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Restaurants Dip into Local Food Market

by Ben Peterson

If you’re looking to go out for a meal, it’s no secret that there are plenty of options to choose from in Eau Claire and the surrounding communities. From fast food restaurants, pizza joints, sit-down places, or fine dining, the choices are seemingly endless when it comes to feeding yourself in the Chippewa Valley. But where does the food come from? How is it prepared? What if you want to find a place that utilizes local food sources?

For a few area restaurants, these are the most important questions when it comes to serving their customers. “Fresh food tastes better,” said Jason Laurin, director of operations for Burrachos Fresh Mexican Grill. “I’ve read a million stories on the difficulties of how far food travels and from it being picked offsite and getting to here in Eau Claire, it could be a week to fifteen days old. They often have to pick it earlier than it should be, and it doesn’t taste as good.”

Taste and freshness are the main driving factors behind Burrachos’ decisions on where to get their food. It isn’t easy to find consistent sources that can provide fresh food on a regular basis with five Burrachos stores spread across western Wisconsin, but much progress has been made in that arena over the last few years. A partnership with a farm in Black River Falls has helped provide some of that consistency and has allowed Laurin to oversee how his food is grown and taken care of. “It’s always comforting to see that,” Laurin said. “I want to see how the food is being grown and what practices they’re using. I like to talk to them.” As a Mexican restaurant, fresh vegetables are key, and Laurin is very specific about what qualifies as fresh.

“When you get a ripe tomato that was vine ripe and plucked red, that tastes a lot better than maybe a tomato that had to get plucked a little early and either sit there and ripen by itself or sometimes they gas tomatoes to ripen them too,” Laurin said. “At no time in the year do we use gassed tomatoes. In my opinion, it isn’t really a tomato, it just looks like one.”

Jon Seybold, co-owner and manager of Houligan’s Steak and Seafood, has also found solace in being able to oversee where the food comes from and how it is grown. “We do scratch cooking here, so we wanted fresh, quality ingredients,” Seybold said. “The last few years we’ve tried to make a bigger emphasis on using local products from local producers. It’s awesome to be working with local vendors because you’ve got that one-on-one relationship. You know where it’s being grown and you know what the person’s putting into that product. I do believe more and more people as time has gone on, they want to know what’s in their food. They want to know what they’re putting into their bodies and when you buy locally, you’ve got a lot better opportunity to know that.”

Whether it’s a locally owned restaurant like Houligan’s, a small chain like Burrachos, or even a much larger chain like Culver’s, much emphasis is being put on the freshness and quality of food before it ever reaches the customers.

“Local for Culver’s isn’t just about Wisconsin, but any state we are in,” said Paul Pitas, director of public relations and communications for Culver’s, who noted that there are 485 stores in twenty states. “The most important factor to us, though, is our focus on serving our guests with only the highest quality foods, and that all starts with sourcing our foods from only the best suppliers that reflect the same quality values that we do.”

Freshness is certainly the goal for these businesses, but it doesn’t come without a price.

Larger, national food sources are built to supply restaurants with high demand and can afford to grow items in bulk and sell them for a lower price. Local farms on the other hand grow a smaller quantity and therefore need a larger return on their product, leaving local restaurateurs to play a delicate balancing game.

“If we try to scrap everything we’re doing and just tried to increase our menu with all local ingredients, it would significantly increase our menu price, and I don’t know how that would be received,” Seybold said. “It’s larger inventory that you have to carry, larger cash flow going in and out. Your menu pricing across the board would probably go up 20 to 30 percent.”

That balancing game might keep some businesses from fully utilizing local sources, but the balancing goes both ways, and Laurin said that if Burrachos can’t find an item locally, usually it’s available for a good price somewhere within the state, meeting both freshness and economic goals.

“It gets a little more challenging when you’re doing burritos for about $6,” Laurin said. “If I have to charge $12 for a burrito, I’m going to go out of business. I know what my price point needs to be around, and so if I can’t find it locally, I know there’s someone in the state that can do it. We try to keep as much of our money as possible in the state of Wisconsin. At the end of the day you want to know what helps the state of Wisconsin and what is going to help our tax base. We try to keep that money as close as possible.”

Each restaurant has a different approach to building its menu around food sources, and some have an easier time than others.

Houligan’s makes an effort to keep regular menu items based on local sources but will more often use a local product as a featured item for a short time while it’s available, especially given that many area farms grow seasonal products.

“Everyday we’ll have anywhere from two to four featured food items,” Seybold said. “(Co-owner and chef Guy Logan) has got the opportunity to be a little more creative and we can get that word out to the customers that it’s there and describe it to them. We have a lot of regular customers and they’ve seen our menu 100 times. It’s neat for them to come in and see something different on the feature board. It gives us an opportunity to provide some of those neat, niche, local items to our customers.”

The ability to allow a menu to fluctuate has helped strengthen the relationship between Houligan’s and several area food producers. Whether it’s bison from Elk Mound, beef from Fall Creek, or lamb from Augusta, farmers know to contact Houligan’s when their products are ready and available.

“We have developed pretty good relationships with some of them, and we try to keep that relationship going,” Seybold said. “When they have things available, they let us know. We’re always trying to keep an ear out for other people that are out there and we do try to continue to grow those relationships.”

Among other partnerships, Burrachos has developed a relationship with a local egg producer that has helped the restaurant start to expand into the breakfast world.

“(Water Street) is the only store that serves breakfast,” Laurin said. “We’ll call for eggs and they’re ready in an hour or so. Then we have eggs that were hatched usually that day or the day before. Customers, when they see that they’re always intrigued when we have brown eggs. We think you can taste the difference.”

Partnering with Future Farmers of America, Culver’s has also developed relationships that have strengthened their ability to access fresh products while also supporting growth in the farms that provide their food.

“With our partnership with the FFA, we are looking to support the organization both at the national level and local chapters,” Pitas said. “It’s a way of giving thanks to the people who have made Culver’s what it is today and help young people in pursuit of their dream of farming.”

The trend of eating local has grown significantly in recent years. The addition of the farmers market at Phoenix Park and Just Local Foods grocery have shed more light on where food comes from, but in order for that trend to continue, the customers will have to make it so.

“If the customer demands it, restaurants will find a way to do it,” Laurin said. “The more the customer likes what we’re doing, the more it’s going to spread. If people come to me or come to the restaurant and ask what are we doing and how are we doing it, I’m always eager to share that information. The more people that do it, the more it’ll happen.  It makes our community even more tight-knit. Eau Claire is a fairly large city, but it feels a little smaller just because of how approachable people are. At the end of the day, it comes down to people. If you have people that care, then you’re going to get better results.”

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