Can Founding Farmers go National?
At first blush, it seems like an impossibly idealistic dream. A cadre of farmers trying to turn the “farm to table” concept into a chain restaurant. Ronn Torossian explains how they are making it work.
It began in the likeliest of unlikely places – North Dakota. A group of local farmers got together with a simple plan. They wanted to begin an upscale, farm-to-table restaurant chain along the east coast. You read that right. A bunch of guys in North Dakota wanted to open not just one, but multiple, restaurants on the densely populated east coast. And they wanted to do that without anyone playing middle-man.
It’s not that the direct to consumer sales idea had not been floated before. It had been a near-constant agenda item for local farmers unions. And why not? According to Businessweek, in the 15-year period between 1992 and 2007, farmer’s markets and farm-to-table restaurants had “tripled the direct sales of food.” Tripled. Obviously, there was a market. But where…and, more importantly…HOW?
Most restaurants work on a multi-tiered success premise. Founders develop and market a brand; local chain location managers or franchisees manage the operations of individual locations, and independent suppliers get them everything they need at wholesale prices. However, when you are dealing with perishables and slim margins, the restaurant business can be notoriously fickle. Failure is epidemic, even with established chains. So, of course, cutting out middle-men, which cut into profit margins, has always been a desirable option. But it’s tough to make it work. Particularly on a large scale.
And, truth be told, the guys behind Founding Farmers nearly tanked as well. Their first foray into the unforgiving world of the restaurant business was a 14,00 square foot eatery in Washington D.C. Costs were astronomical, and not even beltway denizens were crazy about paying the menu premiums expected.
So the guys went back to the drawing board. Two years later, in 2008, Founding Farmers was launched. And it has REALLY taken off. With three massively successful locations in the D.C. area, the owners are considering expansions along the east coast. They know the formula, now they just have to expand into areas that will take a bit more massaging.
After all, D.C. is a hotbed for foodies in proximity to family farms that provide all the perishables the restaurant needs to keep fresh food on the menu. Currently, Boston is on their radar, and that’s certainly an apt choice. Dense population, high culinary expectations … and less competition than NYC. The key here will be effective and impactful consumer and restaurant PR. Founding Farmers already knows how to make the business work. Now they just need to make their target market care enough to give them a shot.