When posed with the blunt question of assessing the numbers after crossing the six months open marker, the huge smiles bordering on giddy laughter was all it took to verify that a visionary dream was flourishing for Fresh Forage owners Andrew Sereno and Chef Samuel Boyce.
“I would say we’ve had tremendous success,” Boyce said.
Sereno and Boyce not only opened a restaurant last year, but through their groundbreaking ideas, they also created a springboard to launch a community revolution around the way people buy and consume food in a fast paced society.
“So we’re really busy, you know, every month has been busier than the month before. We have really strong community engagement. People are really champions for the cause,” says Sereno. “For us the food is really good, but there’s a lot more going on than just the food with our vision.”
Fresh Forage is operating under unique and strict standards set by Sereno and Boyce themselves that is changing the nature of the business. The farm-to-table model is being driven by the evolving relationships they have with local farms.
“When are we are looking at sourcing things we actually look at a specific time frame of what we can source,” says Boyce. “We look at what is actually available locally and then I build the menu around that. It flips the relationship on its end and it really empowers the farmer.”
They say ‘this is what we have’ and we say what what can we do with that? We are working directly with them. They say ‘ we’ve got carrots’ We say, well, what can we do with carrots for a Mexican menu?”
The benefit to the farmer is not worrying if his crop selection will sell or not. “It’s a win-win at that point, we provide them a guaranteed output for what they’re producing,” Sereno said.
Though the expectation in the beginning was to follow the lead of the farmer, the farmers have been engaged in the discussion and accommodating to direction as well.
“It’s really cool this year because we’ve been able to be involved in the planting process for some farms. They’ll ask us ‘what are you going to take? What kind of stuff are you going to need?’ And then we can tell them, we like beets, grow some beets. Or pepper plants that’s going to make sense,” Sereno said.
The benefit of working with local farmers and adapting the menu to local food cycles is independence from importing.
“If you adapt your restaurant to respect the season you no longer are so reliant on crops from Mexico, California, or even China at this point,” says Sereno. “I mean how long can that go on? Especially when we’re shipping oil tankers of these crops across the world.”
The conscience of the business is not only a matter of sourcing the food responsibly, but of using sustainable materials, including compostable utensils and packaging.
“We have many local vendors that we would love to work with, especially on the retail side and the packaged-food side of things, but since our model requires us to have clean compost (everything post-consumer here is compostable) it gets difficult when you have a vendor that’s trying to bring something that has non-compostable packaging, glass or plastic. So what do you do? You hope that you can educate them and get them to switch over,” says Sorano. “We have declined doing business with them and maybe they have a product that we can use that doesn’t require the packaging so we’ll work with them at that point but but we have had to decline some options for that reason.”
The success of the restaurant isn’t being squandered in celebration, but reinvested and redirected for expansion, including a new patio.
“We really wanted to get people outside enjoying the food and enjoying the sunlight in the air. we thought it would be a really good space so we had Iceberg Projects come and do the patio for us. We put the fence up and we’ve got the trellis up to give a little privacy to the road that’s going to have vining plants and morning-glories maybe do some moon flowers in there,” said Sereno. “And the other thing that’s coming with this patio is we’re rolling out brunch on the weekends too, so Saturday and Sunday 9 to 2 will be brunch. So look for that within the next few weeks.”
Sereno and Boyce also have plans to sell prepackaged meals that can be prepared at home.
“We’re also about to roll out retail products. So places like Argus Farm Stop, Agricole in Chelsea, as well as the Constellation Collective will be stocking our retail products: Things like quinoa salads and build your own taco kit, enchiladas … it depends on what our menu is, but it would be reheatable on the go food,” said Sereno.
“It would give us a little bit of exposure to downtown Ann Arbor, and there’s a demand for it. A lot of people have asked for it,” added Boyce.
Beyond the retail food products there are plans in the works to open a cafe and retail shop in the Waterloo Pinckney Recreation area North of Chelsea.
“We have a spot that we’re actually looking at right now to do a cafe and shop. It would be a slightly different concept and would tie in a little heavier on the retail aspect of things,” Boyce said. “The items we will have there will include products that my wife makes. She has about 30 different natural skin care products for her business, Petite Fleur skin care.
“The idea is kind of the proximity to the farm. It gives that deep connection you know, it ties the farm to that business and this business.”
If Sereno’s and Boyce’s success can’t be determined by their smiles or business expansion, perhaps an indicator is the fact that next Saturday at noon (peak lunch hour) they will be doing a workshop on growing your own microgreens at the Ann Arbor District Library Gardening and DIY Festival instead of working the restaurant. As a rule, independent restaurant owners aren’t allowed Saturdays off. It just doesn’t happen.
“The main idea for us was how do we align our passions and the larger goals that we have both in our lives, in the world, and how can we help the community. What can we do locally that’s going to have a global impact in a positive manner. So first off, yes, we wanted to open a restaurant obviously, but we realized what an opportunity that gave us to really share our vision and educate people as to another way for sustainability by respecting the bounty that mother earth is providing seasonally.” Sereno said.
5060 Jackson Road
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
Open: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day
All photos by Mike Frieseman