Farm-to-table movement gains steam in Finger Lakes


Full-service hotels, especially those in small markets, don’t normally get adventurous with their restaurants.

But the Ramada Plaza in Geneva, which changed hands in October 2017, has set out to do just that with the hiring of Finger Lakes culinary star chef Samantha Buyskes, who has been at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement for more than a decade.

Samantha Buyskes, executive chef at F2T restaurant in Geneva, explains the meat course served at a special dinner after the alfresco FLX event organized by the Canandaigua Chamber of Commerce. Photo supplied by the chamber.
Samantha Buyskes, executive chef at F2T restaurant in Geneva, explains the meat course served at a special dinner after the alfresco FLX event organized by the Canandaigua Chamber of Commerce. (Provided photo)

Buyskes’ talents were on full display this week when about 60 people convened for a conference, alfresco FLX, on the local farm-to-table movement and agritourism organized by the Canandaigua Chamber of Commerce. The conference took place at the 20-year-old Ramada, which sits at the northern end of Seneca Lake.

Buyskes started working at the hotel restaurant in December and has brought her culinary expertise and her deep connections to local food producers with her. She rolled out the new concept for the restaurant, now called F2T, in January.

“I’m hoping half the people who had lunch today will think differently about their restaurant,” said Chamber president Ethan Fogg. The Chamber pulled together the conference so people could connect with others in hospitality, farm and tourism industries. And making them all familiar with F2T was also part of the agenda for what Fogg hopes will be an annual conference.

At a family-style lunch, conference attendees were treated to asparagus grown in Seneca Castle resting on a pool of green cream made with cashew cream cheese and locally grown ramps (a type of wild onion or garlic) along with a navy bean salad made from beans grown locally. An apple and beet salad was sprinkled with goat cheese from one of the oldest craft cheese producers in the region, Interlaken’s Lively Run Farm. Sliced roast beef came from Rosenkrans Farms in Seneca Falls, a farm that Buyskes has been doing business with since it was run by the current operator’s father.

Ramada Geneva manager Terry Sindt said the hotel’s new owners – KPG Management of Philadelphia – wanted to try some new concepts with the destination hotel. They repainted the outside, refurbished about half the rooms so far and wanted to update the restaurant, too.

Looking around at the community’s most popular restaurants, it became clear that if the Ramada wanted to compete, it needed to join the locavore movement that is heavily represented in Geneva, Sindt said.

“We definitely want to be in that top five,” he said.

One of the owners then noticed that Buyskes’ latest restaurant, HJ Stead, was closing in October 2018 so the owners could focus on their wine and beer businesses. So Sindt approached Buyskes about coming to the Ramada.  Buyskes owned and operated Simply Red Bistro in Ithaca and Ovid for 10 years and started Kindred Fare in Geneva in 2015. She also was a contestant on the television game show, “Chopped.”

During the conference lunch, Buyskes said the farm-to-table movement has evolved so much that she can now serve 99 percent of the menu from locally or regionally sourced producers, right down to the flour in the pastries she served at dinner time and the cream-top milk that goes into the food. Restaurants like Kindred Fare with substantial buying power can have a life-changing impact on farms and other producers, Buyskes said.

It’s been an adventure of sorts with the staff, though, experienced in working in a commercial kitchen that relied on frozen items. Buyskes said, for instance, lunchtime patrons are used to asking for applesauce as a side, and the staff would still like to accommodate that request by digging into the hotel banquet business’s supplies instead of sticking with the local-only philosophy of the restaurant.

She later added that she might start making her own applesauce but it hasn’t been a priority so far. The menu still includes soups and sandwiches with deli meats, but they come from an artisanal charcuterie maker in Penn Yan, not the local restaurant supplier. Buyskes changes the menu every couple of weeks, but continues to have standards regular customers are used to, while adding items like grain bowls, curry and others.

Sindt said the banquet business at the hotel is still traditional but patrons booking events have the option of a having a farm-to-table menu instead.

Two panel discussions in the morning of the alfresco FLX event considered other subjects such as growing supply and demand and creating a sustainable experience for visitors.

Deb Carbin Fox, publisher of Vermont by Rail magazine and promoter of rail events in New England and the Finger Lakes, said visitor experiences should appeal to all the senses: “They have to see it, smell it, taste it, feel it.” And when wine is the experience, the clinking of glasses in a toast adds the “hear it,” she noted.

Answering a question from Paul Brock, a winery owner and Finger Lakes Community College professor, about how to diversify agritourism beyond the wine industry, Fox said culinary tours might be a next step. “It’s important to keep up with who your audience is,” she said.

Vincent Feucht, an educator at Cumming Nature Center in Naples and co-owner of Scrumble Wood Farm in Rushville, said cheese is a natural pairing with wine and there should be more promotion of it, along with more visitor accommodations.

Diversity is the hallmark of Lincoln Hill Farm, said owner Brian Mastrosimone. He started out as a viticulture student under Brock but later decided he didn’t want to create only a winery. Instead he diversified the crops grown on his 85 acres near FLCC, and has created a music venue and event space at the farm. While he grows hops, he also hopes to grow musicians who can at least open shows at the Constellation Brands Performing Arts Center, known as CMAC.

“We’re the farm team for CMAC,” he joked.

In the supply-and-demand discussion, panelists said selling and identifying local foods strengthens a growing industry. Silas Conroy, creator of local food processor Crooked Carrot, an Ithaca company that has been acquired by town of Ontario’s Headwater Food Hub, said the local food system is extremely complex and sometimes fragile.

“If you work with a local farmer, the supply can be endangered by a single weather event,” Conroy said.  That doesn’t always sit well with consumers who have grown used to having whatever food ingredients they want, year-round.  But he noted that value-added local food products (examples would be jams or pickles made from locally grown produce) are now as big as wheat, a major commodity, in the United States Department of Agriculture farm census.

While the panelists agreed that there isn’t a signature cuisine of the Finger Lakes, Simply Crepes’ Pierre Heroux said there are signature ingredients, such as maple syrup and butternut squash that the restaurant incorporates in its menu.

Choosing local wines, Heroux said, makes it possible to interact with the producers and bring them to the restaurant so customers can meet and appreciate them, too. That wouldn’t happen with national brands of wine out of California, he said.

“It’s a no-brainer to support your local farms,” he said. “I’d be an idiot if I didn’t have local products on my menu.”

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Local food and sustainability now hallmarks of UR dining program

One thing Cam Schauf knows after decades of running dining services at the University of Rochester: don’t change things up too much in April or May.

This high-stress period at the end of second semester is not the time to experiment at the expense of comfort food offerings.

“I’ve had some students come in on Steak Night and eat a bowl of cereal,” Schauf said.

Cam Schauf, left, of the University of Rochester, and David Feist, of Harvest Table, oversee dining on the river campus. RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter
Cam Schauf, left, of the University of Rochester, and David Feist of Harvest Table oversee dining on the river campus. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

But changing things is what Schauf has been doing for at least the last 15 years, culminating in this year’s roll-out of Harvest Table, a culinary group that is part of Aramark dining service, but with a stronger emphasis on sustainability and hospitality amenities.  He’s director of campus dining services and the co-chair of the UR Council on Sustainability.

The new dining program, which is featured on UR’s River Campus and being introduced in stages at Eastman School of Music, relies heavily on locally produced foods, gets away from bulk purchases of processed foods, and tries to engage students more deeply in what they’re eating.

That engagement can range from “Napkin Talk,” a feed-back system using messages scrawled on paper napkins and attached to a bulletin  board, to a how-to class on easy-to-make pickles that the dining center’s executive chef recently taught.  During last week’s local foods week, the dining program held an Iron Chef-like competition and a team of students came in second in the people’s choice category.

The campus’s two main dining halls, Danforth and Douglass, are set up with multiple stations devoted to different styles of cuisine, such as pizza and subs at one and plates of pasta with custom selections of toppings and sauces at another.

“The beauty of having multiple stations is you can go out (on a limb,) but not all five stations at one time,” said Schauf, who has worked in institutional dining for 40 years. Due to student requests, he began incorporating sustainability measures into the dining program 15 years ago, and Harvest Table has ramped up those efforts this year.

“Students have been asking for a long time for healthy options,” Schauf said. But finding out what that means takes some investigation and some trial and error. It could be a healthier cheeseburger for one student, and a totally vegan diet for another, he said.

When the dining centers introduced house-made ketchup in an effort to get away from the preservatives and unnecessary ingredients in some familiar mass-produced brands, students complained loudly. As a result, both styles of ketchup are available now. Locally produced cream cheese, which has a more noticeable flavor than the brands widely available, also didn’t go over so well.

Schauf and David Feist, guest experiences manager for Harvest Table at UR, said they continue to offer these better-for-you foods, but include choices and suggest students mix the products so they can get used to the new tastes.

Childhood favorites like chicken fingers are still on the menu, but not the processed and frozen type many cafeterias offer. At UR, they are made from scratch. And the chicken is likely to come from a free-range setting within 100 miles of campus.

UR students provide feedback on the dining services there by way of napkin notes. Some here ask for a particular local bakery's pies to be added to the menu. Others praise cafeteria workers. RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter
UR students provide feedback on the dining services there by way of napkin notes. Some here ask for a particular local bakery’s pies to be added to the menu. Others praise cafeteria workers. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

Local sourcing of ingredients is key to whatever diet students follow, the food service directors said. Harvest Table has been able to source about 60 percent of what it offers from local vendors. And that has an impact on the local economy.

Feist said the college buys locally roasted coffee from Java’s, Coffee Connection, and Finger Lakes Roasters, with each supplying one or more coffee vending locations on campus.  Schauf pointed out that Coffee Connection was able to purchase an additional roaster because of the business it gained from UR and UR named one of its coffee bars Connections.

Similarly, supplying UR with produce, meat and dairy products grown and produced locally has helped Headwater Food Hub expand, said Chris Hartman, founder of the town of Ontario-based company.

“The challenging nut to crack is not just consumer direct and farm-to-table restaurants. It’s really how to supply, how to connect with institutional buyers, and really participate in the big world of food distribution,” Hartman said.

Hartman started working with UR about 10 years ago when he and Schauf met at the South Wedge Farmer’s Market that Hartman also began. At first, Hartman would offer bumper-crop produce to UR as it was available on a one-off basis. Over time the relationship grew to Headwater becoming a major supplier for the university.

UR, meanwhile, hired chefs instead of kitchen managers to work in its dining services, and they started planning menus around what was in season and grown locally, rather than planning a menu first and they trying to source the ingredients.

Schools and other institutions are starting to look to universities for examples of how to become more sustainable in their dining services, Hartman said. “UR has become a sort of pushing-the-envelope leader in this way,” he said.  And other institutions have started working with Headwaters as a result of its success in institutional supply.

“Harvest Table and Aramark are very much leading that movement,” Hartman said. “We see this as certainly how we’re going to continue to grow in this industry, and how farmers are able to benefit and grow.”

He also credited Schauf with leading the sustainability movement in college settings. “He is a champion of this. This would not be happening without him.”

UR is one of five client universities Aramark is servicing with its Harvest Table program, said Matt Thompson, Harvest Table culinary director.  The program began 18 months ago with three colleges in North Carolina. UR and Georgetown University came on board for the 2018-19 school year.

About UR’s program, Thompson said, “We’ve seen fantastic feedback from all angles: from the client, students and employees.”

The program not only considers sourcing, health and customer experience, but expands sustainability to waste produced by the dining service operation. Schauf said incoming students are now given a reusable clamshell container they can use to get a meal to go. They exchange the container – washed or unwashed – for a clean one when they drop by again, or have a credit added to their account for a container whenever that next time is.

Feist said Harvest Table worked with the Starbucks shop on campus so students could use the dining service’s ordering app to place orders for drinks before they arrived. The drinks aren’t made until the students arrive with their reusable mugs. The Starbucks shop is one of the most productive on-campus shops in the country, Feist said, with a record of 1,345 mobile orders in one day. Half of those orders came through the campus dining services app.

The dining service workers also stay on top of food usage by weighing and recording everything that isn’t eaten. Some is reused, perhaps in a different form, some goes to soup kitchens, and some is composted.

This process makes people aware of when they’ve made too much food.

“You’re going to end up weighing your mistakes at the end of the day,” Schauf said. Last fall the university was recognized for being a sustainability leader with this program, he said, but then it reduced its food wastes by another 37 percent.

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Good Food Collective adds choice to its selection

After a decade of matching consumers of local foods with farmers, the Good Food Collective is branching out to offer a new product: choice.

A subscription service that provides a range of fresh produce depending on what’s in season, the Wayne County-based collective until now has offered no choice in the contents of its basic share of produce. Members could choose the size of the box of vegetables and could add on items, but the main components were decided by the collective’s management, despite the pickiness of some customers’ little ones.

“From the beginning, we made a conscious decision to eliminate some of that choice,” said Ryan Pierson, director of the Good Food Collective. “That was our way of making sure farmers got a commitment.” Before a farmer plants a row of, say, dinosaur kale, it’s necessary to make sure there will be a market for that vegetable. But the tricky part is not all palates agree on what vegetables are the yummiest.

“There are some members who want kale every week and some members who want almost no kale,” Pierson said.

Because the collective and its parent organization, Headwater Food Hub, have grown to include 150 farmers and many wholesale accounts, someone somewhere in the Headwater network will be happy to take the kale that some collective members eschew, making choice possible. The farmer still has someone to take the product, and the kale that might cause a dinner-table tantrum in your 5-year-old is featured instead on the menu of a fancy restaurant.

Headwater Food Hub workers load produce into individual boxes for customers of the Good Food Collective subscription service. Photo supplied by Good Food Collective.
Workers at the Headwater Food Hub in Wayne County load produce into individual boxes for customers of the Good Food Collective subscription service. Photo supplied by Good Food Collective.

Silas Conroy, supply chain manager at Headwater Food Hub, said, “By engineering our supply chain to include frequent farm pickups and more partners to process farm excesses, we’re able to respond quickly to customer demand, while still helping farmers sell their whole crop and reduce waste. This enables members to choose more of the products they love on a weekly basis.”

Starting in September, all subscribers to the collective’s vegetable shares have been able to pick from as many as 28 choices of veggies rather than accept a box with 7 to 11 items already selected. Pierson said the choice option was rolled out site by site—most members pick up shares at workplaces or a community drop-off point.

“People are very excited about it. There’s a number of people who right away said, ‘This is something I’ve been waiting for,’ ” Pierson said.  Of the members who are now getting a custom share instead of the basic share, about half have moved away from the traditional box and the other half are new customers altogether, Pierson said.

Members can make their choices online. A custom share costs $33 a week, while a traditional share costs $28.

Pierson said the 51-week-a-year subscription service has served 1,800 members in the past year, though the number from week to week varies, as people can start and stop the service whenever they want. A recent week saw 700 members. Unlike a Community Sponsored Agriculture plan, the collective doesn’t require a full season commitment, Pierson noted.

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Food hubs merge for larger impact

Headwater Food Hub has merged with Crooked Carrot, an Ithaca-based food hub.

Headwater, based in Ontario, Wayne County, but largely serving Rochester-area consumers, connects a network of farmers and food processors with a focus on sustainability to individual, commercial and institutional customers, and operates a community-supported agriculture program, the Good Food Collective.

The merger will help broaden the reach of both companies, expand their joint territories and expand the line of produce and products each will be able to offer.

“We saw real value in combining forces and bringing our efforts together toward bigger and broader impact,” said Chris Hartman, founder of Headwater. Silas Conroy, president and co-founder of Crooked Carrot, will become Headwater Food Hub’s supply chain manager and produce merchant.

Conroy was the sole operator of Crooked Carrot, while Headwater has 15 employees year-round, doubling that number between June and November.

Hartman said one way Headwater will grow from the merger is by adopting some of the food products Crooked Carrot makes, such as fermented and pickled foods from local produce.

“That activity is an important part of a food system,” Hartman said, in part because it preserves produce during times of abundance. “We’re really excited about that in terms of being able to scale that up.”

Headwater had been working with about 80-85 farms mostly in the Finger Lakes region but also reaching as far as the Southern Tier,  the North Country and the Hudson Valley. With Crooked Carrot that number expands to about 120 though some farmers produce a single specialty crop that brings them in contact with the hub for just a few weeks a year.

Hartman said merging with Crooked Carrot, as well as Headwater’s collaboration with other regional food hubs, helps Headwater compete against giant food distributors such as Sysco.

“The economics of collaboration can compete with economy of scale,” he said. Headwater collaborates with a food hub in New Jersey and Pennsylvania which helps extend the season of fresh produce for members of the Good Food Collective CSA, Hartman said. “I eat asparagus coming out of New Jersey two months before its available here,” he said.

The merger became effective July 1.

Conroy said in a statement, “When Crooked Carrot and Headwater began discussions about a merger, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this was an important moment. We have worked together over the past few years, and I have so much respect for their work. Together, with our collective experience, talents, and leadership, we have an incredible opportunity to push the good food movement forward in our region and beyond.”

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