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A passion for cooking and a commitment to the environment inspired Joan Dahl to open Roadhouse Café, a small but bustling breakfast and lunch place in Belchertown. After working in restaurants all across the country and gaining two degrees in Environmental Studies, Joan witnessed that the choices restaurant owners make about where to source their food make or break quality, nutrition, and environmental impact. She decided to open her own place to see what it would entail, willing to spend more in food costs in order to serve a product that would make her customers happy and healthy without harming the environment.

We may be well-versed in the language of organic nowadays, but for consumers a decade ago is was something to get used to. When Roadhouse first opened its doors customers would ask, “So what does organic mean?” Joan credits the Local Hero program, of which Roadhouse has been a member for nine years, with getting people’s attention and outlining the benefits of supporting restaurants who serve local. In the years since, the fantastic food and word of mouth have created a loyal customer base. After a tough few years when the café’s finances were stretched thin, it was the customers who clamored and convinced Joan not to sell. “These people keep me going,” she says, “I figured if there were some customers who liked it that much then there must be more out there.” In 2009, GQ magazine declared the organic blueberry pancakes at Roadhouse the best in the Northeast. Modest Joan thinks they got lucky, but adds that the freshness of an organic, local product has everything to do with it.

Creating a menu that caters to people who may not be used to organic is a process of trial and error, says Joan. She tells me about the time she filled up the freezer with local squash and added a pumpkin coffee cake to the menu, only to get customers who rejected it; steadfast in their loyalty to regular coffee cake. “I had to throw out a lot of squash that year.” Joan makes it a priority to talk to people, educate them about the flavor and nutritional values of organic recipes, while also working with people’s tastes. “Now I have a clientele who trusts me,” says Joan, “they come in every Sunday and order the special no matter what it is.” The specials change daily, which means she can work in what’s fresh and in season. It is often a matter of, “this is what we can get, so let’s try it,” says Joan, “right now people are going mad over the Turnip Truck omelet, something I don’t think we could have paid people to buy a few years ago.”

The Roadhouse Café menu is a testament to their unswerving commitment to organic and local products. Real food, real organic is the motto. I read that, “all meals are made from scratch, keeping in mind the values of good nutrition. Organic fruits and vegetables purchased from local farmers are prepared carefully to lock vitamins,” and recognize a menu that echoes Joan’s values. The twelve varieties of bread, including Apricot Walnut and Four Seed, are made with local flour from Four Star Farms. The milk that graces bowls of granola and mugs of coffee is from Mapleline Farm. Many of the fresh veggies come from nearby Stone Soup Farm, a young farm which Joan takes pride in supporting and watching grow. It is clear that her relationships with the farmers who supply her ingredients are more than just a business arrangement; they are genuine and hinge on mutual respect.

Although Roadhouse Café is now thriving, Joan says she is continually on her toes. Joan is honest when she says that more work, higher food costs and less profit make the restaurant route a tough one to take. It is confidence in the quality of her food and the knowledge that she is making a difference in the environment and in people’s lives that makes it all worth it.

Roadhouse Café is open Monday to Friday from 6am-1pm and on weekends 7am2pm. Call 413-323-6175 or visit the webite for more information.

Published in CISA’s E-newsletter in 2011.

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Click here for an interview and more from Sylvester’s.

Sylvester’s Restaurant is legend in Northampton, and not just because of its namesake – graham cracker inventor Sylvester Graham. Voted “Best Breakfast” multiple years running by the infamous Valley Advocate poll, locals know that Sylvester’s is the place to go for hearty, delicious breakfast and brunch.

After working in numerous restaurants, owner Peter St. Martin scraped and saved to open his own place. This provided the freedom to try out new ideas and have more control over what was served. “Our goal at the outset was to serve delicious made from scratch food from quality products,” he says.

The emphasis on buying local that has taken off in recent years fits right in with the philosophy at Sylvester’s. Peter purchases local dairy, meat and vegetables, noting that, “People want it and ask for it and I feel we have more control over the quality by buying from local farmers.” He says that the customers notice, and appreciate the effort that restaurants make to provide the freshest ingredients while supporting a locally-based food system. The community aspect is vital to Peter, who is glad to see farms flourishing thanks to growing awareness about supporting local.

The Sylvester’s menu is a work of genius, sure to anticipate any breakfast or brunch craving. There are multiple varieties of pancakes and French toast, eggs every which way, and classic sides like hash browns and bacon. The menu itself reflects how rooted the restaurant is in community. You can order The Mt. Tom (an egg sandwich with tomato and red onion) or the Norwottuck Rail Trail omelet (ham, onions, peppers, homefries and cheese). The Community Gardens Eggs Benedict is aptly named, and features veggies grown right here in Western Mass. All the eggs are local and organic, yogurt comes from the cows at Sidehill Farm in Ashfield, and goat cheese from The Farmstead at Minebrook. Like maple syrup on your French toast? Go for the good stuff from Snowshoe Farm in Worthington. The bounty of summer brings in local tomatoes, tangy in house-made salsa and gazpacho. Another customer favorite, “those local blueberries and strawberries are so delicious in our pancakes and our fruit cups,” says Peter.

And as if that wasn’t enough – they also serve lunch! Specialty sandwiches, burgers, soups and salads make up a selection that is sure to please any hungry patron. Gluten-free or dining with kids? Sylvester’s has got you covered.

If he weren’t in the restaurant business, Peter says he would be farming. “Raising local beef and chicken as well as local vegetables would be a great way to spend my next 20 years.” For now, however, his vegetable gardens will have to remain a hobby. We need him making breakfast.

Sylvester’s is open 7am-3pm, 7 days a week. Call 413-586-5343 to make a reservation.

Here is a quick and easy favorite from Peter St. Martin for you to make at home…

Cold Gazpacho Soup

1 quart tomato juice
2-4 local slightly firm ripe tomatoes
1 c. ocal cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 local green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 local red pepper, seeded and chopped
1 red onion, chopped
2 local scallions, chopped
1/2 c. red wine vinegar
2 T. olive oil
Salt to taste
1-2 T. Tabasco
1/2 C. cilantro, stemmed and chopped
1 T. ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients together. Chill overnight in refrigerator. Serves 6-8

Published in CISA’s September 2009 Enewsletter.

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Click here for news and more content regarding The Bars Farm.

For the first time in a long time, Allison Landale is working only one job: managing her family’s farm in Deerfield. Like many farmers, Allison had an off-farm job for years so she and her husband Dean could earn enough to support their family.

After revising their business plan this past year, Allison left her accounting job in May of 2008 to focus her attention solely on the farm. The Bars Farm, named for the region of Deerfield where it is located, has been in Allison’s family since the 1820s. She first started working on the farm in high school when her parents Herb and Mary Marsh owned and operated the business (besides being a farmer, her father was a professor of plant and soil sciences at UMass). In 1991, Allison returned to the family business and by 1994, she and Dean formally took over management of the farm. Herb still helps with the transplanting and perennial plants and Mary lends her hand as a bookkeeper. Dean became full time as well in 2007. He was a full time welder and had been helping on the farm since 1998.

Although farm work is hard and seemingly never ending, Allison enjoys all aspects of being a farmer. “If I didn’t like doing it all, I wouldn’t be a farmer,” she quips matter-of-factly. She likes being outside in the fields and interacting with the customers in the farm stand. The job gives her a wonderful sense of fulfillment. “Watching the farm stand go from being empty to full each year is very rewarding. I love seeing the produce fill up the bins throughout the season.”

The hardest part of being a farmer, Allison concedes, is dealing with the unknown. “You run into something every season. When you’re a farmer, you don’t have to go to Vegas [to gamble],” notes Allison. The Bars Farm tries to mitigate the unknown as much as possible, using IPM (Integrated Pest Management) farming practices and growing a diversity of fruits and vegetables. Still, the farm is subjected to the vagaries of the weather, which can turn a seemingly profitable crop into ruins in an instant.

Even with all of these challenges, Allison tries to be as responsive as she can to customer requests. For example, she expanded the floral portion of her business because her customers asked for more. Now she has greenhouses devoted to flowers. She’s also looking into growing white cucumbers after a customer talked about this unusual variety. Allison likes to try new plants or varieties each year, looking for what grows best on her land and sells well. Plans for improving the farm are continuously underway: Allison and Dean are planning to expand their early tomato production and are considering hydroponic lettuce. In the meantime, she is enjoying completing her second year being a full-time farmer.