WaPo‘s Jane Black clearly hit a nerve at Founding Farmers with her investigation into the green restaurant’s food purchasing practices. Dan Simons, chief executive of VSAG, the management company that runs the Foggy Bottom restaurant, wrote a lengthy and detailed response to Black’s story, which starts on Founding Farmers’ home page.
It continues — boy, does it continue — on the restaurant’s blog.
In his response, Simons wants readers to understand that you have to look at a restaurant’s totality, not just its product suppliers, before you can judge it on sustainable principles. He writes:
[O]ur mission is more comprehensive than any one single food item. Its [sic] about the business’s impact on the planet, and on the community and on the industry, all the while ensuring we earn a profit because that’s what being in business is all about and what allows us to continue educating the public about our model of sustainability. Knowing that our purchasing could be from far and wide, we buy Carbon Offsets, and to date have purchased offsets for 70 tons of CO2 emissions.
But Simons also responds to a few specific allegations in Black’s article, like her opening salvo that Founding Farmers “serves farmed Atlantic salmon, a no-no according to seafood watch groups that condemn the pollution and other environmental impacts of salmon farming.”
Ms. Black is right on several points, but as any subject matter in context, it’s important to have all the facts in order to be entirely right. Her article states that, “The restaurant serves farmed Atlantic salmon, a no-no according to seafood watch groups that condemn the pollution and other environmental impacts of salmon farming. Its supplier, Cooke Aquaculture, is one of the largest salmon farms in North America.” I spoke with our seafood distributor, ProFish, this morning, and they assured me that currently our salmon comes from Maine, via the Maine Aquiculture / Sullivan Harbor Farm; and I also understand, but haven’t personally verified, that this source is used at times by Thomas Keller at the French Laundry. And, for anyone that knows about salmon, they understand that the freshest salmon runs at different times of the year and in different regions. When Copper River salmon was running in June in Alaska, we brought it to the restaurant because it was all natural, line caught, and the best salmon that could be had. We sold out for three weeks straight and offered this specific salmon during its season. Ms. Black fails to mention that we change salmon providers multiple times throughout the year. Ms. Black also fails to mention there is enormous debate on all sides of the “wild vs. farmed” fishing topic; depending on the perspective, there are cases to be made for the farmed fisheries—it prevents the destruction of the wild fish population. There are also cases to be made against fish farms, especially depending on how they are run and the pollution and genetic impact they can have—as one of my guests pointed out to me, if you truly cared about the planet, you wouldn’t serve any fish, and you certainly wouldn’t serve beef, as cattle are a huge producer of emissions that harm the environment.
He later notes that Founding Farmers and sister restaurant, Farmers & Fishers, is looking into new beef supplier to replace the one mentioned in Black’s article: “Meyer Natural Angus, a privately held Colorado company that processes about 10,000 head of cattle per month from 450 ranches…”
The back-and-forth, as you can imagine, can get rather detailed and rather tedious to those without a horse in this race. (Then again, when it comes to sustainable farming and ranching, however you define it, you could argue we all have a horse in this race.) Still, as strange as this may sound to Simons, I think he might have been better served by thanking Black for her article (as he did at the outset, although maybe with a trace of irony) and leaving it at that, not trying to dismantle it.
Her investigation proves how hard it is — maybe even impossible — to run a large restaurant based on the premise of “sustainability.” It also will help make consumers more savvy in asking tougher questions when they are confronted by such claims. Restaurants that fly a sustainable or organic or green banner must be held accountable. Black was doing just that.
It seems clear that Black’s work has already had its aeffect; Founding Farmers has checked with its fish supplier on its salmon, changed the wording on its Web site to present a more accurate picture of its buying practices, and engaged its customers in a discussions about the harsh realities of running this kind of restaurant.
Expectations will be recalibrated accordingly. This is good on all fronts.