Dining on Local

Tod Murphy’s diner serves strictly local fare.

By Nathalie Jordi

The Farmers Diner in Quechee, Vermont isn’t just a greasy spoon: It’s a rural redevelopment project masquerading as a restaurant.

It’s also the first what what restauranteur Tod Murphy hopes will become a chain of diners entirely reliant on local foods. He says the restaurants will operate on a commissary system and use a common central kitchen, pooling together some of the labor so that prep work is more efficient and prices stay low.

“We mine the land for coal or milk or whatever, and whisk the resources out of the region,” says Murphy.

He hopes that more farms will pop up in the areas that surround his establishments through demand for local food at his diners. Murphy wants to see the business grow to a size where it can sustain—or even prompt—50-100-acre vegetable farms or 200-head cattle farms. 

The first Farmers Diner, in Barre, Vermont, attracted national attention, but the town couldn’t supply enough business to keep the restaurant open, so Murphy moved it to Quechee.

Since then, he has had a few years to iron out the kinks, but undersalted biscuits and soggy fries still plague the restaurant. “People come here expecting Chez Panisse,” he says exasperatedly.

But despite a couple blunders with diner staples, Murphy plans to open another diner nearby within six months and hopes to see 20 open within five years.

Murphy believes that suburbs are the best places for his diners. And he wants to stay economically viable by “carcass balancing”: pushing the burger just as hard as the steak.

He favors mid-sized farms, which were annihilated in the polarization of American agriculture that ensconced agribusiness at one end of the spectrum and swept boutique farming to the other. He wants to support those in the middle and then help them multiply. “There aren’t even enough farms to feed Vermont, and we’re the least populated state,” he says.

Of course, using exclusively local produce—it doesn’t even have to be organic, necessarily—comes at a price. It costs him more to chop his own lettuce for salads and to use eggs that come in eggshells, not gallon jars.

But Murphy is committed to the idea, an plans to spread the word. Far more interested in accessibility than purity, his intentions are to evangelize about local food to a wider audience—even when that means buying lettuce from a farmer whose 50 acres of lettuce are not organic instead of from one whose 20 heads are. Always at the back of Murphy’s mind is maintenance of the rural landscape—but economics man the forefront. 

Murphy wants to transform diners the way Starbucks did coffee shops, putting local producers front and center. He’s got a long way to go, but already he has a few staunch supporters, including agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry, who seems to believe that Murphy’s heart’s in the right place.

On making Murphy’s acquaintance, Berry enthused: “This man’s come out of my imagination…I’ve been waiting for him for 40 years.” In another 40, will America see Farmers Diners from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania to Bellingham, Washington? Maybe, if Murphy starts salting the biscuit dough.

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