Steven L. Hopp is a co-author, along with his wife Barbara Kingsolver, of the best-selling book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life. In September, 2007, he opened Harvest Table, a local foods restaurant. Read my interview of him that appeared on April 6, 2008 in the Bristol Herald Courier.
If one word could describe Harvest Table Restaurant and its neighboring general store, Meadowview Farmers’ Guild in Meadowview, VA, it would be local. Local food, locally grown. Local products on the shelves. Local jobs. Local investment. Local money staying in the community.
Steven L. Hopp, the guiding force behind Harvest Table, is a self-proclaimed “locavore.” The word, defined as a person who eats locally grown foods, was chosen in December of 2007 as New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year, a reflection of how the concept of eating locally has grown in national consciousness.
Hopp, who lives on a 100 acre farm in Meadowview, Virginia, is a part time professor at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia and is a co-author with his wife Barbara Kingsolver of the bestselling book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life.
Harvest Table, which opened in late September of 2007, serves meals made from locally grown organic foods including free range chicken and eggs and pasture-finished beef. Open Wednesday through Saturday, the restaurant features menu items that range in price from five to 25 dollars with the average entrée running $10-15. There’s also a kid’s menu for seven dollars featuring pizza, free range hot dogs, or a cheese quesadilla. Originally open only for dinner, Harvest Table is now also open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2. p.m.
Hopp, whose enthusiasm for the store and restaurant is as infectious as his good humor, said the restaurant caters to diners from all walks of life who not only want to know where their food comes from, but who also want to taste truly fresh food.
“If you ask me where this food comes from, I can tell you,” Hopp said. “Furthermore, if you sit down here and get a burger, I can guarantee you that all of the meat in that burger comes from one cow, and I can take you to the lot where that cow grew up. It’s as simple as that.”
He added with a laugh, “Not only that, sometimes the family who grew the cow comes in here and eats. They order their own beef!”
Both the restaurant and store are housed in a hundred year-old building that required extensive renovation. Now the exterior is painted in bold colors, while the interior features wood floors and paneling and an atmosphere that Hopp described as an intentional balance between elegant and casual.
His aim during the renovation was to refurbish the 6000 square foot building with as many existing materials as possible.
“It was like a salvage operation,” said Hopp, pointing to several chestnut wood posts taken from an old barn and to the weathered bricks from old chimneys that frame the main cooking oven.
Although the restaurant has only been open a few months, the response has been gratifying. “Our accountant says the numbers are astounding in terms of a new restaurant,” Hopp said. He anticipates the restaurant will be making a profit in less than six months.
“Part of our success is the food we have is the freshest we can find,” he said. “We give food the dignity of its season. “
While most people realize that homegrown tomatoes and corn taste better than ones that have traveled great distances, Hopp maintains the same is true of other foods.
“Fresh asparagus bears almost no resemblance to the asparagus that comes from Argentina,” he said. “The minute you cut it, the chemistry starts to change.”
Meats also taste better fresh. “Truly free range chickens that are raised in pasture their whole lives are much better,” Hopp said, noting that it’s the older diners who most often notice the difference. “They come in and say ‘now this how a chicken is supposed to be’.”
Consequently, the menu at Harvest Table changes according to the season and availability of the ingredients. “When grapes are in season, we celebrate them. When they’re out of season we find an alternative,” Hopp said.
He is the first to admit that finding supplies can be a problem. “Our chefs are excellent at looking at what we have and turning it into a list of entrees, but sometimes they have to go beat the bushes.
“Sometimes they end up calling people they don’t know, saying, ‘I hear you grow potatoes’.”
Because of that, he says the circle of suppliers is temporarily larger than he’d like. Right now Harvest Table buys its artisan cheeses out of Kentucky and Tennessee and has had to buy some of its poultry out of Roanoke. He hopes to shrink that circle in the next five years and get his supplies as close to home as possible.
“We’re trying to run a modern restaurant,” Hopp said. “If you come in, you want to have a good selection. If we have to go to Georgia to get carrots, right now we’ll go to Georgia. But at the same time we say if you want to put in a plastic hoop house and grow carrots all winter next year, we’ll buy every single one of them.”
Hopp hopes to attract local growers to meet his supply demands, and has posted signs throughout the store that say in bold type, “Farmers Wanted.”
“If you want to raise 50 chickens, give us a call. We’re using two chickens a night, about 1000 chickens a year. If anyone in Washington or Lee or Tazewell County wants to raise free range chickens, come and talk to us.”
Shrinking the circle is important to Hopp who firmly advocates the value of keeping money in the community. The impetus for Hopp and his investors to open Harvest Table and the Meadowview Farmers’ Guild was the proposed truck stop at Exit 7.
“In the local publicity about Exit 7,” said Hopp, “the litmus of its success is usually the amount of tax revenues. There is never any mention of how much money is leaving this region because of the businesses there.”
“If 40 million dollars is made at such a truck stop, probably 36 million of it leaves this region permanently, while all the shoppers are from within 20 miles of here, so that money is going out of this county.”
Instead, he said, “Imagine if all the restaurants at Exit 7 said ‘we want to buy potatoes in Washington County rather than subsidized potatoes that get shipped in from somewhere else.’ Think what would do for the economy here.”
“Meadowview used to be a booming town,” Hopp said. “What we’re trying to do is keep the money here.”
Harvest Table and Meadowview Farmers’ Guild store employ a staff of eighteen, but Hopp said the economic reach extends far beyond that. Every supplier and grower who sells to Meadowview Farmers’ Guild also makes money.
“In the three months we were open last year, “Hopp said, “we channeled money into over 50 individuals and families in the region.”
Another way Hopp strives to keep Harvest Table and Meadowview Farmers’ Guild local is through its investors, all of whom are anchored in Southwest Virginia. Organized as an S Corporation with Hopp as a main investor, the company still is seeking additional investors.
Although several companies have approached him about marketing the shares nationally, Hopp prefers to keep ownership regional.
“I don’t want someone in Oklahoma holding a piece of this and trying to dictate what we do. I feel like it should be made available to local and regional investors,” he said.
Hopp’s celebration of things local extends to Meadowview Farmers’ Guild, built to resemble an old time general store and stocked with local goods that range in price from two to 600 dollars. He emphasized that the store isn’t just for high-end merchandise aimed at wealthy tourists.
“We consider any local products—crafts, woodworks, soaps, bird houses, rugs” said Hopp. He carries, for example, jewelry made by two eight year-old girls who call their company Two Chick Jewelry. He added, “I would love to get some quilts.”
“Most of it’s done on commission and we have a time period in which the item needs to sell.”
Although the Meadowview Farmers’ Guild looks like an old-fashioned general store, Hopp is adamant that a return to a local economy is not a return to the past, but a rather a path to a better economic future.
With the rising cost of gas and oil, he maintains that it will become increasingly more expensive to ship produce across the world.
“The better prepared we are to return to a local economy, the better off we’re going to be in terms of our own security, not only food security but economic security.”
Hopp’s dedication to local foods stems in part from his belief that it makes no economic sense to use oil to ship produce–which is mostly water–all over the planet, and partly from a life-long interest in gardening.
At one point, before the project to live on local foods for a year that was so informatively and entertainingly described in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Hopp and his wife Barbara Kingsolver were raising three gardens a year.
“A lot of people nationally got the impression that we woke up one day and said, “I’m tired of sushi, let’s grow our own food, but the reality was both of us gardened and raised and butchered chickens long before the book.”
Hopp, who has supplied produce to Harvest Table from his own garden, plans to continue to do so, just as he remains “absolutely” committed to eating locally grown foods.
“In part because of the freshness and in part because it’s just our way of life,” he said, adding with a smile, “Plus, now we have a place to go out to eat!”