Originally published December 9, 2013 at 11:31 a.m., updated December 9, 2013 at 11:31 a.m.
Jay Porter, former owner, The Linkery
Matt Gordon, chef/owner, Urban Solace
Catt White, SD Weekly Markets
Farmers markets are increasingly popular and the popularity of fresh locally grown produce definitely is on the rise.
But restaurants that offer farm-to-table food might be facing more of an uphill battle in San Diego.
Over the last year, several so-called farm-to-table restaurants such as Sea Rocket Bistro, The Linkery, El Take It Easy are among others that have closed. While restaurants closing shop is nothing new in an industry with a high failure rate, running a farm-to-table operation presents unique challenges.
“There are a lot of great farm-to-table experiences to be had in San Diego. But there’s maybe a certain type of restaurant that hasn’t quiet cracked the code in San Diego, one that’s very locally driven, sit down experience,” said Jay Porter, former owner of The Linkery.
“That’s one no one has quiet figured out yet.”
Porter said he wasn’t making enough of a profit to keep his San Diego restaurants open.
The owners of Sea Rocket Bistro said their concept, which focused on local sustainable seafood, didn’t work out financially either.
In addition to the typical challenges of opening and running a restaurant, being local and sustainable means higher cost of ingredients, a seasonal menu, which might turn off diners who like consistency and in San Diego, the lack of a single supplier/distributor.
Then there’s San Diego’s culture.
Porter believes San Diegans aren’t as food consciousness and the region lacks the population density compared to the Bay Area, where he’s planning to open his next restaurant.
“You have to have a market that has the people who have the means and interests in food and spending money on food and the availability to do that.”
But Catt White of SD Weekly Markets says San Diegans attitudes about food are changing, as farmers markets become a growing part of the fabric of life in San Diego.
“We’re seeing people spend more at the farmers markets and customers who shop there are doing the bulk of their grocery shopping at farmers markets,” she said.
“Still, even those who are really educated come local foods will come and complain in July or August about why there aren’t apples at the farmers markets.”
White says consumers need to understand food is seasonal even in a place like San Diego, which has perhaps the longest growing season in the country.
Sustainable vs. Local
One chef and restaurant owner taking a slightly different approach to the farm-to-table food movement is Matt Gordon. He runs Urban Solace, Sea and Smoke and Moonlight Lounge.
“I take some umbrage with the term farm-to-table because I feel it doesn't represents a specific portion of things restaurants are able to attain but there’s a vast part of inventory that really doesn’t come that way,” he said.
He classifies his restaurants as “sustainably minded.”
“While certainly a portion is of our products are local we make our decisions based on how it is made, who makes and what the quality of the product is.”
Since opening Urban Solace in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood in 2007, Gordon has managed to expand his business, despite an increase in food costs and the economic downturn.
“At 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 in the restaurant and charge a more appropriate price to be able to survive,” he said.
On the government’s role to make sustainable locally produced food more available and affordable:
“Commodity food is subsidized, the food you normally see in restaurants that's not coming from local farms often times that is subsidized and it's cheap. So 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," said Porter.
“What the government can do is get out of the way, if they would 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, directly, but it's taking up your tax dollars because we are subsidizing processed foods," White said.