Erin Klem  | September 10, 2014

The Cream of the (Local) Crop: Founding Farmers Brings Local Food to Washington, D.C. Eaters

Each January, the National Restaurant Association releases its predictions on up-and-coming food trends for the year ahead. Based on a survey of 1,300 top chefs, this year’s list cited the use of locally-sourced meats and seafood as the top food trend to look out for, with locally-sourced produce and sustainability rounding out the top three.

Serving fresh, local food in a sustainable way is certainly having its moment in the foodie zeitgeist. Yet it’s not a new concept for Farmers Restaurant Group, which made a splash when it opened Founding Farmers, its first restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, sourcing regional fresh foods and promoting sustainability have been top priorities of the restaurant since it opened—and that was nearly six years ago. With the rest of the dining industry just now catching on, the Farmers Restaurant Group has already perfected its formula for quality and consistency. For Founding Farmers, these trends aren’t trends at all: they represent the core of its corporate ethos.

The concept behind the flagship restaurant came from a desire to “support and share the value and the very important role that American farmers play in our economy, our culture and our lifestyle,” explains Jennifer Motruk, the Farmers Restaurant Group’s vice president of marketing and communications.

“We work with farmers, ranchers, fishers, and other growers across the country. The premise of our restaurant is that we source from American family farmers as our priority, and we seek to source regionally whenever possible.”

When Founding Farmers opened its doors at the height of the recession in September 2008, its owners worried that they wouldn’t be able to stay true to their original goals with the economy sputtering, Motruk says.

“We were scared. We took a big risk, but it paid off,” she says. “We delivered on our foundational promises of true food and drink in a great environment with great service. And our concept was something really new … we just sort of buckled down, delivered, and maintained consistency.”

The group has since expanded, opening Founding Farmers locations in Montgomery County, Maryland, and in Georgetown, with a fourth restaurant also set to open in Northern Virginia this November. Serving upward of 10,000 guests per week, the restaurants are carefully run to keep prices stable and ensure consistency.

The idea of eating food that’s close to home has spread, running the gamut from boutique restaurants—Nora, in the Dupont Circle area of D.C., which helped jump-start the farm-to-table movement—to national quick-service chains like Chipotle, which encourages guests to eat “food with integrity.” As more and more people are placing a greater emphasis on the origin of their food, the industry as a whole is adapting accordingly. Adhering to the same kinds of freshness standards as the Farmers Restaurant Group, Motruk argues, will be exceptionally difficult for large restaurant chains.

“We are able to say that everything that we serve is fresh. We actually do not have any freezers in the restaurant, except for the ice cream*,” she says. “The ability of other restaurants to do [what we do] is based on size and accessibility. So it’s not going to turn into a larger restaurant chain or commercial trend. It just can’t, because you can’t have it every day, consistently, whatever the product is you’re sourcing. It’s noble to think that a chef is going to go to the farmers’ market every day, but it doesn’t happen—just to be practical.”

Still, while larger-scale restaurants may not take it this far, there are small ways they can adjust to the growing interest in foods’ origins. “Whatever restaurants can do to highlight the freshness, and awareness, and where food comes from—that’s great,” says Motruk.

While they strive to stay attuned to diner preferences, the Farmers Restaurant Group remains unfazed by the latest fads. Instead, it develops its own trends. Each October, its executive team meets to create their “trends” list, which offers an opportunity to continually advance and enhance the dining experience it offers customers.

What, then, is next for these trendsetters?

It’s a bit early to say for sure, Motruk stresses, but the restaurant group does plan on butchering its own meat and making its own butter. Diners can also expect to see Northern Virginia’s cultural and historical food history imbued in their dishes. Providing regional food, she points out, will always be a core value for the restaurant group, which is poised for continued culinary domination.

*The strawberry ice cream is to die for–well worth the exception to the “no-freezers-allowed” rule.