way that things were before the world became wrapped up in making everything faster and more efficient. The Slow Food movement is embracing the old world way of cooking. Having relationships with your farmers, knowing their names and where they grow their produce. How their animals are treated, and how the daily world events affect their produce and livestock. You cannot rely on anything with Farm to table cooking, as sometimes crops are wiped out by a disease, or the rain caused the farmers to have an inability to harvest, or even preventing them to come to the farmers market. So what happens then to a Farm to Table restaurant? You have to think, and think fast of another dish to replace the one that you are now unable to sell. We recently put a morel dish on our menu which, since the day we printed it, we have been unable to sell. The mushrooms are locally foraged and the surprise day of rain which came to us last week, caused the morels to get moldy (thank you el nino). Our Chef is not quite ready to take them off the menu yet though…he is too excited about the dish and is praying that the next crop will make it through this dry spell we have had.

Farm To Table For Restaurants

When I asked my husband, Executive Chef of Martins West Gastropub, Micheal Dotson, what he thought about farm to table for restaurants, this is what he said:

“If you really think about it, Farm to Table it is a marketing term coined by the restaurant industry to easily explain to the general public what they are serving is better than most or others. When I was a young cook up and down California and France, getting out ingredients from near by farms and ranches was just how we did it. I did work in smaller independently owned restaurants with a certain pedigree but it was understood, not talked about but independent farmers and ranches that only raised or grew a few different things with respect for the animals and earth, in turn produced far more delicious vegetables and meats. They or we never spoke about organic, sustainable or farm to table. We all were a minority that wanted to  be associate with high quality ingredients. Today for me, farm to table means almost nothing, everyone is using the term. I continue to look for farmers, ranchers and growers that have the delicious mind set. They want grow something that tastes great and that will intrinsically mean, crop, field and pasture rotation, as well as preservation or sustainable management of their land.”
You can not make truly quality food without truly quality ingredients, and the closer the ingredients are to you and the more naturally they are produced, the better they will be. It takes much more time, much more research and a LOT more labor. But it is worth it to us to take pride in what we are serving and be able to tell you a story of where your food came from.

Should Social Media Be A Part of The Restaurant Experience?

For most industries, technology makes the aspects of daily business easier, but how do we gauge if the restaurant business is one of them? We opened Martins West almost 8 years ago and there was barely any social media to speak of at all, but over the years I have seen that social media has become a prevalent source of media and messaging.

taking photos of food in restaurants

Image via: Telegraph.co.uk

There are different degrees of the use of technology and how it affects the business, for instance “They who shall no be named” have become the Go-to search tool for local business’. Even I have to admit, when I am in a city or town that I am not familiar with, I will use them as a guide as to where to eat or drink. They have become the new “word of mouth” which used to be considered such a valuable marketing tool for restaurants. The tried and true, someone dines at your restaurant, they tell you about their experience and from that, you either choose to dine at the restaurant and skip it. This is exactly what they are, except instead of a “reviewer” telling a group of friends, they tell over 2 million of their closest Internet friends. The reader then just has to understand that the reviews are subjective, and not only that, but they are sometimes inaccurate…

Despite all of the main concerns most business owners have with this certain review site is that guests use it is a menu when dining at the restaurant. I’ve seen many people come in and pop out the phone and search the reviews before they even look at the menu. Yes, in some places, this may work, but we have a restaurant where the menu changes very often due to seasonality. I remember just a few months ago one of my favorite servers had a table who continuously asked for certain items that they read about and had great reviews about in the past, “I’d like to try the chicken and waffles”, the server politely pointed at the menu, explained that we are a seasonal restaurant and that the items that we currently had, would be found on the menu. “Ok how about this pear cocktail?” Referencing a cocktail which had a review written about it in 2009. “Unfortunately we no longer carry that either, here is our cocktail menu to take a look at”. I appreciate that people are intrigued by reviews of dishes or drinks that we have once served, but we have a whole restaurant full of people who we are trying to take care of, and to avoid this back and fourth, please check out the menu provided as it (not your phone) has all of the information that you need. A few months ago there was a rant and rave on craigslist from an anonymous restaurant in New York City (it has since been taken down as it went quite viral). They are blaming customers’ use of cell phones for its slow service. Finding that it received an “increasing number of customers complaining about slow service in recent years” and so it hired a firm to investigate the problem. The restaurant then revealed the results on the now-deleted Craigslist post. Apparently, the biggest change was the increased use of cell phones by customers, which the restaurant believes distract customers and causes meals to last longer.

After comparing footage from a dinner service in 2004 to footage from a dinner service in 2014 — on a day that had “roughly the same amount of customers” — the restaurant found that a meal used to take around one hour to serve, but now it takes closer to two. It claims that in 2014 “9 out of 45 customers sent their food back to reheat,” adding, “Obviously if they didn’t pause to do whatever on their phone the food wouldn’t have gotten cold.” The restaurant also apparently found that in 2014 “26 out of 45 customers spend an average of 3 minutes taking photos of the food.” The use of cell phones also caused customers to take longer to look at the menu and order food. Plus, when “customers are constantly busy on their phones it took an average of 20 minutes more from when they were done eating until they requested a check.”

I don’t know how valid this is, but I do know what see is that instead of guests engaging with the servers, or even their companions, they are gathering information from their phones. There is so much information that guests can gather from the servers provided to them. Our servers are advocates for a restaurant. They are the ones that touch the public on a daily basis and help to form an experience. When quality and service are pillars of success, technological advancements can’t replace a personal touch and my personal opinion, is that part of the experience of dining restaurant has been lost without the interaction between guests and wait staff. I also believe that part of the overall experience at a restaurant comes from the company who is with you, and how can you enjoy the company of one another if you (or they) are constantly looking at a screen. As a restaurateur – I believe that everything unfolds to create a perfect dining experience, and I want people to enjoy each others company and have great conversation.

There are some aspects of social media and technology that I cannot, nor would I try to deny that are beneficial to the daily operation of a restaurant. As long as it doesn’t take overshadow the experience, please, take a snapshot of your food and post on your social media (make sure you’re tagging us!) Now our restaurant will show up in the feed of your countless number of friends and if we are lucky…they will then share with their friends. I like that restaurants can use social media as marketing, we can reach thousands of people to people on a daily and if you do it just right, it will actually grow your audience and online presence. Technology itself is on the rise, and if consumers are using apps and smartphones which can influence restaurant visitation, I’m all for it. Bottom line, as long as you are dining at our restaurant, and sharing your experience in one way or another, I am thrilled, I do ask that you try to keep your negative thoughts to yourself, and allow it is brief and subjective, and encourage others to form their own option. We are a small business, husband and wife team, who literally put everything we had into this business, and we did it for the passion of what we do and genuinely wanting to share it with others. I know that we have been formed as a society to think that we are all out to get one another, but really all we want to do is hear your laughter and enjoyment when choosing to eat at our restaurant.