Local venues use local food sources

Go to Marquette’s Sweetwater Cafe on a given morning, and you’ll notice something different about your dining experience. The menu features the usual breakfast fare: omelets, French toast and breakfast sandwiches. Like any other restaurant, your server lists the daily specials and takes your drink order. What makes this experience different? Order the omelet and your eggs come from Cloverland Farm in West Branch Township. Add a side of bacon or sausage, and you are supporting Seeds and Spores Family Farm in Chocolay Township. The maple syrup poured over the French toast comes from the Olson Brothers Sugar Bush in Bark River. These farms are owned and operated locally. Their products stand out because they represent a food source that is equally committed to the land, the community and high product quality.

Sweetwater Cafe is just one of many Marquette restaurants looking to put local on the menu. Das Steinhaus, Babycakes, Donkers, Huron Earth Deli, Paladino’s Cafe, the Superior Entertainment Center, Rock River Cafe in Chatham, and others all source food from local farms. This is no small feat, as sourcing local food is a challenge for restaurants everywhere, let alone in the U.P. with its short growing season and remote population centers.

Because of the U.P.’s short growing season, local produce is generally available during the months of May through October, possibly longer with the help of season extension efforts like hoop houses. Vegetable varieties that require a longer growing periods, like watermelon and tomatoes risk killing frost on either end of the season, while crops like potatoes and winter squash can be stored for purchase through the winter.

Restaurant owners have to get creative when planning menus and purchasing ingredients to account for the seasonal availability of local produce. Ordering food from farmers sometimes requires adapting menus or recipes on the fly. Local farmers grow a wide range of crops, some of which are unusual. For instance, Yakota Na, which is like bok choi without the ‘mustard’ bite, is not commonly known but grows well in our cool climate, as does Vietnamese cilantro, which is delicate and spicy. Justin Fairbanks of Das Steinhaus purchases from several farms, including Trenary Ducks and More and Rock River Farm.

“Cooking with local food is all about flexibility,” he said. “If we get a delivery from one farmer on Wednesday, and another farmer on Saturday, we create a dish that highlights that vegetable or that cut of meat. It’s about having a repertoire of flavors and techniques and utilizing what you have.”

Many restaurateurs in Marquette have decided to embrace new ingredients as well as more familiar fare in order to include local food on their menus. “Local produce is the freshest food you can get,” says Ursula Stock, owner of Sweetwater Cafe. “As food is handled more, its quality and nutrition value are increasingly comprised.”

Restaurateurs see a strong connection between local food and a vital local economy.

“We want to support other local businesses and collaborate with as many people as possible,” said Donkers Head Chef Shane Baker. Purchasing food from local growers keeps more money in the U.P. and helps stimulate more economic activity in the region.

Amy Manning of Superior Entertainment Center purchases beef from Superior Angus and finds it very important to support U.P. farms. She said, “purchasing local food enables local farms to make a living. It’s the right thing to do. Also, if I am dissatisfied with a product from a mainline distributor, I don’t have a voice. Small producers are more inclined to listen and make changes based on my needs.”

Next time you go out to eat in Marquette, look for the local food offerings on the menu. You’ll be supporting a local farmer and eating the freshest food that money can buy.

Editor’s note: Neal Curran is emnployed by the Marquette Food Co-op.