Tracy Singleton has been a key player in the local food movement since she opened Minneapolis’ Birchwood Café in 1995. The Birchwood, a key part of the Seward neighborhood’s thriving local, sustainable food scene, has an eclectic menu that satisfies hippies and hipsters, vegetarians and carnivores alike.
I’m a big fan if breakfast at the Birchwood, which includes awesome granola, waffles, tofu scrambles, and house-made sausage. To be fair, lunch and dinner are just as good, with all sorts of burgers, salads, soups, pizzas and other options, best washed down with a local beer. And be sure to save room for the key lime pie, my favorite in town.
I recently had a chance to ask Tracy a few questions about her business, the local food scene, and how she continues to serve great, local food. Lee: What does local food mean to you?
Tracy: My introduction to local foods was traveling in Greece in my early 20s, staying at a farm and eating fresh yogurt and vegetables. To this day I remember eating a simple salad--cucumber, tomato, and feta --so fresh I couldn’t believe how good it was. Then I went to Spain and ate fresh-caught fish, local olives, and garden fresh greens.
When I came back to Minnesota, I got a job at Lucia’s and I learned that local food existed at home, too. When I started the Birchwood, I started to build and nurture my own relationships with local farmers and suppliers, and I knew I could never go back. When I’m passionate and excited about something, I have to share it with as many people as will listen. So here I am, almost 14 years later, still doing the same thing --sharing my passion for local foods and those who bring them to us.
Lee: How much of your food is purchased directly from local farms? Does that change by season?
Tracy: From the height of growing season through late summer harvest we buy about 80 to 85% of our purchases locally. Even in the summer, some of our produce comes from distributors, like Bix and Co-op partners [these companies work with local producers who don’t have their own distribution]. Right now all of our vegetables, and as much local fruit we can get are local. All of our dairy, eggs, meat, pork, poultry, flour, black beans, corn chips, oats, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, maple syrup, and honey are local year-round.
In the winter we get our produce from outside of the region, but thanks to some crafty farmers and greenhouses, we can still get local produce like micro-greens year round. We use a lot of local store crops in winter too - beets, squash, and potatoes. We try to stock up and freeze as much as we can when certain crops are in abundance, like corn, tomatoes, berries, and rhubarb.Lee: What’s special about the Birchwood?
Tracy: The Birchwood has a certain vibe, a certain feel, a certain energy--it‘s hard to articulate, but hard not to notice. People tell me this all the time, that they love the feel of the place. The Birchwood has a sense of community that’s there in the way we source and create the food, in the great staff, and hopefully in the presentation and taste of the food. I hope my customers feel like they belong to something bigger, that they’re part of something when they’re dining with us. I hope they know-- consciously or subconsciously--that they’re part of our community, and that by eating with us, they’re connecting with the farmers and producers who grow our food, and also with nature and the world around them.
The industrialization of our food system has created a super duper hyper individualized and disconnected way of relating to food --food as fuel, nothing more. Society has become separated from the source of our food in such a way that people don’t even think about what they’re putting into their bodies, and any sense of gratitude for our food has been lost. In a way, I want to heal that.
The Birchwood has a history as a community hub ever since it was started [as a dairy in the 1920s]. When I changed the Birchwood to a restaurant in 1994, I inherited a lot of its good energy, and I like to think of myself as a keeper or shepherd of it. I have so much gratitude for what I stumbled upon when I bought this place, the wonderful and amazing people I’ve met, the people who bring us our food. The spirit of community and gratitude guides everything I do at the Birchwood. It’s my way of honoring the community that was created before me. Lee: What is your current favorite dish on the menu?
Tracy: I love the Tour de Lance Turkey Burger--we’re featuring it this month in honor of the Tour de France [which the Birchwood shows on their big screen TV each year]. It’s our house made patty, made with Wild Acres turkey purchased directly from Pat Ebnet’s farm, on a homemade bun with Castle Rock blue cheese and walnut spread, red grape rosemary salsa, and garlic scape aioli. Lee: What one thing can people do to support local food and eat better?
Tracy: If I have to pick one thing, I’d say really think about where your food comes from. That in itself will lead to better decisions. Lee Zukor is the creator of SimpleGoodandTasty.com, a web site focused on local food, health, and community.