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How Sustainable Is Sustainable Food Model For San Diego Restaurants?

December 9, 2013 1:48 p.m.


Jay Porter, former owner, The Linkery

Matt Gordon, chef/owner, Urban Solace

Catt White, SD Weekly Markets

Related Story: How Sustainable Is Sustainable Food Model For San Diego Restaurants?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Farmer's markets are increasingly popular and the popularity of fresh locally grown produce is definitely on the increase. The restaurants that offer farm to table food are facing more of an uphill battle. It's a challenge to be economically viable while being environmentally sound. Today we will talk with some notable people in the farm to table scene and ask how sustainable is the sustainable food business. I'd like to welcome my guests. In studio we have Catt White, cofounder of San Diego's public market thank you so much for coming in, And we also have Matt Gordon, owner and chef of three San Diego restaurants, Urban Solace, Sea and Smoke and Moonlight Lounge and he's been in the business since the 1980s. Matt, thank you for being with us.

MATT GORDON: I feel old now.

ALISON ST. JOHN: You have a lot of experience under your belt but you're making it work which is a good thing. We also have Jay Porter, former owner of Linkery and El Take it Easy, both of which closed earlier this year and he's looking to open a farm to table restaurant up in Oakland. Jay, we are happy to have you with us.

JAY PORTER: Thank you. It's a pleasure

ALISON ST. JOHN: Jay, let's start with you to talk about the farm to table movement started in San Diego. When did it start here?

JAY PORTER: I think the particular thing we are seeing right now a lot of traction in the light of the late 2003 are part of that at Linkery in North Park we were not alone and I think there was a group of restauranteurs, farmers and customers that really wanted to see if we created a fluency that was largely based on things grown locally or things grown it really kind of a fantastic way that tasted great.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And what year was that that you opened it

JAY PORTER: We opened in 2005 there was another restaurant in the region that was pushing forward it at the time at well and she shortly after that if you are the restaurants around started pursuing it as well.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So Matt how would you say that the stricter food table restaurants, how are we doing here in San Diego?is it a growing concern, the kind of business?

MATT GORDON: I have a couple points on that. One I think people are far more willing to spend their money on that type of food in a retail sense whether it be from local farmers markets or whole foods and to pay the cost of the market that it takes to keep the restaurant moving which includes rent and Lenin and groceries and insurance and all those other costs that we have to markup code to cover. And the other side of it is there is, I take some umbrage with the term farm to table because I do feel it does represent a specific portion of things the restaurant are able to attain, but there's a vast part of inventory that really doesn't come that way. So, you really classify myself in that sense as a farm to table restaurant.

ALISON ST. JOHN: How would you classify urban solace

MATT GORDON: We are sustainably minded and we know most of the people who produce the food we are buying it's not a local certainly a portion is local but we make our decisions based onhow is made, makes it in the quality of the product.

ALISON ST. JOHN: The local is not so much an issue as the sustainability and for you, Jay, is sustainability important, but local really imperative, too?

JAY PORTER: Our mission was to try to create a restaurant that explain what it meant to live in San Diego and eat out of this place. And that can to a certain extent in medical: to assert next amendment things from there by regions or imported from further away but we were trying to explore a place-based restaurant, and that is because I got that created a richness to the dining experience. Both with flavor and with an emotional and intellectual component.

ALISON ST. JOHN: We will come back and find out why it is you are headed up north instead of staying, but first of all Catt, tell us about the farmers markets it seems like they are really taking off

CATT WHITE: They are getting and part of people's lives it's we are used to going farmers markets that are not everyday in Europe I think you see people go to Marcus one or two times a week they fill in some of the grocery stores we keep working at the farmers markets to provide more products in addition to the fresh local produce other people can do one-stop shopping kind of thing at the farmers market and not still have to go to somewhere else to buy the bulk of their products.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So it's a luxury extra rather than a philosophy about how you need altogether.

CATT WHITE: I think it is a philosophy about how you eat altogether. I think that's what we are seeing customers and [inaudible] the farmers market customers are doing the bulk of the grocery shopping at farmers markets.

ALISON ST. JOHN: All right. So the farmers markets are doing okay although I guess there was a farmers market they started recently that has not survived is that right?

CATT WHITE: And that's true, you'll see markets, and probably the one that we started that is not operating any longer was in barrio Logan. An area of barrio Logan I was not primarily residential so it was a little bit tough in terms of having a residential base to really supported and destination on top of that in the other hand you've seen the same thing at Mission Hills they have not been able to maintain a farmers market their select any retail operation is neighborhoods that work and don't based on people's my friends and habits.

ALISON ST. JOHN: That is what we are talking about it is San Diego's trends and habits is so Matt, running a restaurant is challenging and you have kind of found a way to make it work for you. What do you think were the things that you had to do maybe compromises that you had to make in order to make a success of your restaurants here in San Diego?

MATT GORDON: I think there is an interesting average within our industry being that I think it's one of the highest failure rate industries of any in the world. It's fairly accessible to get into so I think that people who believe any philosophy or have a great lasagna or think they are the best bartender in the world because they make great drinks at home a lot of people up in restaurants in that way, and they are not prepared necessarily for the tidal wave of stress and expenses that come your way once you are a few months into business and things start to break down and you have to address your clientele. So I think we start with what we think we can afford to sell food for, meaning what people are willing to spend on food, then we go and work within that model. You know Northpark in urban solace we started everything under $18 on the menu when we first opened in 2007 with a crashing economy. As that has rebounded a bit we've changed our model a bit to account for some of the cost of the food that we are buying and using the restaurant and charge a more appropriate price to be able to survive.

ALISON ST. JOHN: What are some of the foods that you were serving to begin with that you no longer serve.

MATT GORDON: Mac & cheese was a big focus back then.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Is that expensive?

MATT GORDON: No, that's why. The cost of food has gone up in a lot of sense as well but we do have a site of mac & cheese available with a duck confit in it but it is not the focus of the menu any longer but we spend a lot of time on protein and seafood, meat and seafood, but you have to be able to make money to survive if you replace an event if it breaks there has to be profit in there so is the food cost model and the labor cost model that we follow and some monthly make money, some months we do not. We know, the market is sort of

ALISON ST. JOHN: Are there some things on the menu that you've regretfully had to drop because you can reach the cost model?

MATT GORDON: Things come and go all the time like that at the peak of December and January Romaine lettuce goes to $55 a case from the summertime price of 13 or 14 even for local products.

ALISON ST. JOHN: This because of seasonal, right

MATT GORDON: But customers are not really willing to forgo a Caesar salad if that's become one of the signature items. We did take that off the menu a couple years ago but for the first three years we were real signature on the addition we decided we couldn't supported through the full year like that anymore

ALISON ST. JOHN: That must be one of the problems is that your menu changes all the time if you are being seasonal you cannot afford to have the same menu only around and people come back expecting a wonderful hors d'oeuvre that they had the last time so I guess that the challenge

MATT GORDON: We have routine or specific dishes, and go with the season in that way but having one busy restaurant or three larger restaurants we do not change the menu as often as we would like to, or as a independent operation that you know, buys what's available changes so it is part of running a larger business makes it a little more inertia.

ALISON ST. JOHN: But Jay, you're going back up to I don't know if it is back up, but you are going up to San Francisco and we had Alice Waters, last week who of course had her groundbreaking restaurant Chez Panisse which now people have to wait six months to get a table and that's a farm table locally grown sustainable. Why is it that it works in San Francisco but does not work here for you

JAY PORTER: First of all it's important to note that there are lots of great farm to table experiences to be had in San Diego. There's lots of great ingredients on the menu. There's maybe a certain type of restaurant that has not quite cracked the code in San Diego where it's very locally driven it's a sitdown experience. It kind of ties it all together where it drives most of the menu. That's something that hasn't really, no one has quite figured out yet. And we can figure it out either and I think to a certain extent there's population density and there's money. That you know, you have to have a market that has enough people that have the means and the interest you know, the interesting food and spending money on food and availability to do that. In a place like the Bay Area which is a major economic and population center

ALISON ST. JOHN: And an expensive place to live

It's dense and it has a fantastic history with locally produced delicious food.. That culture is kind of right there and that's a big reason that that succeeded there.

I will say that Alice Waters and Chez Panisse was a big proponent of Chino Farms and that is certainly not a local farm and you're talking about a restaurant in Berkeley. They also were seeking out the best product and growing are too small and pristine fashion and we would not have Chino if it were not for them probably so it's good they do that.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Right okay. Catt it is a bit galling to think that perhaps San Diegans are not as evolved as San Francisco taste would you dispute that you think there are other factors behind way you know a restaurant like that might have a harder time to survive here?

CATT WHITE: I don't know about that. I think that I think San Francisco is certainly a larger city you have a larger density of people that means you've got a larger group of that educated kind of person that understands the food. We've got it here, we are not quite as density cities they don't quite have as many of the folks but I think San Diego and especially over the last few years have become fairly educated it's funny when you talk about seasonality even the people that are really educated and dedicated geek unique local foods will come complete in July or August that there are no apples at the farmers market. Unless you have an Apple that's been stored for a long time in a warehouse they're not going to be at the farmers market in July or August.

ALISON ST. JOHN: There's an education process.

CATT WHITE: It's huge.

ALISON ST. JOHN: What would you say if you're trying to educate consumers that they become more sophisticated consumers and appreciative consumers of this kind of food what would you say they need to learn?

CATT WHITE: They need to understand that food is seasonal. Even in San Diego where we have a tremendous advantage in terms of the year-round growing season you can see we are actually getting strawberries out of the ground right now which is crazy in December.

ALISON ST. JOHN: This is the trouble we see the vegetables of the farmers market sometimes which really are not seasonal.

CATT WHITE: The ones you see in the farmers market really are growing we have people using who passes and San Diego's weather is very mild but you don't see everything all around like the grocery stores because some of its being imported from Chile or Argentina or other areas of there's a disconnect and the consumers try to figure out why they can't get everything they want in the favorite restaurant that is serving seasonally or why it is not their all your at the farmers market where it is seasonal. We do have strictly California farmers here.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Right and there are things like seafood has really changed the pricing I understand like lobster, we catch a lot of lobsters off the shores here we celebrate the start of the lobster season why don't we see affordable lobsters in San Diego?

MATT GORDON: We do but they don't come with they do not come from California, they come from Asia. Because the market in Asia has driven prices up lobster prices 17 $18 a pound and you cannot turn around and charge that in a restaurant.

ALISON ST. JOHN: The fisherman can charge more for [inaudible]

MATT GORDON: The local spiny fish is not going to be a big seller in any of our restaurants.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay, we haven't developed a taste for that.

MATT GORDON: It's really expensive. I don't think it's unreasonable for somebody to not want to spend a ton of money every time they go out. And it's the thing, you know the commodity food is subsidized, so the food that you normally see in restaurants that's not coming from local farms oftentimes that is subsidized and it's cheap. So the kind of fits our budget and local food right now because of the way the financial system is set up, local food is more expensive and that's not a matter of being elitist that's because local producers did not get the subsidies that the national producers get.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Right. Do you think government plays a role in this? How could the government make it more affordable

MATT GORDON: It's absolutely policy driven. Even the highway of shipping system favors the national producers. So you know,

CATT WHITE: What the federal government can do can get out of the way. They'd stop subsidizing process foods and everybody would be attuned to what the actual cost of food is and it wouldn't be that good food is so expensive is that food in most countries takes up a substantial amount of your income. Not nearly as much in America because, directly, but it's taking up your tax dollars because we are subsidizing processed foods.

ALISON ST. JOHN: There's a much more we could say about the sustainability of sustainable food but we've come to the end of our times. I'm going to have to thank you and hope this has stimulated discussion among our listeners. Cat White is a cofounder of San Diego public market thank you for coming in and Matt Gordon is the owner and chef of three San Diego restaurants who are still going strong thank you Matt for being with us and Jay, we regret that you are heading out of town, you are the owner of Linkery and El take it easy but you're going to try your luck up in northern California thank you so much for coming in.