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Food & Drink

A fresh niche

Farm-fresh dining on the grow

MT Photo: Doug Coombe
Thomas Lasher unloading produce for Inn Season.
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Published 10/14/2009

If you're of a certain age, you remember those TV commercials for compilation records. The announcer would urge you to buy that collection of hits because "assembling this collection of music would cost you hundreds of dollars, and many cannot be found anywhere at any price."

Sounds sort of quaint in this day of downloaded music and burned DVRs, but the point still holds true for things that are still purely physical — such as food.

Take our growing roster of restaurants serving food that's organic, non-GMO, raw or locally grown. That's a business model that's slowly growing in the Detroit area. Our handful of longstanding farm-fresh fixtures in the suburbs have been joined by a bevy of tasty newcomers. Even in Detroit, the coney dog and potato chip capital of the United States, the folks at Detroit Evolution Lab were able to sell out weekly with their organic, vegan lunch club in recent years. 

And the formula for success that isn't all that different from the hit-compilers of yesteryear: They do the hard work of hunting for local ingredients, studying nutrition, developing relationships with local farmers and animal-raisers, processing it all with sustainable practices and bringing it right to your table. All you have to do is pay the bill. And research suggests this is the sort of dining experience more people are willing to pay for right now.

Rochester's Mind, Body & Spirits (301 S. Main St., Rochester; 248-651-3663), a new entry in the farm-to-table category, serves free-range chicken, hormone-free meats, and meals made from freshly harvested organic produce. The restaurant works with the area's talented local growers, including Maple Creek Farms' Danny and Michelle Lutz, and serves meals in a smoke-free, environmentally friendly, LEED-certified building in a walkable downtown. Sometimes the produce is so fresh, it has been picked just 24 hours before it's served. And the staff is eager to accommodate people with special dietary needs.

Ed Granchi, the restaurant's general manager, says he sees continued rising demand for this sort of choice. "We've got people that are using us as a second kitchen," he says. "For whatever reason — because they're strict organic, vegan, or if anybody in the family has special dietary needs, like celiac disease — they're not in a position where they can just open up a box and throw it in the microwave. … We hear that they've been eating like this for so long at home, or they have gardens or a share in a CSA [community-supported agriculture farm] and would now like to treat themselves to some of the things we're doing." 

Granchi sees the trend rising. "There weren't many places like us around until a few years ago, or few and far between. But people are seeing the work and supporting the local economy along with having fresher food that has the nutrients."

Of course, Rochester isn't exactly the same as Ferndale or Ann Arbor, and many people there would still rather go out for a burger and a beer. But Granchi says the restaurant is winning converts. "They're coming in and specifically telling me they didn't believe what a friend or co-worker told them, but now they understand what they were talking about. You can come in for lunch, eat, go back to work, and not feel like you have a bellyful of rocks. You can have a productive second half of the day after a meal here."

Or take the successful example of Inn Season Café (500 E. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-547-7916), frequent winner of Metro Times' Best Vegetarian honors, a pioneering institution that dates back to 1981. Amber Poupore, Inn Season's general manager, says bringing local food to the table is one of the ways they maintain success. "The biggest thing that we specialize in at this point, even more so than in our history, is that we have reached out to so many local food providers. We're at the farmers' market five days a week. We buy into a CSA and have it delivered to us. We're using cornmeals from Michigan. We're using tofu from soybeans grown in Michigan. The local economy supports us and, if we continue to support that, we're just going to continue to expand."

How serious are they about buying just-picked Michigan food? It's one of their major costs, as they obtain new shipments of fresh, local food almost daily. Six months out of the year, they take delivery from two of the community-supported farms they own shares in. They rise early to hit farmers' markets not just in Detroit and Royal Oak, but in Ann Arbor and elsewhere in Oakland County.  

"If you're going to buy something being shipped 2,000 miles, what's the purpose? We don't want oranges if they're grown overseas. We don't want to support a lack of sustainability. It really does set us off as a whole different kind of place."

In addition to assembling meals from fresh, local ingredients, the staff has been taught to accommodate diners' special requests. "Everybody who works here is very educated in nutrition," Poupore says. "We have clients with compromised immune systems or food allergies. My staff has to be educated about what the grains contain, or to serve elderly people with serious health issues. Some of our clients have been advised by physicians to look to alternatives for heavy fried foods and seek out healthier options. That's how people stumble upon us as well."

And Inn Season hits a goal most restaurants prize: diners who come in more than once a week. The meals are more than just food, they're vital fuel. Like the patrons at Mind, Body & Spirits, people enjoy leaving feeling energized and light. "People don't want to be constantly weighed down with the food they eat," Poupore says, "A lot of restaurants use prepackaged food and breads, but we make our burger buns, bread, pizza dough, sauce, salad dressings, roast our own peppers, every single lunch and dinner special, desserts, frosting — everything is made here. People who eat here know that what they put in their bodies isn't just healthy, it's natural. It's what our bodies are designed to eat. They eat, and then leave full of energy. Once you have that response, people continue to come back."

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