Can Lafayette Support A Farm-To-Table Scene?

Feb 17, 2017

Credit Sarah Fentem / WBAA

Within a month of each other, two downtown Lafayette farm-to-table restaurants have announced they’re closing for good.

But experts and chefs alike warn against making too much of the coincidence.

Restauration, a downtown Lafayette restaurant that opened in 2015, was a dream years in the making for owner and chef Kirsten Serrano.  She and her husband, Paco, already had a steady business running La Scala on the courthouse square, but Kirsten wanted to try something new: A farm-to-tale concept that used only local, whole foods and could cater to people with food allergies.

The resulting menu was packed with options such as risotto with boar sausage and wild mushrooms and “Kirsten’s Cobb Salad,” which came on a plate the size of a cymbal and was topped with avocados, pancetta and butternut squash.

“I was damn proud of all of it, “ says Serrano. “I think I hit it out of the park, I was in love with the food I put out, it was fantastic, it was high quality.”

The restaurant was humming along, getting shoutouts from local food writers in both Lafayette and down the interstate in Indianapolis. But then, at the beginning of the new year, a disaster: a water main on the upper floor of Restauration’s building froze and broke. For six hours, water poured into the building from a three-inch main.

When Paco and Kirsten finally got to the building, the basement, where they kept almost all their inventory—was completely flooded.

“Yeah, there were pecans floating around, and chicken, it was like the Titanic down there,” she says.

The restaurant ended up being completely destroyed.

Meanwhile, down Main Street, drama was playing out at another new-ish farm-to-table restaurant, Heirloom, this time focused around a scheduled rent increase.

Heirloom chef and co-owner Justin Henry had made a tough decision to close…he was worried he’d end up not being able to pay his staff.

“And for me to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to increase the rent, and in three months, the waiters may be screwed…’ that just wasn’t an option,” says Henry.

For a casual observer, it would be tempting to look at the two closings and wonder if Lafayette just isn’t a market that can support locally-sourced restaurants—and the resulting 15-dollar hamburgers they serve. But both Henry and Serrano say the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.

“If people were going to those restaurants and saying ‘We don’t like your food, it’s not good, why do you even care about that?” I would say no, Lafayette doesn’t care about that stuff. But that’s not what happened.”

Serrano was hesitant to even be interviewed. After all, Kirsten and Paco also have successful run La Scala—which also goes out of its way to feature ingredients from local farmers—for seventeen years.

“I think that when a restaurant closes, for whatever reason that it closes, everyone wants to boil that down to one reason, or two reasons,” says Serrano. “And it’s a million reasons.”

That’s not to say restaurants such as Restauration or Heirloom don’t have a harder go of things in Lafayette. Lafayette is a bar-driven town, says Henry, and restaurants—especially if they’re not a franchise, have a harder time finding customers—and experienced staff.

The biggest challenge for farm-to-table? The cost of the food. Henry breaks down a chicken sandwich.

Farm-raised chicken costs more than twice as much as wholesale, he says.  One-third of the entrée’s price is just the cost of ingredients. After buying the ingredients for a ten-dollar chicken sandwich and fries, he’s got around seven dollars to play with.

“I’ve got to pay the cook that’s cooking it, I’ve got to pay my lease, the gas, the utilities, the restaurant insurance…any of the stuff we had to buy,” says Henry. “Now I’ve got two-thirds to pay all the other stuff.”

And while restaurants in say—Indianapolis’ Fountain Square might be able to jack up prices to cover the difference, in Lafayette, it’s a harder sell, says Serrano.

“It’s a hard business anyway you cut it,” she says. “When you take a restaurant like what we’re doing with Restauration, that’s farm-to-table, that’s like taking the complexity and upping it exponentially.”

The bottom line? Restaurants—especially farm-to-table—are a tricky business—and a lot of them are likely to fail. The remaining question is…will chefs keep on trying the farm-to-table concept in Lafayette?

“I think that Lafayette has a lot of potential, there’s probably some untapped interest,” says Jolene Ketzenberger, an Indianapolis-based food writer and radio host.

“Someone’s just going to have to get the right formula, the right time, the right restaurant. I think it’s still going to grow.,” she says.

But it will probably need to be someone new. Opening a restaurant costs lots of money—and Henry and Serrano say they just can’t afford to reopen right now.

Heirloom’s seen an uptick in patrons in weeks before it’s closing.  There’s an old chestnut—kind of a morbid joke—that chefs like to tell about restaurants putting up “closing soon” signs in their windows even though they have no plans on shutting down. It’s good for business.

For his part, Justin Henry is hopeful—it shows people are interested.  And he’s proud of the work he did with the 20 months Heirloom was open.

“I mean, I think it’d be hard if we were dead, and we had bad reviews, and things like that,” says Henry. “And then I’d be like, ‘Oh, we need to turn this ship around.’ But for the most part we get good review and people like what we do.”

Restaurants open and restaurants close, he says. And in between, you cook.