By next year, if you happen to have lunch at Dig Inn—a chain of fast casual restaurants in Manhattan—the kale or Brussels sprouts on your plate might be more than just local. It might have been grown at the chain's own upstate farm.
It's the next step in the evolution of a chain that calls itself "farm to counter," serving the same local, organic ingredients as more upscale farm-to-table restaurants, but at lunch counter prices. A handful of fine dining restaurants own their own farms—such as Primo in Maine,
Blue Hill in the Hudson Valley, or, soon, the legendary Noma in Copenhagen, which is turning itself into an urban farm. But Dig Inn may be the first fast casual chain to do the same thing. [Editor's note: Blue Hill's farm is owned by a separate nonprofit, the Stone Barns Center, that partners with them.]
Dig Inn plans to use its farm mostly as a "living lab" to train its chefs and to experiment with organic agricultural techniques and aquaculture in a greenhouse.
"We would really love to grow our own food. That's ultimate control—your own procedures, how you think about things like crop rotation. But we're never going to have a farm large enough to support what I would consider our fairly lofty growth goals," says Adam Eskin, founder of Dig Inn. "You have to have a supply chain for that."
Dig Inn, which already has 11 locations in Manhattan, plans to open 5 to 7 more restaurants in 2016, including one in Boston. While the new farm, planned for 50 to 100 acres, will help supply those restaurants, the company wants (and needs) to keep working with the other local farms it already partners with. Last year, the restaurants used nearly 250,000 pounds of kale, more than it would be able to grow itself.
"We're committed to working with our farm partners and those relationships that we've established. We're still committed to buying carrots, and sweet potatoes, and Brussels sprouts," says Taylor Lanzet, Dig Inn's sustainability coordinator. "That's not going to change. But now we'll establish ourselves in not only understanding what they do, and what their day-to-day looks like in how they provide vegetables for us, but also to be a mover and shaker in changing what the farm-to-table conversation can look like."
The farm will experiment with different varieties of heirloom seeds, rotational and companion planting, and other organic farming methods. Chefs and cooks—who are trained to cook everything from scratch, unlike cooks at traditional fast food joints—will visit the farm so they understand exactly how everything on the menu grows and to get inspiration for new dishes.
"It's to say, why don't we bring all of our cooks and all of our chefs into a physical environment that's away from the restaurant and away from what can be kind of the crazy environment of day-to-day serving of customers—and bring them out to the field and farms," says Eskin. "Let's get them to understand and learn and physically appreciate all of the nuances around how the food's actually grown."
The company is currently looking for the ideal location for the farm, somewhere in upstate New York. "It's really important that it's accessible to our home base in New York City," says Lanzet. "That means if we want to invite our cooks and our chefs up, we want it to be two hours max away from them."
The restaurant already sends its chefs on farm tours of suppliers, but, with a farm of its own, it will be possible for longer, more in-depth visits and training. They're also considering the possibility of hosting dinners at the farm, or farm tours, for the outside world.
"This is a way to bring people together, bring them into the conversation, and really have it act as sort of a cornerstone for building this community around how we think about food," Eskin says.
They plan to purchase the farm this year and harvest their first crops in 2017.