HALIFAX – In our current era of environmental awareness, people are increasingly coming to appreciate the importance of getting their food from local sources. Eating local foods is old news to most rural Canadians; they’ve long been enjoying the products of their local farmers markets and backyard gardens. But for us city dwellers, it’s a relatively new concept.
One restaurant that has been a major player in Halifax’s local foods movement is The Wooden Monkey. For six years, the Wooden Monkey has been serving up tasty and creative cuisine — primarily from local sources. Christine Bower is one of the co-owners. She says that there are a number of unique challenges to running a restaurant that uses mainly local suppliers.
One of the most challenging issues is just getting the food into the restaurant in the first place. “It’s challenging for a lot of small local farms to deliver their product,” says Bower. Unlike large conventional (non-organic) farms, most of the local organic producers are relatively small operations. This has made it tough for them to develop effective channels of distribution. “It’s not like they’re rolling in an abundance of money that they can buy all the vans and the refrigeration units and the gas that it costs to bring it to restaurants,” Bower added. The good news is that things have improved somewhat in this area in recent years. Bower says that as more Halifax restaurants join the local food trend, it has become more affordable for farmers to organize bulk runs into the city.
Another challenge that comes from working with smaller suppliers is that it means you’re also working with smaller amounts of supply. Bower gave this example: “Our main lettuce supplier…Four Seasons Farm, if he has a bad crop he’ll be like ‘that’s two more weeks’.”
Probably the greatest challenge in running a local food restaurant in Canada is the whole winter thing; a lot of stuff just isn’t available for a few of months every year. The Wooden Monkey changes their menu in some ways for the winter, but they compromise a little bit on using local suppliers in the colder months. But, even when they use non-local suppliers, Bowers says that they always use organic. She also says that one of the restaurant’s long term goals is to figure out how to create menus that better reflect the seasonal availability of locally grown foods.
Aside from the supply challenges of running a restaurant like this, Bower says that the over all business model is not as profitable as a more conventionally run operation. “(Our profit margins are) worse, absolutely. It’s more money, and really you can only ask so much money for your food… You have to be very careful with your labour, you have to analyze and determine close times and open times. You have to make these choices in order to not have to sacrifice buying local.”
With all these challenges, you might wonder why somebody would go through all of the trouble. Bower says that running a restaurant on this kind of model is in many ways an ethical choice, but it’s also about food quality: “It’s not only just because it’s local or because you’re supporting the local economy and your neighbors, it’s also because the quality is unbelievable… Our line caught haddock.. it’s more money… but the quality-not just that it’s environmentally better- there’s less bruising and it’s just better fish”
If you are one of the growing number of people that thinks finding local sources for our food is a good way to make Halifax more environmentally and economically sustainable Bower says you can do more than just visiting restaurants like The Wooden Monkey. “Everybody can make a difference if they go to the grocery store. It drives me crazy when you go to the grocery store and you don’t really have a choice. Nobody’s offering… any of the local producers… If everybody asked (their grocery stores) for it constantly it would probably help the local farmers. It would help the community and would help the environment, so maybe you just need to ask.”
photo by Thom Bator