CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. (AP) — Local restaurateurs and farmers are working together to provide customers with food from farms they drive past on a regular basis.
As consumer tastes shift, evidence of the changes are apparent at many local eateries, including Bella's Short Stacks in Algonquin and Duke's Alehouse & Kitchen in Crystal Lake, among other restaurants that offer farm-to-table options.
At Bella's Short Stacks in Algonquin, store-bought eggs can be substituted for $1.25 extra with eggs from a farm a few miles down the street.
The partnership between Short Stacks owner Don Peters and All Grass Farms owner Cliff McConville started after McConville became a regular at the breakfast stop on his commute to work.
McConville would bring in his own eggs to the restaurant, which caught the attention of other customers and eventually sparked the idea of letting customers "upgrade their eggs."
Relationships between farmers and restaurants not only contribute to fresher foods and healthier meals for the customers - support for local farmers and producers can also benefit the economy, local experts said.
McConville's about 1,200 hens spend all hours of the day, when the weather permits it, roaming the pasture and moving to different plots of land every few days so there's plenty of grass for them to eat. This grass-fed diet produces an egg that has a dark orange color and a meatier taste, McConville said.
Short Stacks co-owner and Peters' wife, Hannah Peters, said once people try the locally produced eggs, they never forget to ask for them again.
"It makes a big difference in the quality of the egg and the fact that the chickens are out doors and they're eating vegetation," McConville said. "Most chickens that you get the eggs, even organic eggs, they're never eating any vegetation. If you only ate grains and you never had any vegetables, you probably wouldn't be that healthy."
Don Peters said he has customers who come in specifically for the eggs, though he did not look at providing local eggs as a business decision.
"We do this just for our customers," Don Peters said. "We don't make any money on the operated eggs. It's just at our cost. We want to accommodate our customers."
McConville attributes his farming practices to documentaries that have looked at practices in the food industry such as "Food Inc." and "The Omnivores Dilemma."
He said he has seen farms labeled as pasteurized that keep their live stock on a large patch of dirt with no grass in sight and organic farms where the chicken never leave the chicken house.
"If you go into the store now, you'll see all these different labels, free-range, organic, cage-free," McConville said. "They all mean different things. For example, organic, under the organic standards, there's supposed to actually have access to the outdoors, but most of the organic eggs you buy in the store they're in a huge chicken house and they might have a little door that goes out into a concrete porch."
The partnership between McConville and Peters started about two years ago while other local restaurants have provided fresher ingredients for even longer.
For the past nine years, Duke's Alehouse & Kitchen owner Zak Dolezal has supported local farmers by using them as his main producers - and even giving them credit on the back of the restaurant's menu.
"The relationship you have with the food and being able to get it that fresh from nearby. I worked in fine dining, so that's kind of the way you do things in fine dining," Dolezal said. "I came here thinking I was going to be opening a fine dining restaurant, but in the middle of the suburbs in a recession wasn't a good idea."
Instead, he incorporated these methods into dishes he believed people were already comfortable with. He started by shopping at local farmers markets and eventually formed relationships with farmers who now continually contribute their products to the Crystal Lake restaurant.
Dolezal recognized this route is marketable to consumers, but said that he mainly chooses to obtain locally grown food because of his own beliefs.
"Doing this way is the hard way," Dolezal said, "but it's something I strongly believe in and I think it's the future of food."
The bond between producer and restaurant owner seen with McConville and Peters can also be found between Dolezal and his producers.
Many of the farmers and producers often eat at Duke's including Tim Brown, owner of Potbelly Acres in Marengo, who sought out Duke's Alehouse after learning about their practices.
"I think that one single (factor) can be overlaid over so many issues that we have in our current society," Brown said. "I mean you look at immigration, labor and obesity and health and all those things can be tied into agriculture."
Brown commended Duke's for getting customers to pay what the product is worth and supporting food that is fresh and quality.
"There's a massive disconnection between people and their source of food," Brown said. "That's something that affects every person that draws breath on this planet, and a lot of people are disconnected from it, at least in this country."
Dolezal said he sees people starting to "vote with their fork" by not buying food or eating food unless it is grown to their ethical standards.
"I think it's a trend in our world now, not just here in McHenry County, but everywhere to have that whole farm-to-table experience," Jaki Berggren, executive director of Visit McHenry County, said. "People are becoming more aware of how their food is grown, where their food is grown and are interested in learning that and are being more conscious of consuming food that is local."
Berggren said "agri-tourism" brings in a good portion of the visitors to McHenry County. While she wants people outside of the county to know what McHenry has to offer, she also finds it important to make sure residents know the benefits of staying close to home.
By choosing a local apple orchard instead of one in Wisconsin, Berggren said, people will get a similar experience for a similar price and will support the local economy.
Berggren recognized Duke's as the leader when it comes to restaurants supporting local producers, but said restaurants such as Cary Ale House and 1776 use similar practices.
Dan Volkers, manager of the McHenry County Farm Bureau, said he sees the consumer looking for local food as only a portion of consumers as a whole.
"I think there's segments of the population that care a lot and I think there's also segments of the population that's looking for the bargain or the cheapest item," Volkers said. "I think the great thing about where we live is that we have all those choices."
Pam Cumpata, president of the McHenry County Economic Development Corp., said spending money on local rather than outsourced goods benefits the local community.
"McHenry County still has a large percentage of its land mass in agriculture and while there are some large farmers, there are also some smaller specialty farmers," Cumpata said, "And the more we can have the local restaurants, local people frequenting, purchasing from those local farmers, the better our local economy will continue to be."