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Local foods popping up in unlikely places
LOCAL SALAD — John DeSalvo of New Outpost in Otisfield displays the local organic greens he uses in the store's salads. DeSalvo and other area vendors say that customers appreciate local offerings.
AREA — Fresh, locally-grown food seems to be creeping into the offerings of many unlikely eateries in the area.
Many consumers have gotten used to the idea of seeing locally-produced food in certain venues, such as Norway's Fare Share Market, the various farm stands in the area, or local farmers markets.
They might be surprised, however, to learn that a convenience store is offering organic, locally grown salads, or that a seafood eatery has fresh, local cabbage in the coleslaw.
The trend is an outgrowth of a larger effort to connect local farms with consumers in the Oxford Hills region.
The Lost Gull specializes in serving heaping plates of fried seafood to people traveling through Oxford on Route 26. Over the past year, though, the Scarborough-sourced seafood has been paired with greens from Oxford and Otisfield.
Deanna Emery, who's been working at the Lost Gull for seven years, says that the eatery advertises the fresh, local greens on a large white board of specials. The result?
"We're selling a lot more salads," said Emery. "It's been really good business."
Owner Daniel Davis confirms that the sales have justified the move.
"The numbers bear it out," said David. "We've sold more salads this year than any previous year. I think the taste bears it out. It's not our marketing. It's people eating the salads and going 'wow, that's a good salad.'"
For the Lost Gull, the fresh, local salads are an appealing counterpoint to the heavier fried foods, and customers have taken notice.
"They're interested in knowing that it's fresh," said Emery. "A lot of tourists might not like seafood or fried food, and so they get a salad now."
Davis says that the Lost Gull buys many local items, including 30 dozen eggs each week from a local farm.
"They cost me a dollar more a dozen to buy them locally," he said. For Davis, the payoff is in the quality of the food he serves.
"The eggs that I got off the big truck obviously come from big egg manufacturers that, from what we all understand, don't treat the chickens very well. The consistency is not quite as light as water, but the cheaper eggs don't have the body and the flavor, and they don't hold things together like eggs are supposed to do in a recipe."
Donna DeSalvo, owner of New Outpost in Otisfield, says that she was hesitant about replacing her iceberg lettuce-based salads with organic, locally-grown foods.
So she bought a limited supply to see what the reaction would be among her customers.
"We wanted to get a response back," she said. "We wanted to see if the people liked it better."
Now, says DeSalvo, she wouldn't serve anything else.
"It's delicious," she said. "I've had people call me after they've had it and tell me that the salad was really good."
The greens seem out of place in the convenience store, which offers cigarettes and nightcrawlers in addition to its deli offerings, but John DeSalvo says that looks can be deceiving.
"We're actually a fine restaurant inside a convenience store," he said.
For one local restaurant, local ingredients aren't an accompaniment. They're the main course.
Sonya Tardif, owner of Taste of Eden, says that she and her family produce much of the food that is served to customers at the vegan (non-animal product) restaurant on Norway's Main Street.
"It's the way I've always lived, so I don't think about it," she said.
Potatoes, lettuce, kale, squash, cucumbers, and corn are some of the staples that appear regularly in the restaurant's offerings, and Tardif says that, when she does source from other producers, she tries to keep it in the area.
"We've got beans now that are from Maine. We're trying to do that more from Maine or at least New England, if we can, for flour and grains."
While most of the other venues cited a desire to help other local businesses, Tardif says that she is mostly motivated by a desire for a pure product.
"We don't use chemical junk," said Tardif. "You know it's not genetically modified, if you know where it came from. It's better than stuff that's shipped so far it's not even close to ripe when they pick it, so it isn't very good, I think."
Tardif, who grew up producing her own food, says that selling homegrown food is second nature, and so the restaurant tends not to promote that aspect of their dishes.
"It's not really advertised," she said. "Maybe we'd do better if we advertised it."
While other sellers said that cost was a limiting factor in how much local food could be produced, Tardif says that growing her own food actually helps the bottom line.
"There's a work to it, but the cost is very minimal," she said.
Amy Baker, who owns Norway's fine dining restaurant 76 Pleasant Street, says that she's not surprised to see more places carrying local food.
"It has become a trend," said Baker.
Baker is seeking to increase her usage of local foods, from greens and herbs to fresh meat, like lamb.
For her, the trick is balancing a desire to support the local economy with customer expectations of price and taste.
"We're a local restaurant that's trying to use as many local ingredients as possible while keeping it affordable and flavorful," she said.
Baker says that she rarely hears customers specifically asking for locally-grown food, but that she sees her local food sourcing as an opportunity to help other small businesses in the area.
She's not alone.
Davis said that he likes the idea of supporting other small businesses in the area.
"I believe in the premise of definitely supporting the people around you and the local businesses," said Davis. "That's my philosophy."
Donna DeSalvo agreed.
"We like to use the little guy," she said, "because we're the little guy."
Advocates of the local food, or "slow food" movement encourage consumers to ask their local venues whether they are serving locally-produced foods.