(Tod) Murphy's Law: Buy Local, Eat Local, and Prosper
How local is the Farmers Diner? The first thing you see when you walk in the door of this Quechee,Vermont, restaurant is a jukebox, glinting like any diner jukebox. Some Willie Nelson, some John Cougar Mellencamp. But half the albums are by Vermonters. Phish, sure. But it’s Grace Potter and the Nocturnals who get the most play. And they’re just the start.
You’ll find the Starline Rhythm Boys (singing “The Tavern Parking Lot”) and Banjo Dan and the Mid-Nite Plowboys (“The Cider Song”). And Patti Casey, of course. Never heard of Patti Casey? Your loss, but that’s the point. In an economy where music comes from L.A. or Nashville, she’s from here.
Turn left, and head for the restored 1946 Worcester diner car. The menu, at first glance, looks like any diner menu. Hash and eggs. Liver and onions. Bacon cheeseburger. Pancakes. At diner prices — $4 for a grilled cheese, home fries for $1.75. But look a little closer: Almost every item comes with a modest biography. The blue cheese comes from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. The yogurt is from Butterworks Farm up in Westfield, which also supplies wheat flour for the pancakes. The Swiss cheese comes from Walpole, New Hampshire, across the Connecticut River. The sauerkraut? Wellspring Farm in Marshfield. In an economy where diner food rolls up on an 18-wheeler from the factory farms of the South and Midwest, your Farmers Diner patty melt is like the music on the jukebox: It comes from here.
And, it comes with an attitude. One page of the menu is given over to Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry’s magnificent poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”: “So, friends, every day do something / that won’t compute …” Another is taken up by Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 letter calling for a conversion of the nation’s “charitable” institutions into “schools of agriculture” so our citizens may “increase the productions of the nation instead of consuming them.”
And, this may be the only diner in the world with a mission statement: “to increase the economic vitality of local agrarian communities.” The bumper sticker above the counter says it even more plainly: “Think Globally — Act Neighborly.”
In other words, this is one cool place. The Farmers Diner is to, say, Denny’s as John Coltrane is to Kenny G. But it’s not all glory. For one thing, this is the second incarnation of The Farmers Diner; the first one, some 40 miles up the highway in the much grittier town of Barre, failed. And thus far, founder Tod Murphy’s vision of Farmers Diners across New England, each supporting local growers and suppliers, is only that — a vision that has yet to prove its mettle in the rough-and-tumble of the food economy. The Farmers Diner is cool — but it’s complicated.
It started, as most such ventures do, with a simple epiphany. Murphy had spent the early years of his career in the coffee industry: first in Seattle as a barista at one of the early Starbucks outlets — where he got to watch the start of the greatest entrepreneurial success in the food-and-beverage industry since McDonald’s — and then in New York as an executive at a copycat chain of coffee shops opening across the Northeast.
Ten years ago, he took his winnings from that gig, and like many before him, moved north to Vermont. He bought a small farm in Washington, near the center of the state, and stocked it with sheep and cattle. They were grass-fed. The meat was delicious, but it was almost unsalable: Chefs at high-end restaurants wanted cases of top round but had no interest in the rest of the animal.
Even when he did find customers, Murphy was competing with a price set by commodity meat producers on the vast feedlots of the Midwest. The question that started reverberating in his brain went like this: “How do you create a company that will take food off the farmer’s hands in the easiest way for him, and set it in front of the customers in the easiest way for them, and do it at a price point everyone can live with?”