From field to table: Great location
Washington - An idea from North Dakota farmers has led to fine dining and a high-profile perch in the nation's capital. The Agraria restaurant is considered by some to be the state's unofficial embassy here and a bold step forward for farmers.
But the big, high-end restaurant's success depends on whether lawyers, lobbyists and tourists call it a good place to eat.
So far, so good, said Tom Prescott, project manager.
"We're pretty close to our (financial) projections. We're on track to where we need to be," he said.
Agraria opened in June at a cost of $4 million in a swanky section of Georgetown's Washington Harbor.
Farmers say the project provides them another market for their wares and invaluable public exposure.
The North Dakota Farmers Union supplied about half of the money. Individual family farmers/investors and the National Farmers Union came up with the rest.
The restaurant's name comes from a Latin word meaning "of the Earth." Its slogan is, "From our fields to your table."
Virtually all of its food comes from family farms.
Agraria receives beef and flour from North Dakota, most of its produce from an organic farm cooperative in Pennsylvania and seafood from Alaska and Louisiana.
The arrangement offers farmers another market for their product and a bully pulpit in the nation's capital.
"Helping people here make a connection with farmers is important, said Marcy Svenningsen, a Valley City, N.D., farmer and state Farmers Union board member.
The restaurant has received considerable media attention, including an article in the New York Times.
Agraria isn't cheap eats.
Appetizers run $9 to $16. Lunch items cost $14 to $23, dinner items $17 to $36.
A few examples: The Carolina rock shrimp appetizer is $13, the burger $14 and the pan-seared sea scallops $28.
If you're careful - drink water, eat the cheapest thing on the menu and go easy on the suggested 20 percent tip - a couple might manage with $30 for lunch and $50 for dinner.
More realistically, a couple can expect to drop $50 to $75 on lunch and $100 on the evening meal.
And that's without tapping the extensive wine list that tops out at more than $100 per bottle.
Agraria has four private dining rooms, including one with a 1,000-bottle wine cellar.
Some of the bottles are marked by a symbol that indicates it's from a vineyard that practices sustainable (environmentally friendly) viticulture.
But Agraria officials say the prices aren't out of line.
"Yes, we've heard some comments about Agraria being pretty pricey. But remember, incomes tend to be higher" in Washington, said Robert Carlson, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union.
District of Columbia residents on average earn about 75 percent more than North Dakotans and about 40 percent more than Minnesotans, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis.
District residents' average per capita income in 2004 was $51,155. North Dakotans' was $29,494, Minnesotans' $36,184.
The 13,800-square-foot Agraria is nestled in an upper-class retail complex near the Potomac River.
Within easy walking distance are movie theaters, upscale apartment buildings and the Swedish Embassy.
Just outside the restaurant are splashing, illuminated fountains, flower beds and a terrace with seating for 50.
Inside the restaurant, decorated in earth tones, seating for 300 is spread among two large areas and the four private dining rooms.
Soft jazz plays over the audio system. Photos of farm scenes decorate the walls.
Waiters pass out menus featuring items such as the charcuterie plate appetizer ($13), hangar steak ($16) and filet of beef and garlic confit ($36).
Charcuterie (shahr-koo-tuh-REE or shahr-KOO-tuh-ree) are pork products.
Hangar steak, also known as hanging tenderloin, is the thick strip of meat on the underside of the carcass and hanging between the last rib and loin.
Confit is a type of meat cooked slowly in its own fat.
The menu changes regularly, depending on what's in season, said Ricky Moore, Agraria's executive chef.
He described the menu as "farm-influenced modern American cooking."
Moore replaced Paul Anthony Morello, who resigned shortly before the restaurant opened.
The resignation initially set back Agraria initially, but the restaurant has recovered, Prescott said.
On an average day, Agraria and its 60 employees serve about 75 to 100 people for lunch and about 250 for dinner.
Some patrons have North Dakota ties, others just want a good place to eat, Prescott said.
Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., said he's hearing a "wonderful buzz" about Agraria in Washington.
The city's restaurant market is highly competitive, but Agraria's unique approach allows it to stand out, said Pomeroy, who's eaten four times at Agraria.
He called the restaurant a "bold concept" that organizers turned into reality.
Agraria also caters in the Washington area.
The restaurant business is notoriously difficult. About 60 percent of restaurants fail within the first three years, a 2003 Ohio State University study found.
"But we were careful and tried to do everything right (in establishing Agraria). We think we mitigated the risk," Svenningsen said.
A group of North Dakota farmers proposed the basic concept four years ago.
They were brainstorming for ways to strengthen family farms and hit on the idea of opening a big-city restaurant featuring food from family farms.
Farmers involved in the project raised about $1.2 million, about half of what they needed, but they didn't get support from lenders.
Though the $1.2 million was returned to lenders, the state Farmers Union refused to let the project die.
Blaine Lundgren, a Kulm, N.D., farmer involved with the project from the beginning, recently ate at Agraria for the first time.
"Initial impressions - impressive, expensive," he said.
He and other farmers involved in Agraria see the venture as a much-needed way to diversify their income.
Agraria investors hope to establish other restaurants using the same concept elsewhere in the country.
But there's no timetable, Prescott said.
"Our focus is still on making the restaurant here successful. We think we're on our way to doing that."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530