Howard County embracing farm-to-table trend

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. - Marylanders want to know how the sausage gets made and they're worrying less about how much it costs. 

More Maryland restaurants are starting to offer farm-to-table menu options, aligning themselves with national industry forecasts that show diners care about where their food comes from.

The concept of local farmers shipping food directly to restaurants for preparation in Maryland is bolstering the state's restaurant industry and casting another lifeline to farmers who have had to find alternative means to turn a profit in a heavily regulated farming state. Maryland restaurants are projected to make $10.6 billion in revenue as more restaurants like the highly-rated Woodberry Kitchen serve farm-to-table. 

Howard County has been slow to pick up the trend. In recent years however, Howard County has begun fully embracing the locally-grown meat and produce movement in restaurants. The emphasis on local meat and produce rank first and second, respectively, on the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 culinary trends forecast .

“In the past year alone we’ve seen Maggie’s Farm open, Grille 620 in Ellicott City, White Oak Tavern,” Laura Kimmel, director of marketing for the Maryland Restaurant Association, said. “And you’re seeing more restaurants like Aida Bistro and Victoria Gastro Pub and a lot more restaurants that are implementing some sort of farm-to-table on their menu."

“The newer restaurants that have opened in this area all seem to be following the farm-to-table trend,” she added.

That is surprising because typically farm-to-table offerings are more expensive menu items, which may not be manageable in a post-recession American family’s budget. The National Restaurant Association however still projects the restaurant industry to reach a record high of $683.4 billion in sales in 2014, due in large part to "historically high pent-up demand ."

“Although this will represent the fifth consecutive year of real growth in restaurant sales, the gains remain below what would be expected during a normal post-recession period due to a range of challenges,” reads an excerpt from the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 industry forecast .

Howard County restaurateurs do not appear concerned by the challenges, and are instead daring to open difficult businesses, in tough businesses climates with a relatively new, locally-focused concept. 

“I think for one, certain restaurant operators like to eat a certain way so they want the freshest, highest quality ingredients and the only way to do that is to know exactly where it’s coming from,” Kimmel said. … “And then I think the other reason is customers have more and more questions about: Where is their food coming from? What’s in it? Are ingredients modified? What am I eating?”

To the Table 

White Oak Tavern is the newest farm-to-table establishment to open in Howard County in Ellicott City.

“What White Oak is doing is super impressive,” Kimmel said.

The tavern, located at 10030 Baltimore National Pike, is a 100 percent farm-to-table operation working with mostly Maryland businesses. The 150-seat restaurant and bar is the creation of owners Noel Johnson, Peter Frey, Clare Frey and Greg Mason, who have more than five decades of industry experience between them. The four left another Ellicott City mainstay Bare Bones Bar and Grill to make their dream of owning their restaurant a reality.

“It is a 180 for me,” Greg Mason, White Oak Tavern’s executive chef, said.

Mason began cooking in diners when he was 15. Now, at 27, the young but creative chef is managing the back-of-house operations for White Oak after working in upscale taverns from San Francisco and Baltimore. 

“It’s all about sustainability and quality,” Mason said. “We’re definitely focusing on quality over quantity. … We create everything from scratch here. Instead of having a giant menu booklet, we focus on a few items that are really good that you can put a lot of love into.”

Mason worked alongside his sous chef and a pastry chef to develop the tavern’s winter menu for the January grand opening. The spring menu was debuted Wednesday featuring items like Allegheny Firefly Farms cheese board, duck confit, Tasso mac n' cheese and the bacon brownie, all paired with recommended craft beers. 

“[The food] doesn’t travel very far,” Mason said. “You’re able to work closely with a farmer rather than dealing with a bunch of middlemen and a company that might not get you what is freshest in the season or the highest quality.”

There exists however a tricky balancing act at farm-to-table restaurants that weighs product availability from local vendors who are affected by—for example—the most enduring winter Maryland has seen in three years.

“With it being a rough winter, I was definitely limited in what spring items I could put on my menu right away,” Mason said. “We had to source from a little bit further out than we’d like to, like down in Virginia because it’s a little bit warmer and they were able to

get stuff in the ground a little sooner.”

That’s when farm-to-table chefs have to get creative.

“The being creative part is extremely easy,” Mason said. "That’s by far the easiest part of the job. To be honest with you, the hardest part is making sure there is enough food, not too much food and figuring out what to do with the odds and ends and just estimating how much product you’re going to go through in a given week, especially as a new restaurant.”

It’s not uncommon for example that a popular item like White Oak’s grilled hanger steak might be off the menu for a week because cows coming from Wagon Wheel Ranch in Mt. Airy, Md., aren’t ready for slaughter yet. Still, Mason said, he’d much rather prefer the meats he’s incorporating into his fare come from humane sources.

“I don’t want to be a part of the factory farm industry. … My point is, that’s not your only choice for when you’re eating meat,” Mason said. “You’re treating it right. They have a happy life. And then when we get whole pigs and whole chickens in, we use the whole animal. When you use the whole animal and you treat it with respect and reverence, that’s the least you can do when you’re killing an animal.”

Clare Frey, a fellow co-owner, quipped, "if Greg had his way, we wouldn't even have Pepsi." But the 30 rotating beers would stay. The white oak, by the way, is Maryland's tree, Frey informed ABC2 News. 

The eight-week old White Oak Tavern has garnered some criticism from diners, who may not be accustomed to farm-to-table nuances like higher price points for locally grown food, vanishing menu items based on availability and portion size compared to price.

“Some of the criticism is valid because we’re a new restaurant,” Mason said.

But then there will be customers who ask,  “why don’t you have Heinz ketchup?’” Mason said.

The answer is, they make their own and it doesn't tasty like Heinz. "It's a little more smoky," Mason said. 

The issue, Mason said, is that new customers may not understand the manpower associated with making for example the White Oak ham and cheese sandwich, which priced at $12 may seem expensive to a patron who doesn't understand the process that starts eight months earlier at a nearby farm. 

White Oak cooks get the pig, brine and cure portions for 25 days, slow smoke for nine hours, slice it, portion it, whip together the fennel honey, pickle the jalapenos and carrots and serve on Atwater's sour dough. 

“And this is for a ham sandwich,” Mason said. It's also served with hand-cut fries and the aforementioned smoky ketchup, with recommended Bock, Amber Ale pairing. 

Mason believes that Howard County is "like a decade behind the times" compared to the trendy San Francisco where locally sourced restaurants are "a dime a dozen," he said. 

From the Farm

“It is somewhat new but many of our farmers started with these transitions over the last 10 years,” Susan Summers, a public affairs specialist for the Maryland Farm Bureau. 

Maryland farmers have welcomed the farm-to-table movement as a means to diversify and drive profit in a heavily regulated farm state, mostly out of necessity. 

"It's expensive to farm here," Summers said, referencing Maryland taxes, stormwater management regulations and the cost per acre. 

The concept is also a natural fit for Maryland farms, which are marked withe the distinction of close proximity to urban and suburban communities, Summers said. 

“Our farming population gets it," Summers said. "If you want to continue farming here, you have to make a profit. … They get creative.” 

Traditional grain farmers have started planting hops to support locally brewed beer. Dairy farmers have rebranded as creameries and begun selling directly to customers. 

“Those farmers see the success of doing farming like that,” Summers said.  

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