Farmers Diner | (Tod) Murphy’s Law: Buy Local, Eat Local, and Prosper

How local is the Farmers Diner? The first thing you see when you walk in the door of this Quechee,Vermont, restaurant is a jukebox, glinting like any diner jukebox. Some Willie Nelson, some John Cougar Mellencamp. But half the albums are by Vermonters. Phish, sure. But it’s Grace Potter and the Nocturnals who get the […]

By Bill McKibben

Aug 08 2007

Milk Cow
How local is the Farmers Diner? The first thing you see when you walk in the door of this Quechee,Vermont, restaurant is a jukebox, glinting like any diner jukebox. Some Willie Nelson, some John Cougar Mellencamp. But half the albums are by Vermonters. Phish, sure. But it’s Grace Potter and the Nocturnals who get the most play. And they’re just the start. You’ll find the Starline Rhythm Boys (singing “The Tavern Parking Lot”) and Banjo Dan and the Mid-Nite Plowboys (“The Cider Song”). And Patti Casey, of course. Never heard of Patti Casey? Your loss, but that’s the point. In an economy where music comes from L.A. or Nashville, she’s from here. Turn left, and head for the restored 1946 Worcester diner car. The menu, at first glance, looks like any diner menu. Hash and eggs. Liver and onions. Bacon cheeseburger. Pancakes. At diner prices — $4 for a grilled cheese, home fries for $1.75. But look a little closer: Almost every item comes with a modest biography. The blue cheese comes from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. The yogurt is from Butterworks Farm up in Westfield, which also supplies wheat flour for the pancakes. The Swiss cheese comes from Walpole, New Hampshire, across the Connecticut River. The sauerkraut? Wellspring Farm in Marshfield. In an economy where diner food rolls up on an 18-wheeler from the factory farms of the South and Midwest, your Farmers Diner patty melt is like the music on the jukebox: It comes from here. And, it comes with an attitude. One page of the menu is given over to Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry’s magnificent poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”: “So, friends, every day do something / that won’t compute …” Another is taken up by Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 letter calling for a conversion of the nation’s “charitable” institutions into “schools of agriculture” so our citizens may “increase the productions of the nation instead of consuming them.” And, this may be the only diner in the world with a mission statement: “to increase the economic vitality of local agrarian communities.” The bumper sticker above the counter says it even more plainly: “Think Globally — Act Neighborly.” In other words, this is one cool place. The Farmers Diner is to, say, Denny’s as John Coltrane is to Kenny G. But it’s not all glory. For one thing, this is the second incarnation of The Farmers Diner; the first one, some 40 miles up the highway in the much grittier town of Barre, failed. And thus far, founder Tod Murphy’s vision of Farmers Diners across New England, each supporting local growers and suppliers, is only that — a vision that has yet to prove its mettle in the rough-and-tumble of the food economy. The Farmers Diner is cool — but it’s complicated. It started, as most such ventures do, with a simple epiphany. Murphy had spent the early years of his career in the coffee industry: first in Seattle as a barista at one of the early Starbucks outlets — where he got to watch the start of the greatest entrepreneurial success in the food-and-beverage industry since McDonald’s — and then in New York as an executive at a copycat chain of coffee shops opening across the Northeast. Ten years ago, he took his winnings from that gig, and like many before him, moved north to Vermont. He bought a small farm in Washington, near the center of the state, and stocked it with sheep and cattle. They were grass-fed. The meat was delicious, but it was almost unsalable: Chefs at high-end restaurants wanted cases of top round but had no interest in the rest of the animal. Even when he did find customers, Murphy was competing with a price set by commodity meat producers on the vast feedlots of the Midwest. The question that started reverberating in his brain went like this: “How do you create a company that will take food off the farmer’s hands in the easiest way for him, and set it in front of the customers in the easiest way for them, and do it at a price point everyone can live with?” In fact, it’s pretty much the same question that the entire local-food movement, now burgeoning across New England, is asking: Can we figure out how to make a living for growers close to home while selling food at a price that people can afford? Farmers are exploring dozens of different schemes. Some are small: growing specialty produce or meat for white-tablecloth restaurants. Others sound great but are somewhat out of the mainstream: for example, CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs, whereby customers pay the farmer a few hundred bucks in early winter; the farmer uses the money to plant a crop; and then the vegetables are divided every week among the shareholders. More and more people are trying more and more approaches, and the successes keep mounting. Farmers’ markets are the fastest-growing part of the region’s food economy, and Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, harvests almost a tenth of its fresh food from the 120 acres of river-bottom farmland in its Intervale area. Still, most New Englanders eat most of their meals at a distance: The average bite of food travels more than 1,500 miles to reach our lips. It’s cheap for the moment, but if you’re concerned about energy (it takes 36 calories of fossil fuel to haul one calorie of lettuce back East from California), or about sprawl or about taste, it’s a shame. Murphy set out more publicly than anyone to reverse the trend: to make local food a reality for people who weren’t yuppies or hippies or teensy-tiny-baby-vegetable gourmets. He would make the French fry local. The Farmers Diner, he announced, would buy most of its food from within 50 miles of the kitchen door. When the Barre restaurant opened in the summer of 2002, it drew all kinds of attention. Food writers from around the country came to eat, and they wrote glowing reviews. It didn’t hurt that Murphy is genial, and country handsome. (“Dealing with customers fits my Aquarian personality,” he says. “You don’t have to make a long-term commitment, but you do get to converse.”) Tailing him for a day as he made the rounds of his suppliers showed the promise of the idea. You could start the morning in Strafford, say, at Rock Bottom Farm, where Earl Ransom’s cows were producing organic milk and cream on the land where he was born. (“I had to educate people that cream isn’t necessarily white,” Murphy recalled. “When the cows went out to pasture in the spring, the half-and-half changed color noticeably, and the waitresses were afraid people would freak.”) Then you could drop by the farm’s Strafford Organic Creamery, which was processing Rock Bottom’s dairy products, providing along the way the basic ingredients for that famous diner staple, the milk shake. Utterly delicious ice cream, too. Or you could go up the road to Thistle Hill Farm in Pomfret, where John and Janine Putnam were making a gruyère-like cheese called Tarentaise, which they could have sold for $21 a pound in New York. “I totally subscribe to the idea of local,” said Janine. “The people around here should eat our cheese.” So it was neat that Murphy was using some of it in his ploughman’s lunch — a truly delectable ploughman’s lunch. But the Barre operation had problems, and they could be summed up this way: too small. The diner itself had only 60 seats, and the kitchen was considerably smaller than any of the home kitchens you see in a magazine photo shoot. It was a cramped and greasy alcove, with no room for the machinery that might have made it more efficient. So French fries meant a guy cutting potatoes with a knife, which meant high costs, which meant that one day in the summer of 2005, Murphy put a sign on the door saying that he was shutting down for a month. A month turned into a year, and plenty of people thought Murphy was finished. But it’s hard to keep a good idea down. Early last fall, The Farmers Diner reopened, half a mile east of Quechee Gorge on Route 4. It’s a different world from downtown Barre, where the diner sat next to an Aubuchon hardware store. Here it’s in a rusticated, tourist-cutesy strip mall, complete with a toy locomotive that kids can ride in an endless circle. Whereas there used to be cops at the counter, here you’ll more likely find vacationers, which means you can charge a little more. Not a lot — but a burger might run you $8.50, not $6.50. It’s bigger, too — there are 120 seats, plus room for 40 more people outside in the summertime. And the kitchen is much roomier. Now there’s a machine that can take a sack of Vermont potatoes and turn them into a pile of French fries in just minutes. And that frees the cooks to do other things — like produce the homemade English muffins that have become the restaurant’s new calling card. Still, says Murphy, the diner remains too small to really make economic sense. What it needs are siblings: two or three more scattered around the state that he can serve from a central commissary kitchen in Quechee. The machine could be making French fries for all of the outlets, and the ad budget could be spread across three rooms full of munching patrons. And, more to the point, the money that investors have put up to build these diners might come back with some profit attached. Plenty of communities across the state might welcome the idea: a Farmers Diner in Middlebury, in St. Johnsbury, in Bennington. But of course this is the line of thinking that led to McDonald’s. Once upon a time, it was a single restaurant, too, with a small machine to cut French fries. But the more restaurants the company opened, the higher the returns, so it just kept growing. Now the chain’s manufacturing plants peel, slice, and freeze two million pounds of spuds a day. If you follow the logic of economies of scale, that’s where you end up — as far from local food as it’s possible to be. Which is why, Murphy says, he’s got different ideas for expansion. The business model calls for growth by regions — “pods,” he calls them. Already, he says, investors in the Boston area are keen to open outlets there. Maybe they’d have five or six, served by their own central commissary kitchen. Probably they’d serve some different things: clam rolls, maybe. In fact, if Murphy’s scheme really works, there might be Farmers Diners across the country someday — each one buying food from farmers in a close radius around the city, creating new opportunities for local farmers, and serving local tastes. You’d get the economies of scale that come from standardization: Murphy can wax poetic about “modular buildout,” or about the fact that the walk-in refrigerator at every Crab House restaurant in America is laid in out in exactly the same way, so that managers can move easily from one to the next. But you’d still be local. Even if Murphy can get the scale right for his operation, though, it’s not clear he can make it mesh with the scale of the local farmers he set out to try to help. Consider, for instance, the pig. When the first Farmers Diner opened in Barre, it needed bacon — you can’t have a diner without bacon. The problem was that no one was producing pork commercially in Vermont. Fifty years ago, sure — every farm had a few hogs growing fat on leftover milk from the dairy herd. But as agriculture became a commodity business — as dairy producers concentrated on cows, and pork producers on pigs — that changed. Vermont dairies became fewer in number and much, much bigger, and in other parts of the nation the same thing happened with hogs. According to Brian Halweil in his book Eat Here, for instance, there’s a hog farm in Utah with 1.5 million pigs. That’s absurd — they produce more solid waste each day than the entire city of Los Angeles. It’s also cheap — so cheap that it sets the psychological price for a pound of bacon pretty low. So when Murphy wanted to buy pigs for his bacon and sausage business, a Diner sideline called Vermont Smoke and Cure, he approached a few farmers to see whether they were interested. One was Maple Wind Farm, a breeder in Huntington raising 50 hogs a year, mostly to sell at farmers’ markets. They’re fed on grass and organic grains — the pork tastes absolutely incredible — and they fetch good money. “We get $7.50 a pound for bacon at the farmers’ market, and $8.50 a pound for pork chops,” says Beth Whiting, who runs the farm with her husband, Bruce Hennessey. So when Murphy asked them if they could raise him some pigs at 89 cents a pound, “we had to bury our laughter.” And yet, 89 cents a pound is more than upscale national pork producer Niman Ranch pays its contract pig farmers. In essence, it’s a Goldilocks problem: Somehow Murphy has to find just the right size. What his operation really requires is not huge commodity producers or small, incredibly wonderful gourmet farms. “What I need are 1950s-size farms,” he says. Not a million hogs, but not 50, either — maybe three or four hundred, say. Not organic operations necessarily, just family farms. Precisely, in other words, the kinds of farms that have almost all gone out of business in recent decades. Murphy can still find vegetable growers to fit his needs; he’s found someone to plant five acres of cucumbers this season, for instance, enough to fill his pickle needs. But to help rebuild the supply of meat and chicken farmers, he’s launching a nonprofit foundation. Named for a character in one of Wendell Berry’s novels, the Jack Beecham Foundation will help growers with business plans and marketing strategies. If all goes according to plan, it will let small farmers grow just big enough to make it in the food economy Murphy is trying to create. All this to make a smoked-turkey club. Or, to read from today’s specials menu, some poached Vermont eggs with Cabot cheddar cream sauce. Or some maple-butternut squash. Or some Cortland apple cobbler topped with local granola, and a scoop of that Strafford ice cream. With some Grace Potter wailing from the jukebox. For change back from a $10 bill, it doesn’t get much sweeter than this. It should work.