Restaurant business model focuses on local produce

FORT PLAIN -It was during hour-long drives to Albany or Utica that Fort Plain native Aaron Katovitch realized the potential for a “farm to table” restaurant in his hometown.

In 2012, Katovitch had been looking at locations to start a restaurant in Philadelphia, where he was working, but while he was home for a funeral, it occurred to him that whenenever he wanted to go to dinner -at a place he liked -he would end up driving either east or west to those two cities. During those drives, he couldn’t help but see the farms.

“I kept saying it would be nice if there was something here,” he said. “You’re driving past such beautiful food production, but it’s not staying in the Mohawk Valley. So, I decided to see what I could do about that.”

Katovitch is a graduate of the Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts and he earned a bachelor’s degree in multiunit restaurant operations from Cornell University. At Cornell he learned how to write business plans, and he knew if he could keep his meal price point in the $20 range, he would have a chance to be successful in Fort Plain. He chose to focus his menu on locally produced, season foods, as a way of developing a fine dining niche that would have unique menu items.

The Table at Fort Plain is one of two local restaurants that have met the qualifications for being labled a “Farm to Table” eating establishment by the website, which lists restaurants that focus on locally produced food. Restaurants on the website are categorized by county and state. The other Farm to Table restaurant from the local region is Happy Jack’s Cafe at Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market in Gloversville. In the Capital Region there are an additional 16 Farm to Table restaurants, including eight in Saratoga County, five in Albany County, two in Rensselaer County and one each in Schenectady and Schoharie counties.

Chris Curro, manager of the Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market, said Happy Jack’s Cafe has an emphasis on locally produced dairy, locally roasted coffee beans and baked goods produced by local bakeries. Curro said locally produced food can increase production costs -the cafe’s coffee roaster cost $20,000 – but he thinks establishing relationships between farmers and customers is economically beneficial to the region.

“We have local chocolate milk, the best in the world, locally produced whipped cream, milk, we have New York state produced tea lines,” he said. “We also encourage our bakers to use local ingredients and for the market we do about two-thirds of our purchasing from the local and regional farms. We spent over $207,000 on purchasing locally and regional producers last year.”

Curro said the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that for every $1 that’s spent on local agriculture, the multiplier effect is about $7.

“That means that the ripple effect for this store was about $1.4 million,” he said.

Katovitch said his emphasis on locally produced food has given him access to “heirloom” type produce, fruits and vegetables that are not mass produced but are still grown by local farmers. One example would be Lamb’s quarter lettuce, which he said has a succulant or nutty taste similar to arugula.

“That’s just not something you’ll find at Applebees’, there just isn’t enough of it in the production chain,” he said.

He said some other hard to find items produced locally include ramps, which are wild onions. He said ramps are mass produced on the west coast, but he has a forager from Herkimer who picks locally grown ramps for him. He said the advantage is in the freshness.

“By the time they make it to this coast, they just aren’t as good. That’s part of it, if you’re buying locally, you’re taking four or five days off the travel time of this stuff. It’s coming here fresher, it’s coming to my back door having been picked that morning.”

Katovitch said another advantage of the Farm to Table business model is the connections he’s made with his customers and producers, which was evident when his restaurant’s basement was damaged during the flood last year.

“I had a gentleman show up the day of the flood. He says ‘well I had a reservation for tonight’ – and I’m wondering where this conversation is going – then he hopped out with his boots and his shovel and said ‘so, I guess I’m working,'” Katovitch said. “It was amazing to see my regular guests show up with buckets and shovels. It really made me feel like I was an accepted part of the community and that people value what I do.”