‘Local’ finds its way onto more N.H. restaurant menus

The local food movement has taken the country – and New Hampshire – by storm, with more close-to-home choices than ever showing up on restaurant menus. But just how local is “local”?NHBR recently spoke with several restaurants across the state that are putting their money where their mouths are, supporting the state’s producers — and the “localvore” philosophy – by purchasing locally.For the most part, if an agricultural product is lableled that it was made or grown in New Hampshire, it has been, said Gail McWilliam Jellie, director of the state’s Division of Agricultural Development.“We have RSAs that define ‘local’ — they can’t say it in advertising with agricultural products unless it is,” she said.But that said, the lines can get “blurred” and product may be described as “local,” although it doesn’t come from New Hampshire, but instead comes from border states, especially near Vermont or Maine, said McWilliam Jellie.That’s part of the “local” philosophy, said Nancy Henderson, innkeeper of Sunset Hill House in Sugar Hill, which stresses use of local products in its food.“Regionally produced, or from small producers or family-run farms is important to me. It speaks to quality,” she said.One of the most prominent signs of the local food movement in the state has been the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection, a joint venture of the state Department of Agriculture, New Hampshire Made, a marketing support organization for Granite State-produced items, the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, the New Hampshire Farmers Market Association, the North Country Resource Conservation and Development Council as well as individual farmers, chefs, nutritionists and distributors.The New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection began six years ago with the goal of encouraging and facilitating the purchase and use of local farm and food products by restaurants.Since its start, the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection has held seasonal “growers dinners,” hosted by a participating restaurant and featuring an all-New Hampshire-produced menu.McWilliam Jellie said the dinners have become so popular they’ve had to limit the number of Connection-backed events to preserve ample time for publicity and preparation.But, she added; “We are certainly encouraging them to have their own,” she said. “There is definitely an increased interest.”

Buying locallyOne of the biggest advantages to purchasing locally produced foods is that “the dollars stay within the community,” said McWilliam Jellie. “It causes a multiplier effect where the farmer uses your dollar to purchase his supplies from another local vendor and so on.”Brennen Rumble, general manager of the Portsmouth Brewery, said another benefit of eating locally is that “you know where it came from. It doesn’t bring some of the unknown or unintended consequences that may happen as the result of shipping long distances.”Henderson chooses to serve a large variety of locally derived products at Sunset Hill House, including free-range chicken, venison, cheeses, maple syrup and, when available, produce and trout.Her products are bought from New Hampshire sources as much as possible, but she also will buy products from elsewhere in New England, such as sheep’s milk from Massachusetts and Vermont.Quality local foods are what her guests are asking for, she said.“It’s not just the customer off the street. Weddings and corporate groups are also asking for locally made products,” said Henderson.For Edward Aloise and Claudia Rippee, owners of the recently opened Republic Café in downtown Manchester, locally sourced products are “the focus of our menu.”Aloise and Rippee, owners of the former Café Pavone, also run the Milltown Café at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport as well as a restaurant consulting business.“One of our reasons for opening a restaurant focused on local food was that nobody was doing it. That was the prerequisite for Claudia and me to get back into the business,” said Aloise.Aloise said virtually all of his ingredients, including proteins, are sourced from within the state. What he can’t find from a local producer for the Mediterranean-leaning menu, he purchases from local ethnic markets.Rumble of the Portsmouth Brewery has a somewhat different perspective on being local – as a brewery and a restaurant, his business is a local producer as well as a pub looking for food made closer to home.He said he looks to purchase from producers and growers within a 100-mile radius.“The brewery has always purchased locally, even before the movement started,” he said. “We’d get local pumpkins, blueberries and even some hops for specialty beers.”As for the pub in downtown Portsmouth, he said, “The food, from day one, has been made from scratch versus a box. [Owner] Peter Egelston has always put us on a path to be community minded and collaborate with all our fellow citizens and businesses.”

Cost issuesThe cost of locally produced products is also an issue. Economies of scale and the grower’s own production costs and profit margin may make the item equal to or even higher in price than commercially prepared items, said McWilliam Jellie.For Sunset Hill House’s Henderson, her costs are 50 percent to 100 percent higher on local items than those commercially sourced.“Hand-raised heirloom tomatoes are $6 a pound. I could make a fantastic Caprese salad with local heirloom tomatoes, locally made mozzarella cheese and locally grown basil, but who is going to buy a $15 salad?” she said. “My product cost just to put this thing on the plate is $6 or $7. And that doesn’t include delivery charges, prep, the chefs, and certainly not profit.”Aloise said his costs are slightly lower, at a 25 percent to 30 percent mark-up, because his menu puts a strong emphasis on vegetarian items and smaller meat portions indicative of Mediterranean cuisine.To mitigate the costs, Portsmouth Brewery’s Rumble said he tries to be economical in other areas to make up the difference.“It’s built into our business plan,” he said. “Besides, at least if the costs are higher for local products, I’ve met the guy who produced it — I know where it’s coming from.”Obviously, there are certain limitations to what can be obtained locally during the winter months, but greenhouses and the advent of “winter farmers’ markets” — there were 12 such markets in New Hampshire last winter — have expanded the list of offerings.Held less frequently – perhaps monthly, as opposed to weekends or daily as in the warmer months – the winter farmers’ markets offer typical storage crop items, like squash and potatoes, but also greens and spinach as well as meat and poultry, cheeses, maple products and even fish caught off New Hampshire’s shores.“The response from consumers was impressive. One winter farmer’s market had 1,500 visitors,” said McWilliam Jellie. “We have a short production, but we have lots available.”
Cindy Kibbe can be reached at ckibbe@nhbr.com.