With the recent closure of Dashi Noodle Bar, it seems the Bellingham restaurant curse continues to threaten the food artisans in our community. As a group of chefs, we want to take a moment to reflect on the high quality restaurants that have fallen in the past few years. From Pasta'zza, Nimbus, Cheese Meats Beer and Prospect Street to Cassoulet - it has been difficult to figure out what the people of Bellingham want and will support.
Cheryl Thornton from Cloud Mountain Farm sold produce to many of these restaurants. "As a farm we have worked with Josh Silverman (Chef of Nimbus and Dashi) for over 15 years and watched as he struggled trying to educate and feed the community with quality food. Education does come with a cost; as we have seen with various chefs and restaurants that have come and gone over the last 40 years that we have lived in Whatcom County. These businesses affect more than the customers that they serve. They affect the farm, the infrastructure that farms utilize to support them, the wages lost from workers who deliver food to the restaurant to the servers and ultimately the owner. The real question is: How can we all support each other to enable education to continue by providing quality food to ourselves, our children and our community? Who will be the advocate?"
In Bellingham, we have been fortunate to have organizations like Sustainable Connections promoting the benefits of buying local, preserving farmland and supporting family-owned businesses. They have helped folks make notable shifts in their thinking and spending in Bellingham. They have helped us understand that by supporting a local restaurant your money is multiplied in our community and stays here to do more good for more families. This education and paradigm shift is an ongoing process, it requires us to be present and make real choices.
Restaurants are expensive businesses to run. Then, if you add in higher-quality ingredients and increased labor costs for scratch cooking, it's even harder to make the cost equations work in a restaurant's favor. If you consider that 25 percent food cost is the industry average, you might wonder how someone can sell a burger for $1.99. What quality of food are you getting for 50 cents? The highly industrialized food chain uses the economies of scale to increase efficiency in the supply chain, which allows this low-quality, highly subsidized food to come to market. When those of us trying to serve high-quality food are forced to compete on price, running 35 percent to 40 percent food costs, we lose. Real food from our community - food that supports a farmer's family, is grown with integrity and has the nutrients we need to live a healthful life - costs more and it is not subsidized by our government! So, restaurant owners end up shouldering that subsidy - often to their detriment.
We cannot afford to sacrifice health, our environment and the viability and vibrancy of our communities to eat cheap food! Food is a basic need - it deserves a chunk of our income devoted to it. If we make this investment in good, local, quality food our bodies will thank us, our earth will be cleaner and our communities will thrive. If we can remember that we have a choice about where and how we spend our money, we can be empowered to buy fewer things, and instead spend our money to nourish ourselves and support our neighbors.
It's just a matter of shifting our priorities. We need you to choose with your dollars. If you love a restaurant, make sure to eat there at least once a month. Also, bring your friends, family and co-workers in to introduce them to the food. Restaurants cannot make it on a few loyal customers. They need to constantly increase their customer base and add new loyalists. Word of mouth is the best way to get new customers through the door. Consider what you spend on alcohol and ask yourself what that same money might buy you in terms of artisan-made food. How much do you spend eating out when you are in other cities? Are you willing to put that same money into your local restaurants? Or do you hold them to different pricing standards? Do you ask yourself some hard questions and make yourself accountable to the answers?
If you want Bellingham to give you options for delicious, local foods you have to champion it. We rely on you, our customers, for your steady support to keep our doors open! Thank you to those who have already made local food a priority and continue to show it! Thank you to the many restaurant owners who have taken the risk to be great - we hope in the near future restaurants like yours will thrive in Bellingham!!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sara Southerland is food and farming program manager at Sustainable Connections in Bellingham. She wrote this for the NW Corner Chefs Collaborative, a group of local chefs and artisans in the Northwest corner of Washington dedicated to providing and educating the community with local, seasonal cuisine. Contact the group at firstname.lastname@example.org.