Five Years Plus

{June 6, 2010}   Locavore

By the time the bakery at the main intersection in Cazenovia closed, Chuck and I were already sourcing grass-fed beef and pasture-raised poultry and eggs and choosing organic food whenever possible. We wondered for weeks what would be revealed when the brown paper came off the windows of the new restaurant boasting “New American Cuisine”. When finally unveiled in February 2006, we were delighted to find Circa, a hip cozy restaurant that filled an culinary niche in the community which had been empty since the old Wheatberry closed over a decade before.  My first meal there was a succulent lamb stew, which was so good, we decided to adopt the place and become regulars.

Alicyn Hart, co-owner and chef of Circa, had traveled the world, sous-chefed in numerous restaurants and taught the culinary arts. She was certainly ahead of the curve to open a local foods restaurant at that time as the local foods movement in the United States was in its infancy. This was two months before the publication of Michael Pollen’s groundbreaking Ominivore’s Dilema (April 2006), before the word locavore (someone who eats exclusively local food) made it into the dictionary (it was named the Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year in 2007) and long before a survey by the National Restaurant Association ranked locally-grown produce and locally sourced meats and seafood as the top two restaurant trends for 2010.

Like many new businesses there were challenges in the beginning. Shortly after opening the restaurant, Alicyn became pregnant and at this time she was often the only one in the kitchen. I recently asked her what made her want to start a local foods restaurant in the first place. “It’s not that I really planned it,” she said matter of factly. I’m just committed to providing local, whole food. It simply tastes better and for me is the right way to eat.”

There are good reasons why local food tastes better. Grocery store produce travels an average of 1500 miles from the farm where it was grown. Foods grown outside the country may take two weeks before arriving at the grocery store. To survive the travel and extend the shelf-life, food is often picked under-ripe and varieties must be chosen to withstand the beating of rail and road. In contrast, farmers who sell their food locally can concentrate on freshness, maximum nutrition and taste.

Much of our conversation centered on how she and her husband/co-owner Eric Woodworth source the food we eat at Circa. “In the beginning we had to search the area for local food,” Alicyn remembers. Now she has a team of local suppliers who deliver their fresh products directly to the restaurant. Eggs, chicken and more recently beef come from Ingalside Farm in Greenville. Lamb comes from Meadowood Farm located only a few miles from the restaurant. Our local beekeeper Robert Thorp supplies honey and apples. Micro greens (such as pea shoots and sunflower sprouts) are provided by of Fresh Herbs of Fabius and Finger Lakes Fresh is a not for profit greenhouse in Ithaca that produces salad greens year round. Alicyn and Eric also produce some of the restaurant’s food. Last year Eric raised six pigs and tended a half acre of vegetables (that’s a lot of weeding!).

The recent increased interest in local food is good for business, but can create difficulties for the food supply to Circa. As demand for local food increases, some suppliers turn from the truly local market to the more lucrative trade from New York City restaurants. Also, more local people are buying directly from the producers for use at home, sometimes leading to shortages. This is great for the local economy and ultimately for Circa, but it means that a lot of time goes into sourcing on an ongoing basis.

I asked Alicyn whether local vegetables are more difficult to source year round than meat and poultry. “Absolutely,” she replied, “meat has no season.” Local grassfed and pasture raised meat is frozen immediately after processing. Local chickens are available fresh for much of the year and in the winter she procures indoor free range chickens from Murray’s in Pennsylvania. In the winter she features vegetables that can be frozen (e.g. corn, peas, beans) or cellared root  vegetables and winter squash. There are time when she needs to purchase canned organic tomatoes and uses non-local romaine lettuce for the Caesar salad. Sometimes in the winter she resorts to purchasing non-organic greens or spinach when the organic produce is simply not up to a standard she can comfortably serve. “This is a business too,” she considers.

Cazenovia is a small and conservative market but fortunately, there is a core of foodies who appreciate Alicyn’s vision and the reliability of Circa in serving only top quality meats and vegetables in their dishes. Business has picked up in the last year. For the first four years Alicyn was in the kitchen preparing food alone for much of the time. This made it challenging to get meals out in a timely manner when the restaurant was busy. Now she can afford to hire more kitchen help and this year has the additional help of two interns who wish to study the culinary arts on-site. But even so, Alicyn spends about 70 hours per week working in the restaurant. Cooking with whole foods takes considerably more time and skill than that required in restaurants that serve primarily pre-prepared, often frozen foods. Alycin has found that even graduates from culinary schools may not know how to carry out certain basic skills like de-boning a chicken and making stock.

Over the years Circa has become an important community resource and gathering place. An attractive deli display offers a variety of local and imported items for sale including cheese, eggs, olives and olive oil. Alicyn will sell just about anything you might need that she has on hand. “I would sell my last loaf of bread. It’s just the right thing to do” she explained, and in fact, one time I did buy her last fresh baked pie. She also does a fair amount of catering or just selling prepared food for take-out. But I think our favorite thing about Circa is that any day or evening we walk in, there is someone we know eating there.  The sense of community, of sharing lovingly prepared local food with our friends and neighbors is a constant draw. This past year, Chuck and I threw our joint birthday party at Circa, with a great local band and all our friends in attendance and in April, Alicyn hosted a lively going-away bash for Jenn, a key staff member and favorite waitress who is moving on and getting married. This summer, we’re looking forward to many “Taco nights” with together friends gathering for a Sunday feast.

In supporting our local foods restaurants on a regular basis we also sustain our local farmers. At the same time we bestow our bodies with fresh, whole foods that nourish us on a deep level.


Ann Hedley says:

I learned a new word today “locavore”. We’ll have to check out some truly local restaurants in Vancouver when you visit. Cheers, Ann

Kristi says:

Gyata, thanks for telling me about your website — it’s great. My first meal at Circa was also the lamb stew, right after it opened — so good I had it two more times in a row, and I continue to be a huge fan, like you!

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