Farmers, restaurants work together to tailor locally sourced foods to needs

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Some things happen in their own time.

It’s true for the birth of a baby, the death of an auto transmission and the ripening of a yummy pepper.

Eat’n Park, which this year planned its menu based on produce that could be locally grown, has found that nature is not the most reliable business partner.

Locally sourced food is a big deal in restaurants.

Eat’n Park, which has been buying from area farmers for the last 12 years, recently decided to take the concept a step further by developing menu items that can be made with local vegetables.

Brooks Broadhurst, the company’s vice president in charge of food and beverage, said he had been wanting to get more fresh locally grown food into Eat’n Park, but a fresh tomato was hard to get on the table.

Mr. Broadhurst held up the fresh tomato as almost the holy grail of local produce because there is no comparison between the flavor and texture of a vine-ripened tomato and a tomato that was picked too early and then gassed to bring out the red.

But farmers in the region who grew tomatoes for retailers, such as the tomatoes grown at Brenkle’s Farm in Connoquenessing, were too large for Eat’n Park, which needs baseball-sized tomatoes that can be sliced and easily fit on a sandwich.

Don Brenkle, one of the third-generation owners of Brenkle’s Farm, had always grown softball-sized tomatoes, which sell better at Giant Eagle, where much of Mr. Brenkle’s produce is sold.

But Mr. Brenkle is now planting a slightly smaller variety of tomatoes for Eat’n Park. His family also invested in high tunnels, a sort of hoop greenhouse, to grow those tomatoes so they would come in earlier in the year.

In addition to sandwiches and burgers, the tomatoes will be used for the restaurant’s chicken bruschetta, an herb-covered chicken breast covered with tomatoes and drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

But a construction problem with the greenhouse this year killed the prospect of early tomatoes for Brenkle’s farm and the 50-degree nights and cooler days have meant that the tomatoes in the field have not yet ripened

This summer, Eat’n Park is also featuring a pickled pepper steak sandwich that is made with a variety of sweet peppers called yummy peppers. The restaurant is planning to buy the locally-grown peppers, which it will then pickle to put on the sandwich.

But nature is not cooperating with that, either.

Mr. Broadhurst said the company is currently getting its yummy peppers from California while waiting for the peppers to ripen locally.

The problem down the road, Mr. Broadhurst said, is that the yummy peppers will still be coming in locally even after the steak sandwich comes off the season menu on Sept. 15. He said the restaurant, however, will honor its pledge to buy the peppers, which will be included in the salad bars.

For years, in a city surrounded by farms, Eat’n Park was confounded by the logistics of getting fresh food to its tables.

The missing piece between the farm and the table was the truck.

Mr. Brenkle could not get the produce to 70 restaurants and the restaurant company did not have the trucks to go get the produce.

The link both sides needed was Paragon Foods, a food distribution service that already served Eat’n Park.

It used to be that farmers — including Alfred C. Brenkle, the father of Don and Gary Brenkle who operate the 300-acre Butler County farm — would drive their vegetables to the produce terminal in the Strip District and take whatever the middle men would pay them.

John McClelland, chief operating officer of Paragon Foods, said now there is a definite buyer for their goods, so they get a better price.

Now, when the boxes come to Paragon in the Strip District packed for Eat’n Park, the trucking company can get the local produce into the supply stream.

“Inserting the local piece is seamless,” Mr. McClelland said.

Eat’n Park has been buying local produce from farmers since 2002, using Paragon to deliver the goods. The system allows for such quick delivery that the produce can go from the field to the restaurant kitchen in 12 hours.

Last week, Eat’n Park obtained its cabbage for coleslaw and the Pittsburgh turkey sandwich from Yarnick’s Farm in Indiana, Wexford Farms in Pine and Wier’s Farm in Willard, Ohio. Those farms, plus Brenkle’s and Harvest Valley Farms in Valencia also provided the restaurants with zucchini and yellow squash, cucumbers, banana peppers and jalapeno peppers.

Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699.

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