“Proudly owned by the North Dakota Farmers Union” is not something you would expect to see over the door of a popular restaurant in Washington DC, just a mile away from the White House. Yet there it is, proudly serving locals and visitors since 2006. The farmer owned Founding Farmers restaurant is the first of its kind anywhere. Along with six other restaurants now in its group, these restaurants serve and educate 45,000 people a week. Through their ownership of the Founding Farmer Restaurant Group farmers are helping consumers and Beltway residents better understand and appreciate family farm agriculture and rural America. The restaurants food is sourced from family farms and ranches, farmer owned cooperatives and farmer owned processing plants. So, where did this idea come from and who is the North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU)?
The NDFU was established almost a century ago in 1927 around the principles of cooperation, legislation and education. At its first convention on November 4, 1927 the NDFU had a membership of 13,000 farmers. This was the largest membership of any Farmers Union at that time. The NDFU started as a leader in the movement and have continued to be innovative throughout its history. The farm movements of the late 19th and early 20th century were looking for solutions to the economic plight of farmers and ranchers. The goal was to improve economic conditions through cooperative marketing and purchasing, by promoting scientific farming methods and discouraging harmful credit and mortgage systems. Cooperatives were fostered and began essentially as buying clubs in which farmers could save money by pooling their orders to buy staples. From there the Farmer Union oil and elevator companies were developed. The NDFU can trace its legislative roots back to 1929 and the Farm Storage Act of 1929 which was the first piece of legislation they sponsored. There have been many important legislative endeavors over the years at both the state and national level. Education is another priority of the NDFU. A variety of mediums have been used to get information to North Dakota’s farmers and ranchers. The Famers Union includes the youth in their education programs and the first youth camp was held in 1934. Today the Famers Union has a STEM / Ag based curriculum that is being incorporated into youth classes and camps. They continue to provide camp opportunities for young Farmer Union members.
There are 50,000 North Dakota farm and ranch families now in the Farmers Union that benefit from its educational programs, services and events. In addition the NDFU has an insurance company, rendering facilities, a pet food plant, and a pork slaughtering facility. In 2006 the idea of owning a restaurant was born.
Always looking forward, Mark Watne, NDFU board president and another board member were looking for a new and innovative way to add value to their commodities, and have some ownership in the food chain system from the farm directly to the consumer. They asked a number of farmers and NDFU members to participate in discussions that would lead them to the concept best suited for their goals. In these meetings many ideas and concepts were discussed. Eventually they reached the point they needed to just pick one and go for it. The idea of opening a restaurant was the one chosen because it was so directly related to the consumer. This idea at that time was unheard of and there was much skepticism; people thought they were flat out crazy and could never get it done. It took a long time to convince people to participate, but ultimately the idea caught on and gained support and enthusiasm.
Once they decided to forge ahead, the process began by studying eight locations against what they saw as priorities for success. Washington DC actually came out third on the list, but ultimately won because property was available and the area was thought to be more recession proof than the others. At first glance the plan was straight forward: develop a business plan, hire management, find a location, negotiate a lease, develop the design, build it out, train personnel and begin operations. Within each of these steps were many complexities and obstacles to be addressed, but they forged ahead. The lead developer was Mark Watne, who worked with a board of directors to develop the concepts. They used a food service consultant company to help negotiate the way.
The parent name of Founding Farmers Restaurant Group is Agraria, which means “from the land.” The name Founding Farmers was a way to tie the concept of the family farm to the nation’s capital and its founding farmers who are our nation’s founding fathers.
As with many success stories, the beginning was rough and success at times seemed elusive. However, it was not a time to cut and run. A new management team was hired who came in and fixed many of the problems with the first restaurant and built out their second. After struggling for about 18 months they were able to have cash flow in about four months with the new management team. They were now on the road to success!
When you walk in to the Founding Farmers near the White House, or any of their restaurants, one of the first things you notice is a mural across the back wall. At first glance its focus is Mount Vernon and George Washington, but there is much more to it. Each restaurant has original artwork that is similar but unique and designed specifically for that location. The goal is to connect the restaurants while allowing each one to remain somewhat independent. It is important for the artwork to reflect that the restaurants are family farmer owned and family farmer supplied, with designs customers would remember and talk about. In addition to the murals each restaurant has artwork of many mediums displayed throughout. Art is incorporated into all aspects of the restaurants design; an example being woven baskets for the light fixtures at the Founding Farms in Tyson VA. Each restaurant collaborates with designers, artists and craftsmen who bring the concept to life. Even the tableware reflects the connection to the land from the engraving on the silverware, to the milk bottles used for water service.
Covid was a challenge for Founding Farmers as it was for so many businesses. Sales dropped by about 50 percent. To stay viable the restaurant group sold groceries, had curbside pickup and delivery. Sadly they lost a large number of employees but are recovering from the ordeal quickly. The future is bright and Founding Farmers has a number of plans to continue to highlight the family farm and ranch while providing a great meal experience for their customers. New restaurants will continue to be added. They plan to make more of their own products such as bread, chocolate, and coffee, and by adding to their distilled products. They are looking at the idea of renting a space to set up a kitchen for making these products and enabling a larger catering operation. Keeping with the whole concept behind their restaurants they will be expanding their source of products to more family farms, and growing their logistics systems to deliver from across the United States.
Currently, there are a number of products used in their kitchens that come straight from North Dakota, although not as many as they want. About every two weeks there is a refrigerated semi-truck that picks up product and hauls it from North Dakota to Washington DC. They plan to add another truck for this in the near future. A logistics system for this was a part of the early plan that they are now starting to implement more fully. They continue to try and source meat from North Dakota but the challenge is a lack of processing in North Dakota. Some of the other products delivered from North Dakota’s farmers and ranchers are wheat, bacon, sausage, sugar, honey, flour, and oat meal. Providing products for the restaurants is one of the direct ways the Founding Farmers restaurants support North Dakota farmers and ranchers. In addition there are about 230 farmers who are direct investors. Many of the services and programs offered by NDFU are funded in part by restaurant profits. The marketing aspect of buying from family farms and ranches is an indirect benefit that is huge and invaluable.
The addition of a distillery in 2017 was another step to realize the goal of fully integrating and expanding their product sales. The idea was to supply the group’s restaurants and provide a market for sales outside the restaurant. North Dakota wheat is used in the distillation of Founding Spirits Vodka.
At its inception, the idea of a restaurant group in a major metropolitan area owned by North Dakota farmers and ranchers was unique and unexpected. Sixteen years later the Founding Farmers Restaurant group owns and operates seven restaurants and a distillery in the Washington DC area, with more ideas and plans for the future. As society became more and more mechanized growing your own food for one’s restaurant became inefficient and unprofitable. After World War II industrial food production and the restaurant industry grew rapidly. By the 1970’s commercial food products started to become controversial and in the 1980’s the concept of buying produce and other products from local ranchers and farmers became popular leading to the farm to table movement we see today. While there may now be many “farm to fork” restaurants, restaurants that are actually farmer owned are still unique and trailblazing. North Dakota farmers and ranchers are leading the way.
*All photos above without a caption, are courtesy of the Founding Farmers Restaurant Group.
We took a tour of the Distillery at the Chinatown location of Founding Farmers in January 2020.
Below are pictures from that tour and our numerous other visits while we were in Washington D.C.