Not long after the restaurant shutdown began in mid-March, a deeply committed locavore friend of mine made a crack over the phone about “people who have ‘Eat Local’ stickers on their bumpers while Amazon trucks pull up to their houses four times a day.” I laughed and was glad I didn’t have an Eat Local sticker. I am both an avid gardener and a heavy Amazon user and was, at the time, shopping for wildflower seeds from a Vermont-based company whose globally sourced flowers would boost the local population of honeybees. Over two previous seasons, my plots of mountain phlox and sweet alyssum had been defeated by invasive bindweed and thistle, plants pleasing enough to the bees but not as much to me. Those mangy, sad weed patches were vexing life lessons on the challenge of encouraging the local ecology while keeping an eye on aesthetics.
A similar but more perilous challenge now faces locavore Colorado restaurant owners and chefs struggling to survive after the financial crash of the COVID-19 closures: How can they stay true to their Serve Local vows and remain creative for a food culture that in recent years has been thrilling to both the riches of farmers’ markets and the flavors of the global pantry? What will it mean for chefs to cook creatively, responsibly, and affordably in the wake of this craziness?
Prominent among the Colorado leaders defining the local/global food equation pre-coronavirus were progressive chefs at upscale restaurants like Beast & Bottle, Annette, Spuntino, Potager, Beckon, Arcana, and Fruition. Those chefs consistently supported the booming network of local farmers, ranchers, and makers of beer, cider, bread, honey, and the like while watching culinary trends in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Mexico City, and Rome. They played with ingredients like yuzu kosho and za’atar and served orange wines from California and Slovenia.
Then and now, the math surrounding what I call the Restaurant Values Index (the RVI for short, which I have, of course, entirely made up) is complicated. Consider one of the finest plates of poultry in Denver, simply called Miller Farms half chicken, which was served at Mercantile Dining & Provision before the pandemic: It contained creamy feta from the restaurant’s own Fruition Farms sheep; chicken from Indiana’s Miller Poultry, chosen for its sustainable and ethical animal welfare practices; and a muhammara made with pistachios, olive oil, and Middle Eastern spices. Try to do the RVI math on that.
The fact is, unless you’re consuming a locally grown tomato in July or turnip in February, purely local eating is not a choice for many Coloradans. In Denver, for example, we live on the High Plains in the shadow of mountains, and local foods—those grown in fossil-fuel-heated greenhouses in winter, say—in some cases may have more detrimental carbon footprints than ingredients brought in from warmer climes.
Why bring all of this up now, when Centennial State restaurants are mired in an existential struggle? As Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association (CRA) shared, polls from April revealed that almost three percent of local restaurants had closed permanently and 22 percent would if the dine-in closure order lasted more than 30 days, which, of course, it did. Most of the CRA’s focus in the near- and mid-term will be about unlocking substantial, targeted government relief to alleviate the fiscal pain that will most likely extend into the spring of 2021 and beyond.
“If restaurants don’t get this support,” Riggs says, “the number of closures will be dire, and we’ll see the effects of that down the supply chain, including impacts on local farmers and makers. There will be at least a partial collapse of a labor market that’s historically represented 10 percent of employment in Colorado.”
But the ideals behind the RVI haven’t magically disappeared, and I’d argue they will be more important than ever, because local values—community, soil, craftsmanship—and the global threat of climate change are multigenerational. Consumers who care about these things need to reward restaurants that actively do the same.
Boulder chef-farmer Eric Skokan—whose 425-acre organic farm supplies his restaurants (Black Cat Farm Table Bistro and Bramble & Hare) and farm-dinner program and who trucked retail produce to Boulder neighborhoods during the lockdown—predicts a long period during which restaurants and their customers will settle into a new reality. Skokan was contemplating having fewer courses on Black Cat’s tasting menu, for example, to reduce the frequency with which servers would have to breach the psychological and physical “bubble” that surrounds each table.
Consumers will want more space when they dine out (and state government will likely have mandated table separation by the time you read this), and outdoor seating will be at a premium. Fewer diners sitting farther apart means fewer sales, and Jennifer Jasinski, the chef-owner of Ultreia and Rioja, among others, forecasts that even months after reopening, restaurants might only bring in 40 percent of previous revenue. That means smaller staffs, shorter menus, and increased reticence about using costly ingredients, local or otherwise.
There was general agreement, however, among the chefs I interviewed that Colorado suppliers stepped up during the shutdown—and that they would be a critical source for restaurants during the recovery period. “Fresh Guys [a 14-year-old Denver-based supplier of locally and regionally grown produce] is helping us out,” Jasinski tells me. “And I know its margins are like mine. We’re all helping each other out…but when I ask the big companies, I’m not getting any help.”
For his part, Kelly Whitaker, owner of the Wolf’s Tailor and Brutø in Denver and Basta and Dry Storage in Boulder (he’s also a co-founder of the Noble Grain Alliance, which promotes local heirloom wheat), said that he found himself selling all the freshly milled flour he had directly to customers after the shutdown. He was carefully monitoring takeout orders at Basta (which, he seemed amazed to say, included Alamosa farmed whole bass, carried out in pizza boxes) to determine how the quarantine would affect customers’ long-term expectations. “All I think about right now is what it’s going to be like to own a restaurant going forward,” Whitaker says. “We’re going to learn what people truly value. Are they going to race for comfort? Are they going to race for fine food?” Known as a chef who loves to change things up even when all is well, Whitaker seems excited by the coming challenges.
Meanwhile, in Wyoming—whose vast grasslands count as local when it comes to Denver meat suppliers—former Blackbelly head butcher and chef Nate Singer tells me that Carter Country Meats, where he is a co-founder and butcher, was selling a record amount of grass-fed beef to consumers when the brand’s restaurant shipments dried up in the spring. Customers, he says, had been driven by meat shortages to a new curiosity about range-fed animals, which often produce meat that’s more muscled than what is typically served at restaurants. This anecdotal evidence seemed to show that some housebound cooks were using the lockdown to expand their own food values. Might pandemic sourcing shape what they would expect from restaurant menus going forward? I know my newfound handmade pasta skills have vastly increased my expectations about fresh noodles going forward.
Riggs of the CRA says that in the long struggle to come, the posture of restaurants large and small needs to be one of “gratitude and transparency.” I agree. Gratitude and transparency sit right in the wheelhouse of independent restaurants, be it a taqueria or a fancy farm-to-table spot, where the chef is behind the stove and the manager and owner know your name and your tastes. I also agree with Skokan, who hopes that “values-forward restaurants” might have an advantage in Colorado’s new dining scene. It’s up to us to prove that they do, by seeking them out, supporting them, and giving thanks for their willingness to battle in the fight for good—both locally and globally.