Some grilling required over farm fresh claims

Posted at 11:00 PM, Apr 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-29 05:48:03-04

It's become the secret ingredient to restaurant success.

From tomatoes to shellfish, the Contact 5 Investigators found alcoholic beverages taking on the spirit of farm fresh.

It’s a movement so popular, at the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association trade show in Orlando last year, even representatives from the Florida Department of Agriculture were on hand promoting Florida restaurants use fresh ingredients from locally sourced farms.

"People do not want their food traveling from 1500 miles away," said Chris O’Neal, from the department's Division of Marketing and Development.

But how do you really know it’s not?

Diane Cordeau’s livelihood depends on what’s growing under feet.

“This is called happy rich, it’s a specialty broccoli,” she describes as she walks the Contact 5 Investigators up and down her carefully tended farm in Indiantown.

“We’ve got some eggplants growing over here,” she points.

Cordeau and her husband own Kai Kai farms.  Cordeau, a former lab technician for the University of Florida’s Indian River Research and Education Center, plants, picks, packs and delivers her freshest daily cuts to local restaurants. 

“What’s popular now?” Contact 5 Investigator Katie LaGrone asks during a visit last summer.

“Black eyed peas, every chef wants them,” she says.

But while the farm to table movement seems to be the catch of the day on restaurant menus, Cordeau fears some restaurants are serving up a fresh plate of fibs.

"People tell me oh you were at such and such a place.  I say, they don't buy from me.  So that's what I think.  I don't like it," she said. 

In other cases, Cordeau explains, restaurants have exaggerated their claims to serve locally sourced food.

"If they ordered from me one time they will put it on their menu for the whole winter and of course, I only sold to them one thing and they [customer] thinks Kai Kai farm serves us all the time, but that's not true.  It's hard to stop them,” she says.  Among the big attractions to customers is farm fresh menu items not only taste better, but help local farmers like Cordeau thrive.

During a summer visit to the Stuart Boathouse last August, the Contact 5 Investigators ordered the “heirloom tomato and burrata salad”, showcased on the menu featuring "slices of local heirloom tomatoes."

When Contact 5 Investigator Katie LaGrone asked the waiter where the heirloom tomatoes came from, the waiter answered, "not exactly sure, we have a lot of fresh markets in this area.”

"That’s it's impossible, they (heirloom tomatoes) don't grow in the summer," explained Cordeau.

Farmer's Table in Boca Raton prides itself on a menu that’s farm fresh.  So, no surprise its Florida 77 salad was full of “local greens” right?

A.G. James is a South Florida food blogger who's found a core niche in dissecting farm fresh menus.

"I would say this is one pretty darn big secret," she says referring to the fibbing that has grown to accompany the farm fresh restaurant movement.

"If you put farm to table on the menu then you're bound to get more people," she says.

James has gone undercover to help peel back the onion on  restaurants who falsely claim to serve up fresh and locally sourced food.

"It's a hot topic but nobody really wants to talk about it," she says.  "There's a potential for backlash and blacklisting."

In other words, James explains, farmers who rat out restaurant chefs and owners who fib about their farm fresh menu items face cutting off the hands that feed them.

Buying food handpicked and fresh from the local farm can cost a restaurant at least 25% more than food that's been shipped from miles away, according to industry experts.

"People need to start questioning, people need to really start grilling their restaurants on it," she advises.

Which is exactly what the Contact 5 Investigators did when we went back to the Stuart Boathouse in the fall, months after our first visit.

When Contact 5 Investigator Katie LaGrone asked the waitress which farm the local heirlooms for its heirloom and burrata salad came from, the waitress answered, “I can't pinpoint exactly which farm we get it from.”

That's because the Contact 5 Investigators discovered its “local heirlooms” may not be so local after all.

Stuart Boathouse co-owner Chelsea Matakeatis told the Contact 5 Investigators that the restaurant uses produce companies to purchase its produce for them, including those highly desired local heirlooms.  When pressed which farms they purchase from, Matakeatis could only say , "I know there's a Kai Kai farm in Indiantown where they get stuff from.”

“No ma’am, that’s not true,” said Cordeau of Kai Kai farms.

After a series of different stories and explanations even an attorney letter advising us to “squash our tomato story,” Stuart Boathouse’s supplier, Erneston Produce, sent us a letter saying they only buy local heirlooms, “when available.”  Erneston Produce also acknowledged Florida’s changing weather makes “some items…unavailable.”

At Farmer's Table in Boca, when we pressed about where the “local greens” for its “Florida 77 salad” came from, a waitress told us a local farm.  But, when we called later the chef told us California.  A few weeks later, a manager told us the “local greens” were a mix from a local farm and a company in California.

We never did get a straight answer.  The owner of the restaurant canceled our interview at the last minute.

“Right now they're buying the pasteur-raised eggs and they're buying the greens,” said farmer Jeremy Craw of Sunfresh Farm in Broward County.  He tells us Farmer’s Table recently became a client.

“They were mixing the greens a little bit but they were getting to the point where they go 100% with our greens,” he said.

Proving what might look fresh and say local at your favorite restaurant may or may not be once you start grilling them on it.

“There's certainly some people out there advertising farm to table that probably aren't as farm to table as we'd like them to be,” said Craw.

Questions to ask about farm fresh menu claims:

  • Which farm does the item come from?
  • How often does the restaurant purchase from that farm?
  • How often does the restaurant change its menu?  (A frequently changing menu is a good sign, the restaurant is really buying locally sourced food).
  • What do they do if the item is not available locally?
  • What does the restaurant consider as local?  (there is no set standard on what is considered a local item.  The Florida Dept. of Agriculture considers any item purchased in Florida as local regardless of how far it is from the restaurant.?

To help consumers know what kinds of produce grow in which seasons, the Florida Department of Agriculture has put together a grow chart.  Click here for details.