Jaded east-coasters don’t typically have a ton of knowledge on the Wisconsin city of Milwaukee. In fact, very few of us end up in the region at all. With the exception of a trip to Chicago for work (or deep-dish pizza), we generally stick to one coast or another, complaining about the cold and poking fun at our neighbors to the south. But Milwaukee is full of surprises, and the booming local food scene is one of them.
Last year, if someone said to me, “Guess what? You’re going to start dating a guy in Milwaukee, and you’re actually going to like it there,” I would have promptly spat out my Tullamore Dew and stopped laughing only long enough to tell that person to kindly GTFO my house.
As it turns out, though, that imaginary person was right. Milwaukee kind of rocks. The beer and cheese there are second to none, and people are nice. It’s quiet, but not dull. And, it’s the home of a kick-ass concept known as Restaurant Supported Agriculture, or RSA.
It all began when the aforementioned gentleman took me to Braise, a restaurant in Milwaukee's Walker’s Point neighborhood, a former fur trading post that today boasts a handful of establishments run by James Beard semifinalists. I was immediately intrigued by Braise, and not just because the pork buns were enough to silence a table of reputable motor-mouths for a solid three minutes. It was something I read on the menu:
“Braise RSA (Restaurant Supported Agriculture) was created to make local, peak of season produce easily accessible to area restaurants. …We source everything from the RSA with the exception of 5 items: coffee, tea, spices, citrus & chocolate. For those items, we source from local businesses who share the same philosophy & values."
Of course, I couldn’t just stop at one plate and a blurb on the menu. I returned to Milwaukee numerous times after that first meal (in his defense, the gentleman had something to do with that, too) and managed to learn more about Braise.
There’s a lot more to the concept than I thought. The RSA itself is more like a coalition of roughly 20 metro restaurants, or “members,” who all source from more than two dozen local farms. It features a home delivery service for anyone, not just restaurant owners, who want to buy, say, a local whole hog and produce. There’s also the Braise culinary school, with offerings ranging from fundamental courses on knife skills, to an entire semester of education. If that wasn’t enough, I found out that many of the vegetables on Braise’s menu come from its own rooftop garden.
And changes -- good ones -- are coming to the RSA, says Braise’s Chef-Owner, Dave Swanson, who happens to be one of the antecedent James Beard Semifinalists. Now, it’s transitioning into a co-op that will be called the Local Loop. Among other things, it'll address the exponential growth in the number of businesses using local food.
When the RSA launched in 2008, Swanson recalls, “We started with $6,000 worth of sales with four restaurants and 12 farms.”
“This past year, we’ll be over $900,000 of sales," he continues. "That just shows how much local food is being moved.”
To him, it’s a program that simply makes sense. It eases the efforts of farmers on multiple levels, for example, by creating a single, unified drop-off point for supply.
It also ensures that they’re compensated properly by selling in bulk to the RSA, whereas at farmers markets, growers sell to restauranteurs at a lower wholesale price. Using a hub-like model improves farmers' profit margins by permitting them to sell a higher quantity at retail prices within those markets, since more of that product is going to consumers: A pricing structure that isn’t widely-known, Swanson says.
The newer Local Loop model also works to address issues of pride within the restaurant industry, as the original RSA plan is met with resistance from certain chefs, Swanson says. “They think that because it has our name on it, they’re supporting a competitor.”
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It’s a change that reflects Swanson’s palpable humility. “That is a problem in the chef community: The ego,” notes Adam Sarkis, Braise’s bar manager. “This is probably the only kitchen I’ve ever dealt with where you can ask the chef for something, and he’s not going to throw a spatula at you."
He continues, “You don’t have to call anyone ‘Chef,’ either.”
“They can call me Dave,” Swanson replies.
Braise’s mission, according to its website, is to “reconnect people with their food.” It seems that those individuals, more than anything else, are at the center of the motivation behind what he’s created: The chefs, the farmers, and the patrons of the restaurant.
“Do I want to preach to people about it?” he asks. “No. We want people to come in here, have a good meal, have a good drink, have good service, and come back.” After that, he says, if they want to start having a bigger dialogue with him, great.
Not least of all are the people with whom Swanson surrounds himself. When asked if he has children, he initially answers that he does not.
Until Sarkis chimes in, “Just us.”
“Yeah,” Swanson says. “I have 38 kids right now.”
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Image: Braise on Facebook