Farm-to-Table Restaurants, You’re Being Fed Fiction: A Cautionary Tale


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Categories: Food

Restaurants and their owners try to appeal to a market that is in search of locally grown or sourced, organic, grass fed, free range food, but this is no easy feat. You would have to buy in season, you would have to change your menu very often and if your area doesn't grow certain foods, you would be limited, so they cut corners.

In Tampa Bay some farm to table eateries are being exposed for not being truthful about where their food comes from, even though in their advertising and slogans they affirm otherwise.

This is an excerpt of an article found in TampaBay website written by Laura Reiley, it is part of a series, this being part one.

THE RESTAURANT’S CHALKBOARD makes claims as you enter from the valet parking lot. At the hostess stand, a cheery board reads, “Welcome to local, farm-fresh Boca.”

Brown butcher paper tops tables and lettuces grow along a wooden wall. In a small market case, I see canned goods from here and produce from somewhere. Check the small print: blackberries from Mexico and blueberries from California.

With the tagline “Local, simple and honest,” Boca Kitchen Bar Market was among the first wave of farm-to-table restaurants in Tampa Bay to make the assertion “we use local products whenever possible.” I’ve reviewed the food. My own words are right there on their website: “local, thoughtful and, most importantly, delicious.”

But I’ve been had, from the snapper down to the beef.

Boca Kitchen Bar Market opened in Riverview's Winthrop Town Centre in December 2015. The first location opened in 2012.LARA CERRI | Times


It’s not just Boca. At Pelagia Trattoria at International Plaza, the “Florida blue crab” comes from the Indian Ocean.

Mermaid Tavern in Seminole Heights shouts “Death to Pretenders” on its menu, but pretends cheese curds are homemade and shrimp are from Florida.

At Maritana Grille at the Loews Don CeSar, chefs claim to get pork from a farmer who doesn’t sell to them.

This is a story we are all being fed. A story about overalls, rich soil and John Deere tractors scattering broods of busy chickens. A story about healthy animals living happy lives, heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy and earnest artisans rolling wheels of cheese into aging caves nearby.

More often than not, those things are fairy tales. A long list of Tampa Bay restaurants are willing to capitalize on our hunger for the story.

PEOPLE WANT “LOCAL,” and they’re willing to pay. Local promises food that is fresher and tastes better; it means better food safety; it yields a smaller carbon footprint while preserving genetic diversity; it builds community.

“They say if you spend your money locally, it gets multiplied three times,” said Michael Novilla, who owns Nova 535 event space in St. Petersburg and tries to buy local, from soup to soap.

He was speaking of the local multiplier effect, a term coined in the 1930s by economist John Maynard Keynes. And part of Novilla’s motivation is health, finding clean sources for the food he eats. So if he found out markets and restaurants he loved were playing fast and loose with the truth?

“It would be like finding out your husband was married to someone else the whole time.”

One of his favorite places to eat local is The Mill.

The Mill in St. Petersburg opened last summer to instant acclaim. With walls that look like tooled leather saddles, a men’s room sink inset in a tractor tire and chandeliers made of wagon wheels and mason jars, it’s what the designer called “farmhouse industrial chic.” Sandwiches run around $13 at lunch, and at dinner, sous vide fried chicken hits $24.

We gave it three stars out of four, and in December it was awarded best new restaurant in Florida Trend’s Golden Spoon awards.

The Mill in St. Petersburg features a “farmhouse industrial chic” look, according to the designer, one wall an installation of rust-freckled gears, cogs, wheels and pipes.LARA CERRI | Times

Servers are likely to start proceedings with a mini-disquisition on how all the food comes from within a couple hundred miles of the restaurant (mileage may vary).

“Everybody’s spiel is a little different,” said chef-owner Ted Dorsey. “But I say a 250-mile radius.”

Dorsey said he buys pork from a small Tallahassee farm through food supplier Master Purveyors. But Master Purveyors said it doesn’t sell pork from Tallahassee. Dorsey said he uses quail from Magnolia Farms in Lake City. Master Purveyors said the quail is from Wyoming. Dorsey said he buys dairy from Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka through Weyand Food Distributors. Weyand said it doesn’t distribute Dakin. Dorsey said he gets local produce from Suncoast Food Alliance and Local Roots. Both said they have not sold to The Mill. He named three seafood suppliers. Two checked out, but a third, Whitney and Sons, said they had not sold to The Mill yet. They hope to in the future.

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