Growing Local Roots

Kalamazoo Cuisine Features Local Products

 By: Alyssa J. Trager


Food Dance, located in downtown Kalamazoo, has lead the way by showcasing local products on its menu. Other area restaurants also are bringing chefs and farmers together to create locally inspired menus.

Downtown Kalamazoo restaurants are feeling the push to use Michigan produce and dairy and are no longer outsourcing for products available at the local level.

Food Dance , Rustica and the Millennium Restaurant Group, all centered in downtown Kalamazoo, have incorporated locally grown foods into their menus and continue to change their meals based on what is locally available.

Bob Lewis, a partner and CEO of all operations for the Millennium Restaurant Group, said that he cannot remember a time when there wasn’t a community push to eat local.

The Millennium Restaurant Group was formed by restaurateurs from Michigan and includes Martell's, Epic Bistro, Central City Tap House, The Union Cabaret and Grille, Fieldstone Grill, Martell's Tavern in Coldwater, Cityscape Events and Millennium Catering.

The Union Cabaret and Grille is Millennium’s largest venue, Lewis said, and draws attention locally to downtown and the community. The Union has been using local products since its start.


Lewis said that eating local has almost become a trigger word for the Kalamazoo community, and the economy has helped push local products into the community focus. The decision to use local produce, dairy, herbs, bread, alcohol and meats is both a professional and personal quest for Lewis.


Lewis said the Union uses more local foods during the summer months. Much like a limited time offer, Michigan produce -- squash, blueberries, potatoes and many others --  is more available fresh during the summer than the winter months. When in season, the majority of the produce used at the Union is harvested and bought from local farmers. All the herbs used at the Union are acquired locally too, from mint and basil to cilantro.


The Union has even added Michigan alcohol to their list of eating and drinking local. They have True North, vodka from Traverse City, Valentine from Detroit, Dutchess from Holland, Incentive from Sturgis and DiVine from Baroda, which uses local grapes to make their vodkas.


Michigan is on the board for local beers too, Lewis said. Tap House, a Millennium restaurant, offers 20 different beers. Of those, nine are European and nine are local brewers such as Bells, Shorts and New Holland.


The chefs at The Union have a firm relationship with local farmers and the local farmers’ markets. It’s about developing a lifetime relationship, Lewis said. If a chef was not able to attend the morning’s farmers’ market, a farmer may show up at the back door of the restaurant to deliver their produce.


But it’s not always about the buck,” Lewis said, “We’re not going to buy the food without the quality.”


Natural and organic foods are not necessarily cheaper, but they are better for you, Lewis said.


Chris Kidd, the executive chef for Rustica, started the restaurant one and a half years ago, and said he believes Rustica is one of the best places to work.


The Rustica menu is centered on eating local. Kidd purchases all of his chicken, pork, beef, coffee, bread and eggs locally. He said he doesn’t advertise the process, but he still uses local and sustainable products.


There has been a huge push (to eat local),” Kidd said. “You can’t even park at the Farmers’ Market most mornings.”

Kidd has past experience working with sustainable foods and projects that specialize in local produce.


The movement is absolutely huge in California,” Kidd said. “In certain places it is forced into the chefs.”


Cooking with local and sustainable foods leads to less waste, Kidd said. The produce comes in looking healthier with less fabrication and manipulation. He said he likes to display the products themselves instead of covering them up.


Rustica has worked with 16 local vendors, for a total of 90 percent of its used produce, since it opened in December 2009. They have one main source that provides the majority of their produce and supply everything that is needed to complete the meal, unless Kidd is looking for something special.


Rustica features local foods on its menu year-round by canning, jamming and freezing.


Rustica makes jam from Michigan products and purchases 100 pounds of fresh cheese and freezes it for the winter months. But some herbs, such as spinach are available later in the season than others, Kidd said, since spinach can survive light amounts of freezing temperatures and snow.


While these local restaurants regularly feature local foods on their menus, Food Dance has led the way for many years.


Food Dance opened in 1994 and has always sourced its produce, herbs, eggs, bread, candy, pork, chicken, fruit, turkey, cheese, fish and maple syrup from local vendors. The restaurant provides a full list of local food products that can be found on their “Where Does It Come From” list.


Food Dance, like Rustica and The Union, has standing orders with farmers and attend farmers’ markets for food products that may be needed for the day. Food Dance works with 44 different farms and the relationships between chef and restaurant and farmers have been growing for years, said Michelle Miller, who works for growth and development, marketing, and catering for Food Dance.


I remember how amazing it was when at the end of the season one of the farmers was having a casual conversation with the chef and asked what we would like them to plant and grow for us the next season. It was like having our own garden!” Miller said.


The push to eat local has been growing more and more, Miller said. She said she thinks it is great, but not what it could be. For Food Dance, it is who they are and what they do. It’s hard work and it is good practice for not only restaurants but everyday nourishment and cooking, Miller said.


Some of the motivators to use local products are flavor, freshness and support of the Kalamazoo community, Miller said. Food Dance doesn’t just consider using local products its work, but more so a “bit of an obsession,” she said.

That obsession is led by the owner of Food Dance, Julie Stanley, who has been crowned “Locavore of the Year by Fair Food Matters.

The winner is chosen over a two-month period. Paul Stermer, the executive director for Fair Food Matters, said the award goes to a restaurant or retailer who uses local and sustainable food along with organic foods as a marketing technique and who has done the most for local foods and for the system in the past year.


Julie and Food Dance have been doing that ever since the beginning. She is, for most of us, the real pioneer in bringing local foods back to local sources,” Stermer said.

Photos by Alyssa Trager and Alex Harvey