Farm to fork: How Founding Farmers found success in sustainability

Farm to fork: How Founding Farmers found success in sustainability

(Screen capture from

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Every player in the game should be trying to create a field more sustainable for the next, which is exactly what the Farmers Restaurant Group set out to do from day one. The story begins in 2005 when the members of the North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU) began to look for ways to bring their products directly to consumers in order to reignite the connection that people had with their food. They sought to prove that family farming in the United States was as relevant and important as ever, especially in times where small, family-owned farms were, and are, threatened and decreasing drastically because of the pressures to join corporate farming conglomerates or industrialize. The NDFU decided the best solution was to create a farmer-owned restaurant, which would enable farmers to gain a greater share of food dollars while getting their products directly to consumers. Thus, the first restaurant of Farmers Restaurant Group, Founding Farmers, was born in Washington, D.C.

This incredibly successful restaurant was created to give family farmers back the pride and confidence they deserve in order to overcome the corporate pressures exerted over them, while maintaining their unwavering commitment to sustainability, which is imbued into every single crumb that Founding Farmers serves. The restaurants are now owned by more than 47,000 family farmers, members of the NDFU, a number which is inscribed on all of the forks in the restaurants to remind guests just how much went into the meals that they are enjoying.

From farm to fork, Founding Farmers is committed to sustainability. I sat down with their very own Erin Chalkley, Construction & Development Project Manager and LEED Green Associate, to discuss how they maintain their position as a leader in environmentally-responsible restauranteering.

sun peeks through farm equipment at sunset
(Image courtesy Eight Acres Photography in North Dakota)

The Farm

The Farmers Restaurant Group is committed to sourcing produce from family owned farms. Erin explained to me that reason Farmers Restaurant Group continues to source their produce directly from local farmers is to ensure that profits remain in the hands of the families, communities, and farmers themselves.

Additionally, family farms are more likely to want to run sustainably. Erin explained, “Family farmers have the incentive to run their farm in a sustainable way because they need it, their farm is the value, the land is the value.” She continued to tell me that farms are incentivized to use much more intensive farming practices involving the use of harmful chemicals when on a corporate structure. However, a family farm would see the value in organic farming and more sustainable practices, like using cover crops — which deposit nitrogen into the soil — and other methods to avoid the use of harmful chemicals. When avoiding intensive agricultural practices, including the use of chemicals, farmers ensure that their land will retain its value and continue to thrive.

Flame orange cocktail whiskey
(Image: @foundingfarmers)

The Restaurant

Founding Farmers is D.C.’s first LEED gold certified restaurant and a member of the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) with a Green Restaurant Certification. LEED certification means the building and facility are built and run sustainably, while the GRA manages operational aspects of the restaurant. Both certifications are important because they tell guests that the restaurant is actually following through with its commitment to sustainability.

Furthermore, being a sustainable restaurant is not as costly as people think. Since day one, Founding Farmers built sustainability into their total operating costs, and because of this, sustainability itself has never been an issue for any of their price points or impacted the guests’ experience. Their biggest cost of creating a sustainable restaurant was construction in order to acquire LEED certification. However, when a restaurant is smart about its investments, it pays off in the long run, like how decreasing energy consumption will decrease energy bills.

Surprisingly, when you walk into the restaurant, the lengths gone to create this sustainable experience are not obvious, despite everything in the restaurant, right down to the faucets, being carefully selected to be the most sustainable option. The subtle details which make the restaurant sustainable are tucked away so guests can have the best experience. This is partially because the restaurant knows it will get nowhere by pushing their sustainable agenda down their guests’ throats, who come in for their iconic Chicken and Waffles, not a lecture. Erin described the choice to avoid putting sustainability at the forefront of the restaurants messaging by explaining “we really try and make it so we’ve already made the hardest decisions for our guests before they come in so that way they don’t have to make them themselves.” She continued to explain that the restaurant owners already know they are responsible and only wants to give the guests a great experience, which means not explaining every little decision. Nevertheless, individuals who do care and are conscious of the sustainable choices made in the restaurant will notice the filtered water in a glass bottle that is served in glass cups without ice, they will notice when the waiter pushes their homemade scratch sodas made from freshly pureed fruit, and they will notice the upcycled decor within the restaurant.

breakfast spread on wood table
(Screen capture from

The Food

Founding Farmers does an unbelievable job at appealing to the masses by putting their own spin on classic, American comfort foods. With menu items ranging from skillet cornbread to homemade pastas, there is something for everyone. Compared to other top-rated D.C. restaurants, you definitely get more bacon for your buck because of their all-American portions that are still modestly priced.

Because the restaurant was explicitly structured from the very beginning, they actually do not accumulate much waste. As Erin put it “the best impact we make is preventing the waste from coming in here in the first place, waste reduction as opposed to how do we handle the waste after the fact.” Regardless, the kitchen still has ways to prevent food waste. Founding Farmers cooks everything from scratch, right down to the bread and dressings, which significantly reduces food waste. Additionally, the restaurants run on a tightly controlled production schedule to avoid any major food waste due to spoilage. Nearly eliminating waste with methods like these help the restaurant save money.

Room for More?

Founding Farmers will continue working towards their mission of finding more ways to bring people closer to their food and farmers. At the end of our conversation, Erin reflected on ways in which other restaurants could follow in their tracks in becoming more sustainable, which could translate into higher profits.She left me with this word of advice: “turn sustainability into dollar signs.” Since in reality, our world runs on money, it is important to learn how to make a business case for sustainability, like how decreasing waste means saving money, to see a bigger impact overall. It is motivating for the Founding Farmers team that other companies see their success and try to emulate it, knowing that sustainability is part of their equation to success.

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