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Area restaurants bring flavor to menu with fresh local food

Chuck Roelofs, a local organic food producer, delivers produce Thursday to be prepared for the day’s meals at The Goodness in downtown Willmar. The business, co-owned by Vicki Davis utilizes local produce for about 30 percent of its menu. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Ripe cucumbers are one of the staples right now at The Goodness, where they appear on the menu alongside fresh salad greens, vegetables, berries and more. The downtown Willmar coffeehouse, which opened in March, is among a handful of local eating establishments turning to locally grown food to serve their customers.

“It takes more time and more effort but it’s worth it,” said Vicki Davis, who co-owns The Goodness and manages the daily menu.

Going locavore is becoming an increasingly big deal for the restaurant industry as it seeks to satisfy the palates — and often the social conscience as well — of folks who like their food produced close to home.

“It makes the food special,” said Vicki’s son, Nick. “When you’re using from local producers, you’re using the greatest you have in the area.”

“The freshness just cannot be any better,” agreed Dave Baker, owner of The Oaks at Eagle Creek, where locally grown produce was added this summer to the weekend menu.

From the start, the Davises wanted to offer fresh local food. “That was important to us,” Vicki said.

They started small with a few in-season products, then began to expand. Within a couple of months the menu included offerings such as asparagus soup and rhubarb-thyme cake, all showcasing local farm-to-table items.

Nick estimates that about 30 percent of the menu is now local. “We definitely want to see that increase. We’re still learning,” he said.

For Lisa Liebl, owner of Cornerstone Coffee at the Skylark Mall, the goal is similar. After buying the business at the end of June, one of the first things she did was to start adding local foods from area vendors.

“A big goal is to use local produce as much as possible, especially vegetables,” she said.

The menu this summer features choices such as fresh vegetable salads, sandwiches topped with fresh local greens and tomatoes, and baked items sweetened with locally grown raspberries.

“It comes straight from the grower to us,” Liebl said. “There’s no middle man. It’s not sitting around in a truck or a box in a warehouse somewhere.”

Local and/or organic infuses the menu in less visible ways as well. For example, most of the eggs Liebl uses in her baking are free-range. “I can’t always get that as a supply, but I do as much as I can,” she said.

She figures 25 to 30 percent of the food served at Cornerstone Coffee comes from local producers. “We hope we can do more,” she said. “We’re just doing as much as we possibly can.”

Going local is not necessarily an easy route. For one thing, it takes creativity and a willingness to adapt to whatever is available and in season.

For another, restaurant owners need to cultivate and work with a variety of vendors if they want to offer a diverse local menu. Java River Cafe in Montevideo, for instance, obtains beef, chicken, vegetables, apples and more from several family farm-based producers in western Minnesota.

Sometimes owners end up supplementing with spur-of-the-moment purchases from a farmer’s market.

Obtaining the quantities they need can be a challenge. Baker works with one main vendor and says The Oaks “is taking almost all they can give us.”

A major challenge, said Nick Davis, is getting the public accustomed to the look and taste of food that’s fresh and not mass-produced.

“There is a huge education piece to it,” he said. “We’re not expecting people to just accept this overnight.”

But the restaurant owners said they have been impressed with the reception they’ve seen so far.

“I think people are liking it,” Vicki Davis said.

Baker called the response “outstanding.”

“People love seeing the fresh item of the week,” he said. “We can’t wait for the tomatoes to come rolling in full speed. We’re looking at possibly bringing in some local meats this fall.”

It’s not a coincidence that locally owned restaurants have been in the vanguard of the farm-to-restaurant movement, Baker said. “We can make those kinds of choices right now. We can make decisions locally.”

Choosing this route has been rewarding, said the local restaurant owners.

Vicki Davis likes the spontaneity of working with what’s available. “It’s fun to try different things. It’s fun seeing the menu change every few weeks. ... I’m looking forward to the soups coming back for fall,” she said.

Buying from local producers helps support the local economy, she said. “I love supporting the people who live around here. I know where our money is going.”

“If people could understand how important it is to the community, we’re all helping each other out,” Liebl said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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