Farm dinners: It’s all about the experience
by Courtney Llewellyn
Spring 2021 is a time of renewal. New crops are popping up, and people are becoming more comfortable with going out to eat again. So what better time to think about welcoming visitors back for farm dinners?
Abra Berens of Granor Farm and author of the cookbook “Roughage” presented “Hosting Successful Farm Dinners” during this year’s virtual Great Lakes Expo. She’s a former farmer, of Bare Knuckle Farm in Michigan, and she said that changed the way she cooked. “It’s less about sourcing the best ingredients and more about growing the best food we could,” she said. For four years, she hosted farm tours followed by on-farm dinners. The menus were less from a chef’s point of view and based more on their harvest list. Berens joined Granor Farm in Three Oaks, MI, in 2017 as their chef and began looking for new ways of engaging visitors.
At Granor Farm, visitors buy tickets in advance and start with a tour of the farm. “They get connections to what we’re growing and why, and then we land back in the dining space with a seven-course meal based on what we’re growing,” Berens explained. They only host 24 diners at a time – what she called an “intimate” experience.
Berens believes in this concept because it creates a deeper level of engagement with their customers. It’s hard sometimes for people to buy into a CSA, as it’s a big financial and time commitment, but farm dinners provide a mini version of that – it’s just one night. And if they’re attending a dinner, that means they’ve also bought into the mission of your farm, where their food is coming from and the work that goes into it.
A secondary benefit of the dinner is education. For example, Berens said if she serves kohlrabi on Friday, on Saturday some diners come back to buy kohlrabi from the farm stand. It’s all about exposure to new foods and things that may not be best sellers.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this undertaking. Each farm has to figure out what works best for their environment. But first, legally, there are some things to consider. Every state (and county and even town) has health and agriculture departments with different rules. If it’s a “private event,” however, the state tends not to regulate it, Berens said. If it’s open to the public, there will be a distinction between being inspected by health department and the ag department.
Before that, though, figure out why you want to host farm dinners. “The downsides of a traditional restaurant are the high cost, low margin, high-labor products, and you don’t know how many people are coming or what they’ll be eating,” Berens said. “When you presell tickets and you know who’s coming, you know exactly how much food you need, and that cuts down dramatically on waste.” You can also provide a seamless meal to people with dietary restrictions by asking what they need ahead of time (and create separate plates for them).
Granor Farm never releases their menus in advance, because visitors are buying into a specific experience as opposed to a specific dish. Berens noted there will always be fluctuations in what is available (a hail storm could mean no tomatoes), but you can have a conversation about that on the tour. It means a decreased potential for disappointment and an increased potential for surprise. “It takes confidence to explain why we don’t release menu in advance,” she said, “but give people a chance to feel comfortable while also pushing them a little bit.”
The average dinner at Granor Farm is 70% their own produce, 20% meat that’s brought in and 10% is pantry goods (things like olive oil). They start with snack foods. The first two courses are almost exclusively vegetarian, and the next two may have meat and fish in them, but they always finish the main course with a salad, then a cheese course, and finally dessert.
“If you do the work of figuring out the why for you, and then figuring out the how, you’ll figure out it’s not for everyone,” Berens said. “Some people who come to dinners don’t like it – they like more control over what they’re going to eat, how much they’ll eat, et cetera. But more dinners, more on-farm experience and more opportunity to engage with local farmers means that while they may not like our dinner, they may like the one at the farm up the road, or the orchard. There’s tremendous opportunity in all different regions.”
When you feel you’re ready to dive in, how do you find a chef? Berens suggested navigating what you want the farm dinner experience to be and writing a job description based on that. Then think about what a successful event will be before you host one. She said it’s almost like creating a mood board.
Granor Farm doesn’t take out ads for their dinners. They hang a sign in their farm stand and post on their website. Berens said they’ve been very fortunate that everything has been word of mouth – “the best advertising, in my opinion.” They started slow and added more events as demand increased.
As for pricing, the 3.5-hour tour and dinner experience costs $90 per person. (The price will increase if they bring in other farms to share ingredients.) They also host a brunch on Sunday mornings that costs $45 for a 1.5-hour experience – what Berens calls a “gateway experience.”
If you’re not sure how to price your event, consider what traditional restaurants do: food is 30% of your cost. If something costs you $3, charge $9 for it. “Don’t undercharge – plan for the long-term success of your program so there aren’t any big price jumps,” Berens said. “Also, look at what both high- and low-end restaurants around you are charging.”