The Power of Ten

In 2006, Michael Pollan published “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.” It was a groundbreaking book that tackled the idea of rethinking the modern food system, and it began with one simple question: What should we have for dinner?

Ten years later, Austin certainly appears to have put some thought into what, and how, we eat. We now have a nationally recognized food scene, myriad farmers markets that outnumber days of the week, thriving urban farms and community gardens and locally focused restaurants springing up all over town. And without a doubt, important facets of these changes in Austin were nudged into motion by the way several people answered Pollan’s question a decade ago. 

This was Austin before the proliferation of “condo corridors,” when paddling was done seated—on Town Lake—and a “flight” was simply something taken out of, or into, ABIA. The way food was thought of, and sourced, was very different then, as well. But with a goal of helping Austinites see that they could eat responsibly, seasonally, sustainably and well with the foods grown in their own community—a bold and mostly unpracticed concept at that time, nationally—a handful of folks moved to the forefront of the cause. One caveat: There have been many local/sustainable-food supporters and providers working hard in Austin over the years. What follows is not meant to be an exhaustive compendium of the people, growers and businesses that have helped shuttle along the  local/seasonal/sustainable food movement to fruition. We simply paused here with a few of those on the path who recently marked and celebrated their 10-year milestone and asked them to stop, look back and share the ways in which they’ve witnessed changes in our community’s relationship with, and perception of, local foods over the last decade.  

 

Edible Austin

Edible Austin itself turns 10 this year, and Publisher Marla Camp says she’s felt a community embrace over the years. “I think it’s important to point out that when we started publishing in June 2007,” she says, “there were just a few forward-looking journalists covering the local and sustainable food community—most notably Virginia Wood, who was doing much of the heavy lifting on the food, farm and farmer scene reporting for The Austin Chronicle. She definitely set a bar, and we really appreciated the ground she broke.” 

“We weren’t sure what to expect when we launched,” Camp continues, “but we quickly discovered a warm, receptive and hungry community that was rich with stories to tell. In fact, storytelling has proven to be the most powerful and effective vehicle for us to support this vibrant and growing community—focusing on the passion, grit and spirit that motivates the people who care about real food.”

Of course, as in most businesses, the numbers also tell a story, and Camp finds success, both on a personal and professional level, with the growth of the magazine’s readership—an indicator to her that, over the last decade, Edible Austin’s mission has been heard and understood. “Our first year, we printed 20,000 magazines per quarterly issue and reached 280,000 readers,” she says. “I’m proud to say we currently print 40,000 issues, six times a year, cover 28 counties and reach approximately 840,000 readers, annually. Keeping up with the demand is a challenge that we are very grateful to have.” 

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Dai Due

Ten years ago, in East Austin, Jesse Griffiths and his wife and business partner, Tamara Mayfield, decided to host a modest supper club featuring only local foods. They set a communal table at a private home and spread the word among friends and acquaintances. At the first Dai Due dinner, 13 people sat down, family-style, to a BYOB feast of smoky grilled Texas quail with decadent rosemary-infused roasted butternut squash, and a legend was born.

In the decade since, Dai Due has grown to include a pop-up butcher shop and café at the downtown SFC Farmers’ Market, The New School of Traditional Cookery, a cookbook and now a brick-and-mortar butcher shop and restaurant. The pop-up supper clubs may no longer be Dai Due’s main focus, but Griffiths’ menus still overflow with local abundance—meats, game, produce, vegetables, breads and baked goods—though he admits that sourcing has always been one of Dai Due’s biggest challenges, especially in the early days. “Ten years ago, I couldn’t get six chickens at the same time,” Griffiths says with a laugh. But now, a 500-pound order of jalapeños is no sweat. “People are more educated about food now, and we live in a geographic area that can support a locavore diet year-round,” he says. “Where else in the world can you get cabbage and bananas at the same time?” 

 

Green Gate Farms

Also just over a decade ago, Skip Connett and Erin Flynn restored a historic farm site to create Green Gate Farms—a place to grow and sell locally raised, nourishing and healthy food to their neighbors. Flash forward to today and the couple has shepherded the blossoming project from a farm stand and CSA program to farm camps for both children and adults and The New Farm Institute—a nonprofit that offers education, resources and inspiration for aspiring farmers and is visited each year by more than 1,000 volunteers, students and guests from around the world. Ten years in, Flynn sees great hope for the local food movement in the next generation. “Organic choices are becoming a family affair, with children increasingly leading the way,” she says. “During our farm camps and field trips, kids are eager to discuss non-GMO ingredients, seasonal recipes and alternative cooking methods like our sun ovens. We’re inspired by their enthusiasm for informed, honest choices and their passionate support of our farm, their school gardens and organic initiatives. We can hardly wait until this generation has their own spending money!”

 

Johnson's Backyard Garden

Back in 2006, after farming in his small urban backyard for two years, Brenton Johnson and his wife, Beth, began a CSA program to provide weekly organic produce to about 30 Austin families. Now delivering to more than 1,000 families in Austin and beyond, Johnson’s Backyard Garden (JBG) also has a thriving wholesale business and participates in 14 weekly farmers’ markets. Johnson says he’s seen huge changes in people’s perception of local food and growers over the years. “If you’re opening a top-end restaurant in Austin,” he says, “it’s almost a given that you’re going to employ some farm-to-table elements. Diners expect these restaurants to source locally. Go into a restaurant like Emmer & Rye, Dai Due, Odd Duck or Chicon, and you can see half a dozen farms on the menu. This is definitely representative of an attitude—or perhaps values—shift!” 

Johnson admits that his current dream is that everyone—whether they be a home cook, a Michelin-starred chef or anything in between—could have a strong relationship with their food producers. “I recently attended the Slow Food International conference in Italy, which emphasized the importance of local foods as a vital part of every community’s culture,” he says. “In Italy, most cities have markets every single day, all around town. These markets aren’t just a place to pick up juicy tomatoes or fresh bread. People really talk with the farmers and vendors. Community members learn about producers’ practices and producers learn about their community’s needs. These are important relationships, because food isn’t just about nourishment; it’s about memory, community, family, comfort, security, excitement. I’d love to see Austin have farmers markets seven days a week where we foster that kind of connection.”

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Royal Blue Grocery

Even on the urban streets of Austin, big changes in local foods were afoot a decade ago. George Scariano and his business partner, Craig Staley, looked at downtown Austin in 2005 and realized there were no pocket bodega-style stores ready to cater to our city’s growing population in the urban core. So in 2006, they opened the first Royal Blue Grocery offering convenience items, groceries and grab-and-go food to the teeming multitudes of workers and residents that throng downtown. “Over the past decade, the bar has been, and continues to be, raised for freshness, variety, organic and, of course, local products,” says Scariano. “So many products have gone artisanal—from peanut butter to sodas to chips. We keep pace by constantly updating our product mix, particularly our prepared foods.” 

Royal Blue Grocery’s growth is a big indicator as to how they’ve been received over the years. “We started with our first tiny thousand-square-foot store and now have five more larger Royal Blue Grocery stores,” says Scariano. “To us, it’s not worth expanding if we can’t get each store just right for the long haul. That means getting to know all of our customers’ needs and then exceeding them. We’re not interested in cookie cutter Royal Blues, but rather adapting each store to each nook of downtown. For us, each new store is a puzzle to figure out and we love it!”

 

So, after this last decade, what should we have for dinner, Mr. Pollan? And what have we learned? Those featured here might say we’ve learned that interest and passion in the mission have continued to grow, and that consumers have become much more savvy to our local grower community as well as more demanding about what’s on their plate. That over the years, Austinites have and will continue to put their money where their mouths are. Also, that the next generation appears to be picking up the torch. “Sometimes I worry that the idea of farm-to-table is passé,” says Dai Due’s Tamara Mayfield. “But any time I feel anxious, the new generation of Millennials that works for us reignites that passion. They’re more balanced in their ideology. Maybe they’re less revolutionary, but on the other hand, they all get together on their days off to butcher a hog or go foraging. I love that—for them—this is just how the world is.” 

Cheers to the next 10 years and beyond.

By Elizabeth Winslow • Photography by Dustin Meyer