Speaking before an audience composed primarily of chefs at yesterday's Chefs Collaborative National Summit, local restaurateurs Tom Douglas and Greg Atkinson spoke frankly about the costs associated with the sourcing choices and food policies that are usually batted around culinary discussions without hard numbers attached. Although the chefs have developed different approaches to decision-making, both men agreed that sustainability isn't cheap.
"I'm very competitive," Douglas said, explaining that he'd rather keep his pricing close to the Seattle standard - or invest additional money in worker health care - than jack up prices so he could buy the region's most sustainable chicken.
"Do you know where your chicken comes from?," panel moderator Kim Severson twice asked Douglas. Although he leaves sourcing to his chefs, Douglas said he supposed that his restaurants use Draper Valley chickens, which are raised in factories. Although his restaurants are permitted to purchase "premium" chickens that cost 20 percent more than the going market rate, Douglas draws the line there.
"I went to the Ballard Farmers Market, I bought two two-pound chickens," Douglas recalled. "And $68 later...so there's my breaking point."
For Atkinson, though, the Ballard Farmers Market chicken (which he revealed he typically buys on a shopping trip combined with an off-island haircut and day-drinking session) is a workable proposition.
"My chickens cost $25 apiece," Atkinson said. "I get four pieces out of it, and sell (each piece) for $24, flavored with bacon from the same farm. Everybody's happy."
Since Atkinson's customers know him and his sourcing techniques, they're apt to buy his chickens no matter how much he charges for them. But Grand Central Baking Company's Piper Davis, who appeared on the panel with Atkinson and Douglas, said it's not always easy to communicate ingredient integrity to diners - especially since name-checking farmers on menus has fallen out of fashion. She wishes it was "an OK and not a snooty thing" for diners to ask tough questions about a chicken's provenance.
"I'm really mad at Portlandia, because of the chicken," she said, referencing the famous sketch in which two concerned diners insist on visiting a chicken's birthplace before placing their orders.
Douglas said he's learned that he can't save any money by operating his own farm. But growing vegetables in eastern Washington has allowed his restaurants to spin potentially profitable stories which would no doubt appeal to Portlandia's imaginary couple.
While Douglas was at the Summit, Brave Horse Tavern's cooks and servers were in Prosser, plucking produce for dinner. According to Douglas, diners swoon when their servers offer "vegetables I picked by hand today."
But the size of Douglas' operation, which permits for a restaurant-run farm and staff trips there, also means he's hard hit by laws dictating restaurant practices, such as the rule requiring food workers to wear gloves.
"I now, in my restaurants, spend $20,000 a month on rubber gloves," he said. "Is that sustainable?"