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Is it time to reconsider the farm-to-table movement?
Some restaurant owners say it is. Last week, Legume chef Trevett Hooper sent an announcement to his newsletter subscribers to say he is reconsidering his hyper-local ethos.
After a year of sourcing all meat and poultry from animals raised in Pennsylvania, he has decided such vigilance is too constraining: It limits his menu, it limits the creativity of his staff and he feels it has been somewhat of a "self-centered exercise," he said.
Particularly in the past year, Mr. Hooper has attempted to distance himself from the industrialized food system because of what he sees as negative impacts on land, animals, local small businesses and ultimately, communities.
He's not the only one questioning the scope of the movement. While luminaries such as Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," inspired restaurants to preach farm-to-table sourcing, some restaurants, after a few years of practice, are reevaluating the hyper-local and sustainable movement when it has not translated to profits or pleasing diners.
Mr. Hooper said that he will continue to buy at least 75 percent of his meat and poultry from local sources. He has been cooking nose to tail since 2012 and in January of last year began using only locally sourced meat and poultry. This has resulted in "ever-changing cuts," a practice, he said, that has alienated some customers.
"I hadn't anticipated before taking this concept to such an extreme the many ways in which it would disconnect us from people," he wrote.
For the past year the kitchen staff has butchered about two cows a month, which translates to 50 steaks per animal, forcing chefs to prepare other types of offerings from the cow that not all diners appreciate.
Even though the restaurant has been filled to capacity all winter, some diners have conveyed that the menu has been too weird, filled with sausage, ravioli or offal meat. "At capacity" means the restaurant handles 160 customers on a weekend night, not including diners who order from the Legume menu in Butterjoint, the next-door barroom.
Demand is so high "we could sell 50 steaks in a weekend," he said.
And he likely will. Starting at the end of February, Mr. Hooper will add "Legume Steakhouse" to the menu that will list several cuts of meat such as locally sourced 10-ounce Jamison leg steak and a 6-ounce Jubilee Hilltop Farms grass-fed bistro steak.
Also on the menu will be 12-ounce rib-eye from Painted Hills Farm in Oregon.
He said the Oregon beef is "amazing, beautiful beef, which many customers told us was the best they've ever eaten," he said.
The menu-within-the-menu also lists sauces and condiments such as parsley or marrow butter and a red-wine sauce as well as sides like shaker dried corn and zesty parsnips.
Mr. Hooper's letter has created buzz in the local restaurant community.
"Totally on point," wrote @e2pgh, the account for E2 in Highland Park. And it was a topic of discussion in kitchens around Pittsburgh.
"I was reading it in the kitchen with my sous chef and we said that the read between the lines is they want to make some money," said Derek Stevens, executive chef at Eleven in the Strip.
"I don't blame them. Not that I think it's right or wrong, but ultimately the restaurant business is a tough way to make a dollar and sustainability needs to be a viable business practice as well." The average profit of a successful restaurant is 8 percent to 10 percent over costs.
Mr. Hooper did not agree. "It's not really a financial decision. Our food costs will increase significantly because of this choice," he said. "To get a steak and to know that it's not pumped with garbage [specifically hormones and antibiotics], that's really good. I hope it touches a nerve with our customers."
An order from the steakhouse menu can tally between $15 to $32, not including sauces and sides. The average price of an entree is $21 to $26.
Mr. Hooper said his staff's creativity has also been stifled over the past year. He said "one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten" was a fermented black rice and coconut chai sorbet a cook made for him.
"But I said it couldn't be on the menu because of the processed coconut milk. That got me thinking, and I talked about it with my staff. In order to be a vibrant, inspired restaurant, I need to listen to the young people who work for me. New, younger cooks are interested in other things."
Even in the robust restaurant economy in New York, "The big moment for seasonal/local peaked five or six years ago," chef Caroline Fidanza of Saltie in Brooklyn and Little Chef in Manhattan told the Village Voice in its Jan. 21 issue, the day after Mr. Hooper sent out his letter.
She cited the fickleness of the New York market, which she said has since moved on to other trends, such as the DIY movement.
"It was sort of a dead-end evolution. We've lost interest in this as the No. 1 issue," she said, citing the number of restaurants that are coasting because diners assume farm-to-table-style restaurants are vigilantly practicing farm-to-table sourcing when they're not, a practice known as greenwashing.
"There's a lot of room to get away with stuff. We didn't do all the work and finish the job and now we've moved on," Ms. Fidanza said.
The same is true locally, say many in the restaurant industry, including Anthony Zallo, executive chef at Bigelow Grille Downtown.
"The guy down the street says he's selling the same chicken I do, but I know for a fact that he's not," he said. "His menu may say he sources from local farmers and purveyors. He may have bought from them one time but he's gone back to commodity meat to make money."
Mr. Zallo, who grew up with Italian parents who have lived by local sourcing their entire lives, has been steadfast in sticking with sustainable sourcing in his restaurants since 2003.
"If you believe in this movement and stay with it, people will start to realize what you're trying to do. If you try for a little and give up, how will the movement take off?"
He said creative cooking, committed articulate servers and open communication between chefs and diners are essential to educate the public.
He cited Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., as an example of such dedication. Its chef/owner Alice Waters has been practicing local and sustainable sourcing since 1971. "This is not something that happens overnight," he said.
He is less optimistic about whether sustainability will take a greater hold locally citing an anemic farmers market culture that sells "kettle corn and salsas made in Connecticut."
"The commitment to local and sustainable is always going to be there to an extent," he said. "But there are very few people who are 100 percent believers who understand what this is about. And if people continue to consider this a trend as opposed to a way of life, there's a very real possibility that, in Pittsburgh, this movement is going to go away."
Still committed to what he calls responsible if not local sourcing, Mr. Hooper has decided to take a different tack. As a result, his driving question has evolved from "How can we remove ourselves from this system?" to "How can this system be navigated sanely?"
"Like it or not, we are players in this [industrialized food] system. There is no way not to participate in it on some level."