A relatively small restaurant group based in the Washington, DC area has gotten some interesting coverage lately on their success and steady growth. The most booked restaurant in the country on Open Table for five years running, Founding Farmers, is one of five in the collection of restaurants with two more in the works, one opening in November in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Talking with Co-Owner Dan Simons, it became abundantly clear, it is not one smart or special thing that makes these restaurants work, but thoughtful, wise and advised practices across all aspects of their business. What is their winning combination?
Unless you have been hiding under a rock you know that farm to table restaurants, farm fresh this and artisanal that, are everywhere. Just as we had barely begun this part of our conversation, Simons interrupts. “I want to clarify one common misconception with our restaurants. We aren’t farm to table. We’re farmer-owned. More than half of our company is owned by the 47,000 farmers that make up the North Dakota Farmers Union. This has a lot of implications for our food and how we run our restaurants.”
The farmer-owned model, according to Simons, means that the company — called Farmers Restaurant Group — can be mission-based, rather than profit-based. Their investors and owners expect the company to operate like a B-Corporation, without the usual corporate pressure of short-term earnings reports. Their mission is to put farmers and the land first, over profits. And serve tasty, high-quality scratch-made food in earth-friendly environments. They have the latitude to prioritize socially and environmentally conscious operations.
Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility
Simons explains how their sustainability model is driven by the farmer mentality. “Farmers are in it for the long haul. It isn’t just this growing season, it is every season after that. They live off the land, and work to preserve it for generations to come. Applying that thinking to running a restaurant company impacts everything we do. From how we chose our furniture and our straws to how we build our restaurants and what we do with our waste. We put the planet first in most of the choices we make.”
The hospitality industry is all about building relationships, according to Simons. “There are your relationships with your guests, and really taking the time and using the technology and the tools to learn more about them and their wants. Relationships with your suppliers and your farmers, learning about their process, where your food comes from and how it gets to you. Relationships with your team, the employees, helping them be the best they can be at their jobs also means helping them get what they want for their lives. Relationships with your investors and building restaurants that make them proud.” Fostering all of these relationships is important work this company prioritizes over the bottom line.
Relying on Outside Expertise
Farmers Restaurant Group operates several current Founding Farmers, two other restaurants with slightly different brands – Farmers Fishers Bakers and Farmers & Distillers – and a distillery, Founding Spirits. Creating, building, and managing all of these restaurants is a complicated business. Simons says it would be very difficult to employ all of the experts they need to do this well, so they often look to outside expertise. This is true for their sustainability practices and also for some of their basic operations. For example, they rely on the US Green Building Council and their LEED certification process, as well as the Green Restaurant Association, to make sure their construction and operations are as green as they can be. And they rely on Open Table to help manage their reservations and bring guests to their doors. “We can’t possibly know how to do everything right. We have to look to the expertise of others. When we don’t know how to do something, we seek help from people that have established track records. We love to talk to experts. They just make us all smarter and make our restaurants better.”
Always Trying to Do Better
The bottom line, according to Simons, is they are always “trying to do more good and less harm for the planet, and everyone on it.” This plays out in the company’s slow, thoughtful and steady growth, and in many of the nitty gritty details, like how they choose their To-Go containers or where they get their flour. They are always on the hunt to find a better way to do everything they do, to create a tastier dish or run smarter, more earth-friendly operations. And when they discover they have been doing something wrong, they work to fix it. Their goal is to be great, and from the looks of it, with the current restaurants booming and two new restaurants almost here, they are doing a pretty good job at it.Opinions expressed here by Contributors are their own.