BY ED MAIXNER 3/15/17
Twelve years after North Dakota Farmers Union members decided to open a restaurant in Washington, D.C., the ensuing company, Founding Farmers Restaurants (FFR), will open its sixth and seventh locations, branching out from the nation’s capital to Reston, Virginia, near Dulles Airport, and King of Prussia, northwest of Philadelphia.
What’s more, said NDFU President Mark Watne, “Our intention is to open one or two restaurants every 18 months going forward, and we are shooting to be up to 25 in 10 years . . . which suggests we are going to go into some new markets.” All will likely be in the Mid-Atlantic Coast region for the foreseeable future, he said.
Success didn’t arrive quickly after then-NDFU President Robert Carlson assigned Watne to plan for a big urban restaurant with a sort of community-supported-agriculture theme: fresh family-farm products going directly to the restaurant kitchen. The first enterprise, called Agraria, opened in 2006 on the edge of the Potomac River in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. It was swamped, literally, in 2011 when the river jumped its banks, and closed. Meanwhile, NDFU, which had regrouped and hired a new management team, opened its first Founding Farmers operation northwest of the White House, and firmed up the brand it applies to all its eateries.
That FFR brand has three themes, Watne said: “Food sourced from U.S. family farmers, owned by U.S. family farmers, and an abundance of food,” which means customers select from an extensive menu and get generous portions. He said the Agraria management had strayed from the original themes, but “we went back to that abundance of food for a really fair price.”
In fact, FFR reopened at its riverbank location in 2012, renaming it Farmers Fishers Bakers. Watne said that FFR investors, which include NDFU along with many individual members, National Farmers Union entities, plus two restaurant management experts, expect to maintain the profile they have built and to expand steadily, not too rapidly. All under one group of managers; no franchises, he said.
At least in its initial stomping grounds, the brand sells very well. Open Table, the online restaurant reservation service, has all five of FFR’s locations in the Metro Washington area in the top 10 in the number of monthly reservation bookings.
That level of success has, however, posed some challenges, Watne said. FFR facilities are spacious, seating from 250 to more than 300 people, and now that folks are showing up in droves, with seven facility-wide customer turnovers seven days a week, “What we didn’t expect is the number of people we would be serving …. about 42,000 a week,” he said.
FRR bakes its own bread products centrally and distributes them twice a day, contracts as much of its menu as possible directly from farms, and even distills its own vodka from spring wheat grown on Watne’s farm. Besides that, Watne points out, the restaurants have lots of customer and cooking space but very little food storage space, and “I’ve been surprised by the amount of planning needed for the quantities of food, and the simple logistics of it all has been a more of a challenge than we originally thought, too.”
Logistics now include initial planning for FFR’s own truck to run regular routes from North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and perhaps Pennsylvania, for example, hauling flour from the state-owned North Dakota Mill, sugar from the American Crystal Sugar cooperative, plus potatoes, cheese and other family farm products to the FFR restaurants. Watne says he has been cleaning and bagging a 30-bushel batch of his wheat to ship in a Ryder truck to the FRR Farmers & Distillers site to make vodka. A more efficient shipping system is needed, he said.
So in the months ahead, the company will wrap up preparations for Founding Farmers King of Prussia in a two-story site in a new commercial development. Meaghan O’Shea, FFR marketing director, says the restaurant will be upstairs, and “dairy is going to play a big part in this restaurant,” with Pennsylvania and other dairy products served and bread baked for the restaurant and carry-out sales on the main floor.
Also this fall, the Founding Farmers Reston will open in a new office building that adjoins a recently added Metro transit stop northwest of Washington. That facility, O’Shea said, will include a Thomas Jefferson theme, a nod to Monticello, his Virginia farm, and, like other FFR eateries, share about 70 percent of the menu with the other locations.