Students get food at Tippie Fest
July 3, 2016
Allison Gowans and Erin Jordan

Giant black-and-white photos showing cattle and a dilapidated barn adorn the dining room walls of downtown Iowa City eatery Iowa Chop House. The actual walls of the barn pictured, manager Joshua Hupp said, were reclaimed to build the restaurant’s tables.

“I think people like the story,” he said. “A lot of people like the idea of supporting local farmers and supporting local food.”

That is undoubtedly true — local food sales have skyrocketed in recent years, alongside a boom of restaurants touting themselves as “farm-to-table.”

The question is how much of the farm-to-table messaging is fact and how much is fiction.

Derek Roller runs Echollective Farm, where he grows a variety of produce on about 12 acres near Mechanicsville. He said he’s seen Echollective’s name on menus of restaurants he hasn’t sold to in years.

“People will buy from you once and use your name on the menu for two years. I don’t really know what the statute of limitations is on that,” he said. “It’s overtly false advertising. Most people are too hungry or too busy to really worry about it.

“But they see your name on a sign and it becomes part of their understanding of certain places.”

He called that “greenwashing,” which refers to companies using “green” marketing to bring in customers, regardless of what their actual practices may be.

Roller declined to say which restaurants he believes have used his brand improperly — “I’m not the one to hang the dirty laundry out,” he said. Instead, he wants to focus attention on restaurants making the effort to purchase locally.

He sells regularly to several Iowa City and Cedar Rapids restaurants, including Cobble Hill Eatery and Dispensary, Sauce Bar and Bistro, Trumpet Blossom Cafe, Motley Cow Cafe, Devotay, Basta Pizzeria Ristorante, Atlas World Grill, Share Wine Lounge and Big Grove Brewery, as well as New Pioneer Co-op grocery store.

There’s no foolproof way to tell whether the food served in any restaurant is local. An April investigation by the Tampa Bay Times turned up numerous cases in which restaurants and stores described seafood as local. Yet genetic tests showed it was from other parts of the country or world.

But there’s no genetic test to show whether your burger came from an Iowa cow or if the cabbage in your coleslaw came from California.

“As far as a physical test, no, there’s no way to do that,” said Ruth MacDonald, professor and chairwoman of Food Science and Nutrition at Iowa State University.

One local organization hopes to provide — if not a physical test — a way for consumers to know quickly if their food is local. Iowa City-based not-for-profit Field to Family is working with government and community partners to create a certified “Grown Here/Made Here” label that can be used by grocery stores and restaurants. The Johnson County Food Policy Council worked with the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business Marketing Institute, where students did marketing research and determined there was a demand for such a label.

Ninety percent of survey respondents said they would purchase more local food if it was easily identifiable.

The label would be certified by a third party to remove bias, with a specific checklist of criteria, and restaurants and grocery stores would have to recertify annually. For “Iowa Made” products such as sauces and baked goods, at least 50 percent of ingredients would need to be local.

The concept, implemented successfully elsewhere, can build community brands and consumer confidence, Field to Family program director Michelle Kenyon said. They hope to launch the label in 2018.

Talking to producers

In the meantime, diners can follow the food — which is what The Gazette did for this story.

We called 20 Iowa producers, from Sergeant Bluff to Muscatine, to verify they are providing food to the five Corridor restaurants we interviewed.

Fifteen Iowa producers confirmed they sell food to Cobble Hill, Devotay, Iowa Chop House, Pullman Bar & Diner or Sauce, restaurants we chose because they use “local food” prominently in their marketing. The other five producers did not have phone numbers listed online or did not return calls from The Gazette.

Most producers sell directly to the restaurants.

“I’ve been taking honey to them for about 16 years,” Matt Stewart, owner of Noble Bee Honey in Amana, said of Devotay. He also sells to Pullman, Atlas and Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack, all in Iowa City.

Some larger Iowa producers sell to distributors who provide the products to Corridor restaurants. Pullman co-owner Cory Kent said Pullman buys prosciutto produced by La Quercia, a Norwalk producer of artisan cured meats, but the meat is distributed through Sysco. La Quercia owner Herb Eckhouse confirmed they do sell to Sysco.

Sometimes buying local is not the most important consideration, however, chefs said.

Cobble Hill co-owner and head chef Andy Schumacher said it buys Heritage Berkshire pork, a breed of pig raised by small farmers around the Midwest and sold to the restaurant through third-party distributors. It might come from Iowa farms or from surrounding states, but Schumacher said, to him, the main idea is to not buy commodity hogs.

Two restaurants, Devotay and Sauce, said they buy beef from Grass Run Farms, founded in 2006 in Dorchester by Iowa natives Kristine and Ryan Jepsen. But the Jepsens sold the operation last year to JBS, a multinational beef producer based in Greeley, Colo — a fact neither Devotay or Sauce owners knew during late-May interviews with The Gazette.

“What a disappointment,” Sauce sous-chef Joshua Tibbetts said, adding Sauce is now buying most of its hanger steaks from another producer.

Eating with the seasons

Understanding seasonality can help food consumers judge whether food is local.

Iowa’s growing season lasts roughly from early April through September. Radishes, spinach and lettuce are some of the first produce that can be harvested, whereas warm-season produce, including tomatoes, peppers and melons, are ready in mid-to late summer, according to the ISU Extension Office.

So if you’re served tomatoes in December, chances are good they’re not local.

“You won’t see a tomato on our menu that’s not in season,” Cobble Hill co-owner Carrie Schumacher said. “People ask for them, and we say, no, we’re sorry.”

At Devotay in Iowa City, owner Kurt Michael Friese serves local root veggies and kale in fall and winter and freezes in-house processed tomatoes for marinara sauce. But he keeps salad on the menu year-round.

“If it was up to me, we would serve no salad in February, but it’s up to my customers,” Friese said.

When Friese and his wife, Kim, opened Devotay in Iowa City’s Northside Neighborhood in 1996, they focused on northern Mediterranean food and tapas, or small-plate, dining. They also wanted to serve food grown and raised nearby.

“I support the community that supports me,” he said.

Supply and demand

Sometimes, purchasing locally doesn’t make sense from a supply-and-demand perspective.

On its busiest nights, Iowa Chop House may serve between 300 and 400 guests, Hupp said. That translates to a lot of steaks.

“The biggest challenge is, the smaller farms don’t have the production we need. Some smaller farms don’t serve just by cuts of meat,” he said.

If he needs 50 filet mignons, he can’t get that by ordering a whole cow from a small farmer. A lot of their beef comes Tyson Foods, which does buy from Iowa farmers but also from 17 other states.

Iowa Chop House does source chicken from Dolan Farms in Muscatine, sweet corn from Iowa Choice Harvest in Marshalltown and some pork from Brenneman Pork in Washington, Iowa.

“I know we try to get as much as we can locally sourced,” Hupp said.

Shanti Sellz, who runs Muddy Miss Farms in Riverside, provides produce to Iowa City’s Pullman Bar & Diner twice a week, May through September, when she comes for the Iowa City Farmer’s Market. Kent and Executive Chef Sepehr Sadrzadeh went to a planning meeting last winter with Sellz, who works with Green Share LLC, a group of local farmers, to let growers know what kind of produce Pullman would like to buy.

“Now they’re growing a lot of microgreens for a salad we want to put on our menu,” Sadrzadeh said.

But Pullman owners — all native Iowans — are pragmatic. The restaurant buys all its ground beef from Sysco because quality, local beef is too expensive, Kent said.

“We put it (the concept of local) on our menu because we think it’s important, but it’s not something we live by,” he said.

At Cobble Hill, Andy Schumacher said he sometimes wants ingredients that could be grown locally but that he can’t buy in great enough volumes to make it worth a local farmer’s while. Items such as sunchokes — also known as Jerusalem artichokes — or fiddlehead ferns, for example.

“Farmers can come to me and say, ‘What can I grow?,’ and I’ll tell them all this cool stuff, but they need to have a market for the rest of the crop,” he said. “We don’t buy everything local. We would like to, but we can’t.”

Still, the buy-local ethos is important to them, he said.

“It always tastes better, you get a better variety of products and a better flavor of product,” he said. “It’s exciting to work with a product that has a higher quality.”

What’s local?

Corridor restaurant owners, chefs offer their definitions of local food:

“Some say if it’s in the state of Iowa, it’s local. Some say 200 miles. Everyone has their own definition. The way I would like to do it, frankly, is by product. If it can’t be grown here but it can be grown 100 miles out, or if it’s not grown here but is grown 200 miles out, to me that’s local.” — Michelle Kenyon, Field to Family program director.

She said in a recent study by the University of Iowa’s Marketing Institute, “Consumers basically defined local as 50 miles or less, but they still supported it at 75 miles. At 100 miles, support drops dramatically.”

“When I think of local, I think within a fairly close proximity to Iowa City. Most of what we use is easily from within an hour’s drive.”
— Cory Kent, co-owner of Pullman Bar & Diner in Iowa City.

“If it’s part of your regional produce or protein, it’s local.”
— Sepehr Sadrzadeh, executive chef at Pullman Bar & Diner in Iowa City

“I only put Iowa beers on tap. For our produce farmers, 90 miles is the farthest. Most are closer.” 
— Lenny Sims, co-owner of Sauce Bar & Bistro in Cedar Rapids 

“One hundred to 150 miles, depending on the source. I want to make sure Decorah is in there. I pay no attention to political boundaries or state borders.”
— Kurt Michael Friese, co-owner of Devotay in Iowa City