Founding Farmers: Farmer-owned restaurant group continues to grow

Founding Farmers DC has had the most requested restaurant reservations in the country on OpenTable.com for the past five years. It is located near the White House.

The opening of a seventh farmer-owned restaurant in April puts the North Dakota Farmers Union’s 12-year culinary venture just about where NDFU President Mark Watne had envisioned it would be by 2018.

“But we never expected them to be as popular,” Watne said of the rave reviews the restaurants have received. “We envisioned having a number of restaurants but we never knew we would be serving 50,000 people a week in seven restaurants.”

Founding Farmers on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., has been the top requested dinner reservation in the world on OpenTable.com.

Farmers Restaurant Group has operated its restaurants on the concept of food sourced from family farms. Diners can expect servers to deliver stories behind the food as well as a first-class meal.

Brekka Kramer of Minot has been to Founding Farmer restaurants a half-dozen times. The Founding Farmers DC restaurant is among a couple of favorite dining venues for her in Washington.

“They have a pretty diverse menu,” Kramer said. “I try to sit by somebody else who is a little adventurous, then share.”

She said she’s tasted the popular chicken and waffles – one of the restaurant’s unique food combinations. Often, the best way to choose from the menu is to ask the server for a recommendation or house specials, she said.

“Everything I have had there has been really kind of tasty. They have really good food,” Kramer said. However, she added, “You can’t go wrong with a great prime rib.”

Minot native Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, shares similar sentiments.

“You really can’t go wrong with any dish at Founding Farmers, but their steaks are always a favorite,” he said.

Randy Hauck, manager at Verendrye Electric, recently visited the Farmers & Distillers in Washington for a second time. It was his third visit to a Founding Farmers restaurant.

“They are a hit,” he said. He’s been especially impressed with the customer service.

State Sen. Randy Burckhard and John MacMartin with the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce recall visits from several years ago to Founding Farmers DC.

“It was busy. It was good service. The food was good,” Burckhard said. “It was a good experience for us all around.”

Burckhard said he’s into simple fare so prefers the menu’s farmstyle meat-and-potatoes items.

MacMartin said the atmosphere at Founding Farmers DC was urban contemporary, although the restaurant made clear that it’s roots are rural.

Each restaurant in the chain has its own atmosphere and decor. Resembling a rustic Virginia farmhouse, Founding Farmers Tysons in Viriginia differs from the contemporary farmhouse and nautically inspired interior of Farmers Fishers Bakers in Washington’s Georgetown. Farmers & Distillers in Washington pays homage to founding father George Washington, who was an acclaimed farmer, distiller and entrepreneur ahead of his time.

At the newest Founding Farmers restaurant in Reston, Virginia, the tribute is to former president Thomas Jefferson. The restaurant features artwork of James Hemings, whom Jefferson sent to France for culinary training, as well as Sally Hemings, mother to several of his children.

Recycled and refurbished materials are incorporated into the restaurants’ sustainable design. Food waste is recycled or composted.

Watne said the restaurants fall into one of three brands. There are the traditional Founding Farmers restaurants that make up five of the seven establishments. Farmers Fishers Bakers features more seafood options. Farmers & Distillers does the final distilling processes of its spirits on site.

Watne said the restaurant group is looking at another Farmers & Distillers in the Philadelphia area as its next restaurant venture.

Founding Farmers’ story began in 2005 when the N.D. Farmers Union sought a way to bring its members’ products directly to consumers. The first restaurant, Agraria, struggled, but drawing on the expertise of restaurateurs Mike Vucurevicha and Dan Simons, co-owners with Watne, the group began seeing success with its second restaurant in 2008.

Restaurants are owned by the more than 47,000 family farmers of the N.D. Farmers Union and supplied by hundreds of family farmers across the country. At times, the restaurant has to buy from the traditional, corporate supply chain, but it works to source as much of its products as possible as close to the farm as possible.

Selling wholesale to the restaurants also can be a challenge for farmer-owned businesses used to selling jellies or cheeses at retail. The restaurants require a certain quantity and consistency from suppliers.

“One thing that gets people coming back to the restaurant is a certain expectation level of quality. That’s key. We try not to take any risks with that,” Watne said.

The company sources wheat, potatoes, safflower oil and sugar from North Dakota, either directly from farmers or from cooperatives. The State Mill provides flour. Some of the sourced wheat goes into the distillery process for the premium vodka sold.

The company has about 200 investors. Although not looking for new investors at this time, the company provides opportunities for new investors through the buying and selling of existing interests. Farmers looking to supply the restaurants also can find opportunities by contacting the restaurants’ management team.

The company is at a point in its development where it regularly get calls from California to Florida, urging it to consider new restaurant openings, Watne said. But congregating restaurants in heavily populated areas within a three-state vicinity and D.C. has been a way to make the most of the food distribution system, and Founding Farmers isn’t quite ready to veer from that.

“We are growing on our path rather than somebody else’s,” Watne said. “Even though it seems like we are growing fast, we are relatively slow growing and making sure we do it right every time.”

The hope is to eventually have 20 to 25 restaurants, he said, noting that, in time, the expansion could extend to other parts of the country.

“It’s really been an interesting adventure,” Watne said. “We have learned so much and I think we are getting quite good at it. I am hoping that we can continue our success with this and continue to grow it.”