Wadena bistro puts local food on the menu, when in seasonby Nancy Lebens, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Not long after Shari and Derek Olson opened a restaurant a year ago on the main street of Wadena in west central Minnesota, they started serving a squash and wild rice salad.
Customers loved it. Then last summer, the Olsons took it off the menu.
"People were like, 'Why did you take it off, it was so good.' " Shari Olson said. "We had to remind them that we go by what is fresh and seasonal at that time."
Local fresh squash was no longer available.
Consider it a lesson learned at the Harvest Thyme Bistro, an effort by the Olsons to prove they could get people to eat fresh, locally grown food, much of it organic, even if it costs more.
The Bistro opened the day after Thanksgiving 2009 in a former JC Penney store on Wadena's main shopping street, one of an increasing number of expressions of how for health, economic and other reasons, Minnesota residents are interested in local food.
Harvest Thyme Bistro, which is within a block or two of several other restaurants, has a simple message for its customers: fresh food in season tastes better, and it's healthier.
Half of the bistro's purchasing budget is spent on locally grown food. Chef Derek Olson cooks with local duck, lamb and beef as well as eggs, tomatoes and greens.
One of the farmers, Kathleen Connell was in the restaurant two weeks ago with Swiss chard. "This is my favorite chard, it's golden," she told Derek Olson, who admired it.
Connell pointed out there were "more nutrients in it with the color in the stem, than the white chards."
"I like to dice up onions and the stems, saute them in a pan," he said. "Then I put the greens in. Then put some vinegar, a little salt and pepper and sometimes a little bacon."
The chard was headed for the next day's special.
A special with Swiss chard costs more at Harvest Thyme Bistro than it might elsewhere. That's significant in Wadena and the surrounding county, where a fifth of the families receive food assistance, according to Minnesota Kids Count, and where nearly two dozen restaurants compete.
Shari Olson says the average price for lunch is $7 to $10, about twice as much as other restaurants in town. But it's because the ingredients cost more.
"We pay a little bit more for our eggs that we're getting because they are free range and local. But the money that you're spending here is also going into your neighbor's pocket."
Neighbor and egg farmer Heather Cassidy said, "I thought I was one of a few who cared about organic farming. After I met them and found out they were supportive of local agriculture I was encouraged to keep producing eggs."
Repeat customer Vicki Chepulis said she shopped differently, inspired by the Bistro's food. "It's linked me to producers that I can purchase from for my own use at home as well."
The Olsons also market the restaurant by offering cooking classes once or twice a month that drive home the notion that food changes with the seasons. A few weeks ago the class was on pumpkins -- "pie pumpkins," Derek Olson noted. "Jack-o'-lanterns do not work at all."
Changing menus and higher prices don't stop Sylvan Lake resident Marge Evans from driving 45 minutes to eat at Harvest Thyme. "It's such good food and it's all homemade," she said.
She met her friend Rose Hoemberg for lunch, who said, "I can't imagine it can be any cheaper, they'd go broke. It's very reasonable and you get a sufficient amount of food believe me. It's excellent food."
Debi Tougas eats at the Bistro a couple times a week.
"I think there was a little bit of shock there was something as sophisticated as the Bistro, but so down to earth," she said. "I've owned and operated the Dairy Queen in Wadena for 20 years ... The word of mouth in a small town is significant -- I can help promote the Bistro."
Shari Olson says even if the restaurants don't all feature fresh and local food, the idea is to keep people coming to the downtown. And perhaps they might try something new.
The squash and wild rice salad is back on the menu this fall.
- All Things Considered, 11/26/2010, 5:24 p.m.
Nancy Lebens is an editor for MPR News.