Farmers Diner | (Tod) Murphy's Law: Buy Local, Eat Local, and Prosper
Murphy set out more publicly than anyone to reverse the trend: to make local food a reality for people who weren’t yuppies or hippies or teensy-tiny-baby-vegetable gourmets. He would make the French fry local. The Farmers Diner, he announced, would buy most of its food from within 50 miles of the kitchen door.
When the Barre restaurant opened in the summer of 2002, it drew all kinds of attention. Food writers from around the country came to eat, and they wrote glowing reviews. It didn’t hurt that Murphy is genial, and country handsome. (“Dealing with customers fits my Aquarian personality,” he says. “You don’t have to make a long-term commitment, but you do get to converse.”)
Tailing him for a day as he made the rounds of his suppliers showed the promise of the idea. You could start the morning in Strafford, say, at Rock Bottom Farm, where Earl Ransom’s cows were producing organic milk and cream on the land where he was born. (“I had to educate people that cream isn’t necessarily white,” Murphy recalled. “When the cows went out to pasture in the spring, the half-and-half changed color noticeably, and the waitresses were afraid people would freak.”) Then you could drop by the farm’s Strafford Organic Creamery, which was processing Rock Bottom’s dairy products, providing along the way the basic ingredients for that famous diner staple, the milk shake. Utterly delicious ice cream, too.
Or you could go up the road to Thistle Hill Farm in Pomfret, where John and Janine Putnam were making a gruyère-like cheese called Tarentaise, which they could have sold for $21 a pound in New York. “I totally subscribe to the idea of local,” said Janine. “The people around here should eat our cheese.” So it was neat that Murphy was using some of it in his ploughman’s lunch — a truly delectable ploughman’s lunch.
But the Barre operation had problems, and they could be summed up this way: too small. The diner itself had only 60 seats, and the kitchen was considerably smaller than any of the home kitchens you see in a magazine photo shoot. It was a cramped and greasy alcove, with no room for the machinery that might have made it more efficient. So French fries meant a guy cutting potatoes with a knife, which meant high costs, which meant that one day in the summer of 2005, Murphy put a sign on the door saying that he was shutting down for a month. A month turned into a year, and plenty of people thought Murphy was finished.
But it’s hard to keep a good idea down. Early last fall, The Farmers Diner reopened, half a mile east of Quechee Gorge on Route 4. It’s a different world from downtown Barre, where the diner sat next to an Aubuchon hardware store. Here it’s in a rusticated, tourist-cutesy strip mall, complete with a toy locomotive that kids can ride in an endless circle. Whereas there used to be cops at the counter, here you’ll more likely find vacationers, which means you can charge a little more. Not a lot — but a burger might run you $8.50, not $6.50.
It’s bigger, too — there are 120 seats, plus room for 40 more people outside in the summertime. And the kitchen is much roomier. Now there’s a machine that can take a sack of Vermont potatoes and turn them into a pile of French fries in just minutes. And that frees the cooks to do other things — like produce the homemade English muffins that have become the restaurant’s new calling card.
Still, says Murphy, the diner remains too small to really make economic sense. What it needs are siblings: two or three more scattered around the state that he can serve from a central commissary kitchen in Quechee. The machine could be making French fries for all of the outlets, and the ad budget could be spread across three rooms full of munching patrons.
And, more to the point, the money that investors have put up to build these diners might come back with some profit attached. Plenty of communities across the state might welcome the idea: a Farmers Diner in Middlebury, in St. Johnsbury, in Bennington.
But of course this is the line of thinking that led to McDonald’s. Once upon a time, it was a single restaurant, too, with a small machine to cut French fries. But the more restaurants the company opened, the higher the returns, so it just kept growing. Now the chain’s manufacturing plants peel, slice, and freeze two million pounds of spuds a day. If you follow the logic of economies of scale, that’s where you end up — as far from local food as it’s possible to be.
Which is why, Murphy says, he’s got different ideas for expansion. The business model calls for growth by regions — “pods,” he calls them. Already, he says, investors in the Boston area are keen to open outlets there. Maybe they’d have five or six, served by their own central commissary kitchen. Probably they’d serve some different things: clam rolls, maybe.
In fact, if Murphy’s scheme really works, there might be Farmers Diners across the country someday — each one buying food from farmers in a close radius around the city, creating new opportunities for local farmers, and serving local tastes. You’d get the economies of scale that come from standardization: Murphy can wax poetic about “modular buildout,” or about the fact that the walk-in refrigerator at every Crab House restaurant in America is laid in out in exactly the same way, so that managers can move easily from one to the next. But you’d still be local.
Even if Murphy can get the scale right for his operation, though, it’s not clear he can make it mesh with the scale of the local farmers he set out to try to help. Consider, for instance, the pig.
When the first Farmers Diner opened in Barre, it needed bacon — you can’t have a diner without bacon. The problem was that no one was producing pork commercially in Vermont. Fifty years ago, sure — every farm had a few hogs growing fat on leftover milk from the dairy herd. But as agriculture became a commodity business — as dairy producers concentrated on cows, and pork producers on pigs — that changed. Vermont dairies became fewer in number and much, much bigger, and in other parts of the nation the same thing happened with hogs.
According to Brian Halweil in his book Eat Here, for instance, there’s a hog farm in Utah with 1.5 million pigs. That’s absurd — they produce more solid waste each day than the entire city of Los Angeles. It’s also cheap — so cheap that it sets the psychological price for a pound of bacon pretty low.