GFF partners series: Market Café
1801 E. 9th St. # 5, Cleveland, OH 44114
Kerry Riter, general manager
Long before the term farm-to-fork was the buzzword on the lips of every locavore, it was already a way of life for the Bon Appetit Management Company. Bon Appetit is a food-service company that started in California with the premise that at least 20 percent of the food served at each of its operations be locally sourced.
Kerry Riter is general manager of Bon Appetit's Market Café in downtown Cleveland, one of Geauga Family Farms' pickup sites. Kerry hadn't been working there long when she read an article by Plain Dealer food writer Debbi Snook that listed all the CSAs in Ohio. Kerry noticed there were no downtown locations where people could pick up CSA shares.
"I'm sitting on my porch and I'm reading this and I thought, it's insane that I wouldn't open my doors to people who are trying to get their product out there," Kerry remembers.
So she e-mailed everybody on the list, told them about the café and its location downtown, and how she wanted them to be able to deliver their products to their target customers in the downtown area. She expected people to be banging down her door, but that's not exactly what happened. Only a few people showed up at her meeting, including Geauga Family Farms. The rest, as they say, is history.
Her own movement
Market Café is Geauga Family Farm's only downtown pickup location where members can pick up their shares without working for a company that hosts a corporate pickup site.
"I'm a huge supporter of CSA programs," said Kerry, who is so passionate about local food and CSAs that she could practically start her own movement.
And in a way, that's kind of what she's done. More and more people are picking up their shares at Market Café, including downtown companies that don't have the space for their own pickup site.
Kerry gets a lot of questions from her customers when they see GFF members picking up their shares. With the produce set up like a farmers market on tables in the café and members walking through with bags picking out their veggies, it attracts a lot of attention.
"Everybody comes and chooses their stuff and it's always such gorgeous produce," she says. "And I get a lot of questions just taking my stuff to my car."
She loves the idea that she is helping to reduce the amount of time farmers are required to spend at oversaturated farmers markets.
"They should be working on their craft, which is to grow and harvest this beautiful food," she says. "Every time I go to the farmers markets I see these really hardworking farmers who could be doing a million things back at their farms instead of selling their product."
The Bon Appetit dream
Many of Bon Appetit's operations are on university campuses, such as Case Western Reserve University here in Cleveland, that cater to a very select audience. The Market Café is unique in that it is a stand-alone restaurant.
In fact, it is the only stand-alone restaurant Bon Appetit operates on the entire East Coast, though it operates more than 400 cafes in 32 states. Many are on the West Coast and at colleges and universities across the country. They also are in museums and at corporate headquarters - including at the headquarters of Target and Google.
Bon Appetit's mission, which the company refers to as a dream, is to become the premier, onsite food-service company using as many local and sustainable ingredients as possible. And the chef-driven company hires only chefs who will use these products and who care about real food that's not processed and full of preservatives. Though not a chef herself, Kerry is very passionate about food.
"It's really not about how much profit we make, or how we can get the cheapest food to a mass amount of people, it's really about how much we can change the scope of the food-service industry," Kerry said. "We have such long arms and we feed so many people a day."
Most Bon Appetit operations exceed the company's requirement to use at least 20 percent local ingredients every day. Its annual companywide Eat Local Challenge requires each chef to serve one meal that is completely sourced from within a 150-mile radius; that includes even salt and oil. This year, the Eat Local Challenge falls on Sept. 25.
"Here at the market, it is fairly easy for us to do this," Kerry says. "At CWRU, where they serve 3,000 meals a day, it's very difficult."
Bon Appetit has pioneered several programs that have changed the food-service industry; before the term farm-to-fork became trendy, it was a way of life for Bon Appetit. The company has also initiated other food movements, including the low-carbon diet.
The food-service industry is responsible for 25 percent of the methane gas that is affecting the ozone layer. The company's goal is to reduce its meat and dairy purchases to effectively impact the amount of methane going into the atmosphere. The company achieves this by not putting cheese on everything, and not using beef as a primary source of protein. Instead, Bon Appetit chefs use turkey and other poultry as well as vegetarian options.
"If our 400 cafes can reduce by 25 percent the amount of meat we're getting from cows, that can make a huge impact," Kerry said.
Bon Appetit's newest initiative is the cage-free pork movement. Bon Appetit operations use only gestation-friendly pork, meaning all pork products must be produced without a gestation crate (many pigs are confined to crates that nearly immobilize them for years, enduring a cycle of repeated impregnation). This not only applies to pork - they use products only from humanely treated animals. For instance, along with the state of California, they completely banned foie gras.
The concept goes hand-in-hand with Bon Appetit's free-range shell egg policy. It took a comment card from a student at one of their university cafes to convince the company to switch to only cage-free eggs in 2005.
"Here in Ohio we have a lot of access to local poultry - we use all local chicken and turkey," Kerry said. "A lot of places use organic as well, but it's more important to us that they lead humane lives before we utilize them as food products."
How Market Café began
The Market Café, located in what is now the New York Community Bank building, started as a collaboration between AmTrust Bank and Bon Appetit. The bank wanted to give its employees access to healthy food. They wanted someone who would come in and prepare healthy foods that weren't processed or mass produced. A meeting showed they shared a passion on how food should be prepared.
Market Café not only took a very local approach to the food, but a very local approach to the entire restaurant as well. All the furnishings are refurbished from Ohio barns and farm houses.
With its location on the corner of E. 9th and Chester, Market Café's customers are mostly the professionals that work in the surrounding buildings. Other than that, the café could be one of Cleveland's best-kept secrets. At least one person comes in every day and tells Kerry they didn't know the café was there.
"We're kind of hidden in downtown," Kerry says. "It works because a lot of people who come here for lunch think it's their own little secret place, and we don't mind keeping it that way. We get a lot of the same people in here every day. It's nice because you get to know people and it's much more of a community than just serving up food."
She says another reason for the restaurant's relative anonymity is that it doesn't have the glitz and glamour, or what she called shtick, of some area restaurants with their big-name TV chefs and gourmet-style entrees.
"That's not what we're going for," she said. "We do every-day healthy items that are local and seasonal. I'd rather have something that is just natural, local food. You'll never see fusion cuisine at any of our operations. We do just really good, wholesome food."
The market has five stations - pizza, pasta, and panini stations, a grill and a salad bar. For the pizzas, everything from the dough to the sauce is made from scratch and local cheese is melted on top. Pastas are all made from scratch as well. At the grill station you'll find shrimp and steaks, with a lot of specials that highlight local ingredients.
Kerry says the healthiest items are among the most popular, which explains why the salad station is the customer favorite. Diners choose their lettuce and six toppings from the 36 toppings available and salads are made to order right in front of their eyes.
"We do a grilled fish every week," she said. "This week we're doing a local grilled perch, and it's a really healthy option for lunch. People love it."
Having access to such great produce is one of the reasons Kerry is happy the café is a pickup site for GFF, but she admits it's been personally fulfilling as well.
"Honestly, Thursday is the best day of the week for me," she said. "I am able to interact with the community in such a great way. It's like my little club. Everybody comes in, we talk about our vacations, what we're going to cook, how excited we are. It's so rewarding to me to be able to offer that. There's something about food that really creates a level of community and bonding and being a CSA pickup has created a great outlet in that capacity. It really has been one of the best parts of working here at the market."
Kerry signed up for a family share for the market this year. Customers will find GFF produce in the salad bar and many other dishes and entrees at the market.
"Every Thursday I love to see the chefs start thinking about what they're going to make - a dish or an entrée - with the stuff in the family share. When the basil comes it makes everybody happy because the whole place smells great for days."
She also purchases bulk veggies. A recent wedding rehearsal dinner for 125 people featured GFF tomatoes and basil in a gazpacho, and a flatbread with GFF beets and goat cheese from Mackenzie Creamery (another of our partners).
As long as you listen, Kerry will talk about local food and related topics - the 9 tons of potatoes she buys from an older couple each year, the composting operation she started at the restaurant that attracted unwanted pests, her own garden in her backyard and her idea of mandatory farming service.
"I think it should be required of every person to go and work on a farm for a week, you know, like some countries have mandatory military service," Kerry said. "Then people would see how hard farming is and I think people would appreciate their food a lot more."
Those of us here at Geauga Family Farms are happy to talk about Kerry and all she is doing for our farmers, too.