A Fresh Alternative in Bar & Grill Country

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Sometimes it seems like the owner of the Café Wren has a better idea of what’s going on in John Adams’ vegetable plots than he does. “I think she has spies in the garden,” Adams joked on a recent August afternoon while showing me his produce operation near Luck, in western Wisconsin’s Polk County. “She knows when my stuff is ripening. She knows her stuff about food and promoting local food.”

The “she” Adams is talking about is Stephanie Lundeen, who is working diligently to create an oasis of fresh, local sustenance in the land of bar and grill food. She’s doing that by teaming up with operations like Adams’ The Good Luck Farm and promoting the idea that fresh, local food is key to sustainable economic development, a healthy landscape and community building — even in a rural area far from the glitzy restaurants of the Twin Cities and other metropolitan areas.

“I think there is a real connection between a healthy community and keeping our money in the local economy by supporting local farmers,” Lundeen told me after I polished off a delicious locally-sourced lunch at the Wren before visiting Adams’ farm. (To listen to an Ear to the Ground podcast featuring Lundeen and Adams, click here; it’s episode 55).

That’s why when she started the Wren in a former bait shop/residence on the edge of Luck in 2003, Lundeen knew she didn’t just want to serve coffee and sandwiches. From the start she wanted to operate a business that not only served good food, but was good for the community, supported the arts and featured local music. She’s been true to her word. Café Wren hosts performances by local musicians and “open mic” events. It also showcases the work of local artists in its dining room and in the courtyard, as well as hosts two major art sales annually. The café also uses solar panels to provide hot water and part of the old bait shop has been made into a community meeting space.

But it’s the food that serves as the café’s community bonding agent. Lundeen, who has a degree in environmental education and sustainable agriculture from the University of Minnesota, helped launch farmers’ markets and a natural food co-op in the Twin Cities before moving to Luck in 2001. She also worked with immigrant farmers to help them find markets for their products. By the time she opened the Wren, Lundeen was convinced local food production and consumption could do much to support a community’s economy while creating a healthy place for humans and the environment. That’s why she almost immediately began discussions with local farmers about what they could raise for her menu.

It hasn’t always been easy, especially in a town of just over 1,000 people and in a county hit hard by bad economic times. But over the years Lundeen’s 30-seat restaurant has shown that an eatery that emphasizes community involvement can be economically viable. Besides Adams’ operation, Lundeen also buys produce from Burning River farm near Frederic. Both Good Luck Farm and Burning River are Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations, which means they sell shares to subscribers before the growing season. In return, they provide a weekly delivery of fresh, natural produce. The CSA enterprises use up the bulk of the farms’ production, but Café Wren has become an important buyer of excess vegetables. The Wren also gets ground beef from Smokey Meadows livestock farm in rural Luck. Besides carrying Fair Trade coffee and locally produced wine and beer, it procures ingredients such as eggs from the Natural Alternative Food Co-op in Luck.

During the height of the growing season, as much as 40 percent to 50 percent of the Wren’s menu is made up of food grown within 10 to 12 miles of the café — a stark contrast to the 1,200 to 1,500 miles food travels on average to get to people’s plates in the Midwest. The lunch special I enjoyed on that Friday featured a soup of local carrots, cauliflower and maple syrup. The sandwiches included homegrown cucumbers, salad greens and tomatoes. Perhaps a gallon or two of gas went into getting all those ingredients to the café’s kitchen.

Lundeen calls or e-mails farmers on a weekly basis to see what they have available and to let them know what she needs. The farmers then deliver food on a regular basis, sometimes the same day it was harvested.

“Creating that long-term relationship with the farmers is key,” Lundeen said while traffic sped by the front of the restaurant on State Highway 35, and bicyclists on the Gandy Dancer Trail pedaled by out back. Rising up from the trail was a pasture full of grazing cattle. “It’s very easy to work with the farmers here. You just make the connection, have a conversation about your needs, and then put it into motion.”

Lundeen has taken that relationship building to a new level. Last winter Mike Noreen of Burning River worked at Café Wren. “I got to see what food people like,” Noreen said of the experience, as we toured his operation. This summer, Lundeen has been returning the favor by working one day a week at Burning River.

“I got the desire to get my hands back in the soil and get more in touch with the source of my food,” said Lundeen. “It’s been fantastic.”

Maybe that explains the insider knowledge she seems to have on the ripening schedules of local produce.

All of that knowledge, communication and partnering is paying off. Café Wren’s food and artsy atmosphere has a growing reputation amongst people traveling up Highway 35 to their lake cabins. They stop for coffee, a meal or a snack, pumping a significant amount of money into the local economy. Café Wren fans — clearly identified by the eatery’s unique t-shirt design featuring the namesake bird — have even run into each other in other states and as far away as Africa. But during the wintertime, it’s the local residents who make up the bulk of the Wren’s clientele. Lundeen said these homegrown customers seem to appreciate the fact that there is an alternative to bar food or a sandwich picked up at a convenience store.

“People really appreciate the fresh alternatives they can get here,” she said. “They feel like they’re getting healthy food, and they feel good when they eat it. They get pretty excited when they realize how fresh the food is, that it was picked as recently as this morning.”

The farmers and Lundeen say there are plenty of opportunities for other partnerships between producers and restaurant owners, no matter what the size of the community. Noreen said that the key is for farmers to communicate to restaurateurs why they have a superior product, and then to be prepared to deliver it on a consistent basis.

“You have to be persistent and be willing to prove your stuff is better that what they are going to get from the distributor,” he said. “You can’t just show up one day and say, ‘I have a bunch of cauliflower.’ Restaurants plan their menus two weeks out.”

Lundeen feels strongly that in order to create a local food-friendly environment in a community, an eatery must promote the region’s farmers even when it doesn’t benefit the restaurant directly. Much as the restaurant’s solar panels pique people’s interest in alternative energy, any promotion of local farmers helps local residents begin to see these producers as critical parts of the community.

“I throw the words ‘local growers’ in as much as possible when communicating with the public,” Lundeen said.

That’s a main reason Café Wren is participating in “Dine Fresh Dine Local,” a special one-day culinary celebration of good, local food that will be held Sept. 11 in Minnesota and Wisconsin eateries in the St. Croix River Valley.

“Dine Fresh Dine Local is a great opportunity for restaurateurs like Stephanie to highlight the quality food they source from local growers,” said Dana Jackson, who coordinates the local chapter of the national Buy Fresh Buy Local initiative. “It also highlights how diners, communities and the landscape can benefit when eateries partner with local growers.”

Speaking of partnering with farmers, on a recent Friday Lundeen was preparing for an evening event in the Wren’s courtyard that was to feature locally produced food as well as music and art. The farmers from Burning River, The Good Luck Farm and Smokey Meadows were to be the guests of honor. Part of Lundeen’s future plans for promoting local food as a resource include featuring at the restaurant photos and promotional materials explaining her relationship with local farms.

Perhaps the most direct way Café Wren helps create a community buzz around local farmers and the food they produce is by serving as a weekly pick-up site for CSA subscribers to Burning River and The Good Luck Farm. Seeing all those boxes and bags of fresh vegetables lined up each week helps inform people in the community of the local bounty that’s available. The presence of fresh, whole food, whether it be in a CSA box or on the plate, sends an important message to local residents, said Adams.

“We’re showing you can do this in a town of a thousand people — it’s not just in Minneapolis or it’s not just in any large town that local food is available,” he said while checking on lush rows of snap peas. “Local food is out here where the food is actually grown too, and that makes more sense than anything.”

Delicious sense.

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