Nosh Pit

The Nosh Pit: ‘Farm-to-Fork’ goes pay to play

The idea of “pay to play” hasn’t been flying well with a lot of folks recently, whether it’s pop stars being charged to perform at the 2015 Super Bowl or Sacramento’s own farm-to-fork movement.

Local eateries must pay to participate in the “Restaurant Weeks” portion of the upcoming celebration of Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” Flying the official “farm-to-fork” flag during the event, which runs Sept. 13-28, will cost $100 or $200.

This information was shared in a recent meeting with key players in the farm-to-fork festivities. One staffer with Produce Express, a distributor for the area’s boutique farms, took to Facebook to express dissatisfaction with the surcharge. Local chefs including Michael Tuohy of Block Butcher Bar chimed in to say, basically, that the fee stinks.

Two hundred dollars might not sound like much. But in the restaurant world, where profit margins are thin as julienned carrots, every penny counts. That $200 would buy about 100 pounds of heirloom tomatoes, perhaps the most prized local crop.

But the beef goes deeper than that.

“I do not agree with it and I’m not going to pay,” said Billy Zoellin of Bacon and Butter, which debuts a new Tahoe Park location in mid-September. “You’re trying to tell me I need their approval to call myself ‘farm-to-fork,’ but sourcing my products locally is one of the bones of my business.”

The Sacramento chapter of the California Restaurant Association collects the Restaurant Weeks fees. While the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau serves as the primary organizing body for official farm-to-fork activities, the CRA presents the Restaurant Weeks segment of the celebration, which includes dinner and drink specials highlighting ingredients “found within a 350-mile radius of the downtown core,” according to the event’s website.

Current members of the CRA will be charged $100 to use Sacramento’s official “Farm-to-Fork Capital” logo, be listed on and participate in Restaurant Weeks, among other perks. It costs $200 for nonmembers – but that fee includes a year’s membership in the CRA, a much discounted rate from dues that usually start at $485 annually.

Chris Jarosz, the CRA Sacramento chapter president and co-owner of local eateries including Capital Dime, says these kinds of charges are hardly unprecedented. Other local festivals, including Midtown Cocktail Week and Sacramento Beer Week, also collect money from bars and eateries in exchange for marketing. A rare exception is Bacon Fest Sacramento, which doesn’t require restaurant fees and actually provides bacon for some participants.

Jarosz has heard the backlash, but hopes his restaurant colleagues will be patient and also understand the price tag of Restaurant Weeks, which aim to increase business.

“A lot of people think they own the ‘farm-to-fork’ movement, and some take it very personally,” said Jarosz. “What a lot of people don’t understand is what it costs us. We committed to $10,000 of media buy purchases and had to raise that money. It’s not like all this stuff is donated.”

Any eatery can buy “farm-to-fork” status during Restaurant Weeks. There’s no criteria for participating, such as showing that a certain percentage of a restaurant’s ingredients are sourced from local purveyors. Pay $100 or $200 to the CRA and you’re good.

Restaurant Weeks’ participants number 34 and counting. The roll call includes paragons of local eating such as Ella Dining Room & Bar and Grange, and such chains as the Old Spaghetti Factory and the Melting Pot.

This scenario differs from other locavore initiatives, such as Slow Food. Before “farm-to-fork” or “farm-to-table” became ubiquitous around Sacramento, the notion of “slow food” emerged from Italy in 1986 with its emphasis on regional ingredients and preserving an area’s ecosystem through responsible farming. Slow Food chapters now can be found across the world, including in Sacramento.

But you can’t buy the official Slow Food Snail of Approval, which designates restaurants that hold true to the movement’s principles. A restaurant must first be nominated and then approved by a committee. The Snail of Approval decal can be found posted at such local restaurants as Magpie Cafe, Mulvaney’s B&L, Cafe Bernardo and Boulevard Bistro.

Jarosz said he’s open to establishing a kind of grading system for Sacramento’s farm-to-fork restaurants in the future.

“I understand we want to stay strong and make it an all-or-nothing movement,” said Jarosz. “It’s important to start working toward a system, but in the meantime, you’ve got to let some people take baby steps and get as many people involved as possible.”

Until then, Zoellin will use that $200 toward opening Bacon and Butter, where he estimates 95 percent of the produce and dairy will come from local sources.

“The CRA does a good job at keeping us informed,” Zoellin said. “But (farm-to-fork) is a way of doing business, not just something you say.”