Colin Fryer, owner of Red Cliffs Lodge and Castle Creek Winery, has a few reasons to buy local.
First, it is good common sense.
“I help you, you help me,” he said.
Second, it is about economics, especially as transportation costs increase with gasoline prices.
Third, it contributes to neighbors and the community as a whole.
But buying locally grown food from area farmers isn’t always realistic for restaurant owners in Moab and Castle Valley. It happens, but restaurant owners and farmers agree they’re a long way from where both sides would like to be.
Rural Utah has limitations, Fryer said.
“To make sustainability practical has been a stumbling block. We’ve bought a little here and a little there, but we haven’t been able to make a real connection otherwise.”
Growing is only one part of the equation. The other critical piece is the reliability of delivery.
“Last night, we served 500 dinners,” Fryer said. “We can’t wonder, ‘Am I going to have enough lettuce today?’ The Sysco and Nicholas trucks can come three times a week with everything we need.”
BC Laprade, owner of Milt’s Diner, has a background in working with locally grown food. In his former life, he worked in Colorado as an executive chef for Alfalfa’s Market and then for Wild Oats, natural food stores that focus on buying fresh food from local producers. Laprade brought that philosophy with him to Moab and now makes hamburgers with locally grown beef and milkshakes with local milk. He buys grass-fed beef from local rancher Ken Helfenbein.
“The quality of what they’re eating is as good as it gets,” Laprade said.
The quality is more than just taste. Grass-fed beef is healthier. It can have a third of the fat from a similar cut of a grain-fed animal and is comparable to that of a skinless chicken breast, according to Eat Wild.
Laprade has the beef butchered at Jerry’s Custom Meats in Helper.
“The difference is he is willing to kill the cow,” Laprade said. “He harvests one at a time.”
Laprade stores the cuts of meat in a freezer at the diner, then grinds enough each morning for the hamburgers to be made that day.
He also buys his milk from the McLish Family Dairy. He adds the local milk to his ice cream mix to make fresh soft-serve ice cream for milkshakes and malts.
Ty and Molly McLish came by Milt’s Diner as they were getting their dairy started a little more than a year ago and asked Laprade if he would buy their milk for his shakes. While the price per gallon was higher than Laprade could get at the grocery store, he chose to go with the McLish’s milk.
“I’m willing to pay more because the quality is better,” he said.
McLish Family Dairy began with five Brown Swiss in April 2011. They now have six Brown Swiss and one Holstein: Mabel, Coco, Dori, Ionne, Gabby, Izzy and Duchess.
The dairy has found support from more than just Milt’s Diner. Moonflower Market, Dave’s Corner Market, Wake & Bake and Wicked Brew also carry their milk.
“We can’t keep up with the demand,” Molly McLish said.
The family dairy plans to increase the herd to 12. Molly’s husband, Ty, still makes cabinets to support the family, but with an increased herd and more milk to sell, the family hopes to be able to work on the farm full-time.
Tim Buckingham, owner and chef at Buck’s Grill House also works with the McLishes. He doesn’t buy milk; instead, he gives them leftover food scraps.
“Ty comes by every morning to get feed for the hogs,” Buckingham said.
Those hogs will be harvested by the end of August for ribs and pork chops to be served at Buck’s Grill House.
Buckingham was raised in Moab but went to California to study culinary arts in Santa Barbara. While there, he adopted the philosophy of California cooking, which was to use the bounty of fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers.
“The premise is the fresher the better,” Buckingham said. “If you start with a good product, you end with a good product.”
Buckingham is growing a kitchen garden behind the restaurant on Highway 191. He grows all of his own herbs, some tomatoes and peppers. He is in the process of building a beer garden and incorporating the kitchen garden as part of the experience.
He has bought produce from local grower Tom Harris of Castle Valley Farms.
“This spring, (he) brought asparagus. I like the big, fat ones,” he said, holding his finger up in an OK sign and a circle more than a diameter thick. “That is the advantage of buying local – you can see it before you buy it. With the large purveyors, you don’t see it until it arrives.”
Larry White of Creekside Lane Organics grows more than 30 different types of produce from mid-April to November at his six-acre farm in Spanish Valley.
He grows organic because that’s what he wants to eat.
“I don’t want to eat pesticides,” White said.
He sells his produce and serves breakfast made from his vegetables at the Youth Garden Project Farmer’s Market at Swanny Park each Saturday morning. He also has 39 Community Supported Agriculture members that buy a basket of produce to feed a family of two to three people each week. His produce is also found at Village Market and Moonflower Market.
The only restaurant he regularly works with in town is Jeffrey’s Steakhouse.
He listed a few local farmers that have gone out of business because they couldn’t sell what they grew. “The other restaurants don’t seem to be interested,” he said. “If local restaurants would buy just 20 percent of their produce from local growers we’d be fine,” he said.
Buckingham said he would prefer to buy more from local growers, but the convenience of food distribution companies like Sysco is necessary to handle restaurant demand.
“I don’t have time to go down to the farmer’s market, or to a local farm. If someone would co-op all the growers, then go around to sell the produce to all the restaurants, if you make it convenient for the local restaurants, they would buy it. I would,” Buckingham said. “Have someone else handle the marketing point so farmers don’t have to worry about it,”
In the meantime, Buckingham is planning to grow a variety of vegetables on six acres of land he owns in LaSal. His goal is to one day be self-sustained.
Fryer expressed similar sentiments of wanting locally grown produce.
“If someone can get it to us in a predictable way, we will buy it. To meet the demand we have, we need someone working 100-acres,” Fryer said.
He, too, is looking for ways to be more self-sufficient and has a long-term goal to raise organic grass-fed beef to be served at his restaurant at the lodge. To do so would be a large operation. It takes four cows to produce 200 servings of prime rib, which can easily be ordered in one night at the restaurant.
Then, there is the issue of using more than that one cut, as there is more to beef than prime rib. In order to do it, he said, “You need chefs that can use everything you have.”
He has a long-term goal for more sustainable practices. “We’d like to be a leader in that area,” he said. “It takes a staff to do it. It takes a crew. It takes a philosophy.”