Farm Fresh

Farm to table is more than just a buzz word at The Greenhouse Bistro & Venue in Citrus County.

Once upon a time eating “farm to table” was the norm. Many Americans lived on farms or at least had a garden, and even those who lived in cities were supplied by nearby farmers.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that urbanization of the country meant more people lived farther away from where their food was produced. As transportation improved and refrigeration became the norm, the food supply chain became much longer, stretching even thousands of miles.

Over the years, something else happened as well. You might say we got greedy. We wanted fresh fruit regardless of season and vegetables that couldn’t be grown in our state—or even our country. We wanted inexpensive meat even if that meant using steroids and hormones to get those animals to market as quickly as possible.

Now, in the 21st century, in an era when exotics fruit is flown in from around the globe and the vast majority of meat consumed is raised on factory farms, often under disturbing conditions, we’ve had an epiphany. Once more, eating fresh, local and seasonal—in other words, eating like our great grandparents did—is trendy again.

It’s called farm to table or fresh to table. The bottom line involves using fresh products grown and raised locally, which means a smaller carbon footprint, not to mention the fact that more money stays in the local economy. Farm to table has become a form of direct marketing for farmers and ranchers. Instead of selling to a middleman, like a grocery store, they’re selling to the consumer, whether that’s a restaurant or an individual.

The term farm to table has become a buzz word. Many restaurants use it as a promotional tool, but genuine farm to table requires a serious commitment and effort. To find out just what’s involved, we sought out a genuine farm-to-table establishment in Citrus County and also spoke with producers.

Fresh, Seasonal, Local

“People use the term farm to table very loosely,” notes Craig Shatto, who, with wife Cindy, owns and operates The Greenhouse Bistro & Venue in Homosassa Springs. “For us, it means being committed to sourcing food that is local, sustainable, organic and naturally grown/raised whenever possible.”

The Shattos’ definition of farm to table means literally going to the farm to pick the produce themselves—plus seafood from the docks or commercial fishermen—and, when that’s not do-able, verifying that products came directly from the farm. Whenever possible, they contract with small, local farmers and growers. They’ve even taken it a step further and grow their own herbs and some veggies in hydroponics systems on-site.

“I’d been reading about food as medicine since my early 20s and have cured a lot of my own health issues with food, including asthma, by eating healthier,” notes Cindy, who is deaf. “We’ve eaten a Paleo diet for years using mostly grass-fed beef, etc. There are very few places we could eat out because my body is so sensitive.

“We wanted to provide a place for people to eat the way we eat at home,” she adds. “We did marketing studies and found that a lot of people said they ate at home because it’s hard to find fresh, healthy food in a restaurant. People still want to go out to eat, but they don’t want to feel sick afterward!”

Craig hails from a farming family and notes that the idea of opening a restaurant focused on fresh, healthy food naturally led down the farm-to-table path. The goal was to create a menu based on “eating clean” without toxic ingredients, such as trans-fats, high fructose corn syrup, additives, artificial ingredients, preservatives, antibiotics or chemicals.

The Shattos found an ideal location overlooking the Hidden Halls River head spring. Sadly, the overgrown property and spring waters had become a dumping ground for all manner of trash for decades.

After extensive cleanup and construction, which began in late 2015, the Shattos opened The Greenhouse Bistro & Venue in June 2016. The eatery is situated on eight idyllic acres perfectly suited for weddings, private parties and other events. Currently, an eco-watercraft business has started on this secluded river, and an eco-resort on the property is being planned.

In addition to enjoying the Shattos’ clever repurposing efforts, such as one wall made entirely of shutters, patrons can appreciate views of an indoor butterfly garden while dining in air conditioning and other nature scenes while looking out over the pristine grounds. When it comes to the appearance of their property, Craig credits Cindy, a naturalist, who has a Master Gardener certification from the University of Florida.

Healthy Spin

The Shattos quickly discovered they’re hardly alone in following a lifestyle that focuses on clean eating.

“People want to live longer and are finding out their diet can help them do that. They’ve found eating healthier, cleaner, more natural food means they don’t have digestive problems and even [helps them]sleep better,” notes Craig, who often hears such stories when he makes the rounds of each table during the evening.

The Greenhouse Bistro has no fryers or microwaves. There’s only a small freezer, and it’s used mostly for gelato and sorbet.

You won’t find any margarine or corn syrup in the kitchen. The Greenhouse Bistro even makes its own mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, soups and salad dressings. Cindy bakes almost all the desserts from scratch, many of which are gluten-free.

About 90 percent of the menu has a healthy spin. Even people with food concerns can easily find dishes that won’t put them at risk, thanks to a staff that was trained and built to be very sensitive to allergies and celiac disease.

Although many menu items are friendly to patrons who don’t eat meat, The Greenhouse Bistro is definitely not a vegan or vegetarian restaurant. In fact, their “Bistro Burger” won the Judge’s Choice award in the 2017 Citrus County Chronicle’s Battle of the Burgers.

One of the challenges with farm to table is that a local farmer may provide some unusual vegetables—but not in large quantities. The chef can come up with something delicious with those vegetables but, on a busy night, may run out of that particular dish.

“The chefs (executive chef Marc Bell and sous chef Dillon Burtsell) may not know what we’re bringing back in the way of vegetables, so they have to be creative,” says Craig. “I think this is why we have a big following. But it’s also why we might run out because we don’t have it in the freezer. We move our inventory quickly. We get four deliveries a week, and we also pick up ourselves at fish houses, farms and produce places.”

The Shattos find that the farm-to-table concept and being more creative with ingredients has also helped them be more competitive.

“We do price checking with other restaurants—even chain restaurants—and find we are usually only 1 to 2 percent higher for higher quality product,” notes Craig, adding that not serving enormous, over-sized portions like most restaurants helps them stay competitive.

Patrons can enjoy a full bar, with some beer and wine from local sources.

Suppliers Weigh In

When it comes to fresh fish, it doesn’t come any fresher than local waters, which is why The Greenhouse Bistro relies on Loughridge Brothers Seafood (facebook.com/naturecoastfresh) as a main source.

“We’re mostly known for stone crab and fish that are indigenous to the Gulf of Mexico,” notes Amy Watson, who represents her brother’s company Loughridge Brothers Seafood, based out of Yankeetown.

For the past 20 years, Paul Loughridge and his crew have had three boats that fish the Gulf year-round. The company has built a strong wholesale business to seafood markets and to select restaurants, like The Greenhouse Bistro.

“I’d eaten at Green House Bistro and knew we wanted to supply Craig and Cindy with fresh product from right here in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Watson. “It’s neat to be able to provide a small restaurant like Craig’s with product that some of the big chain seafood restaurants don’t have. Tourists think if they’re eating at Florida restaurants, the seafood comes from local sources, but at these large chain restaurants, it often doesn’t.

“The seafood we sell is never frozen, and it doesn’t get any fresher,” states Watson. “By the time they land on a customer’s plate at Craig’s restaurant, they’re as fresh as can be, and that’s what everyone wants. People really care about eating better, and they want to eat local.

“The Greenhouse Bistro is like the unicorn of restaurants in Citrus County. They really care about what they do,” says Watson. “The reason more restaurants aren’t farm to table is because it is more work and more expense. We’re fortunate to live in a place where local food, especially seafood, is phenomenal.”

Locally Grown

At Arbor Trails Nursery (arbortrailsnursery.com) in Inverness, all produce, fruit and herbs are grown using hydroponic Vertigro systems. Strawberries (in season), tomatoes, peppers, various lettuces and Swiss Chard are among the products regularly purchased by The Greenhouse Bistro.

“Although we are not certified organic, we use organic practices, such as using only organic-approved pesticides and only if necessary. We also use fertilizer specific to hydroponics and use non-GMO seed sources,” says manager Jen Vicari.

“The Green House Bistro has attracted a lot of customers who care about how and what they eat,” she notes. “So many products come from big providers, and you don’t know where it comes from or what it’s been sprayed with. It’s a big thing for people to come here themselves and see how it’s grown.”

Arbor Trails Nursery starts most of what they grow from seeds, except for strawberries.

“We get about 3,000 strawberry plants at a time, and we just don’t have the capacity to start that many here,” says Vicari, who hopes to see more area restaurants step up and support local farms and nurseries the way The Greenhouse Bistro has done.

Organic Produce

When Duwayne Sipper opened a homeless shelter in Beverly Hills, Florida, in 2001, he found most of the people checking in were malnourished, so he started a backyard garden in 2002 with the idea of helping them eat healthier. In 2005, a local church loaned him 10 acres to grow vegetables and later added another five acres. Many of the homeless ended up working the fields for supervised “work therapy,” gaining not only peace and solitude but also improved health from the exercise and useful workforce skills.

Since opening its doors, The Path of Citrus County (pathofcitrus.org) has sheltered more than 1,700 homeless or displaced men, women and children, mostly from Citrus County. The Path Farm has not only helped these individuals with their recovery but has also turned into a place for Citrus County residents and restaurants to purchase fresh, locally grown, pesticide-free vegetables through co-op membership plans, allowing them to obtain a basket of seasonal veggies, whatever is ready for harvest that week, for the duration of their membership.

“The Greenhouse Bistro chef said he was on the trail from Gainesville to Tampa and couldn’t find vegetables like we have,” says Sipper, noting that all produce is grown without herbicides or pesticides. The Path even germinates its own seeds and then transplants those seedlings to the fields.

Realizing that it’s challenging to grow crops in sugar sand, Sipper set out to find ways to enrich the soil. When the county was dredging lakes to remove weeds, he recruited them to dump the rich black mulch from the lake bottom on his cropland. He also has permits to take water from Lake Hernando to use for irrigation.

Certified Humane

One of the challenges of going farm to table is finding consistent supply. That’s the reason a restaurant like The Greenhouse Bistro uses a company like Master Purveyors (masterpurveyorsfla.com) of Tampa as a source for quality meats.

“The Greenhouse Bistro gets hormone-, steroid-, antibiotic-free beef that is USDA certified humane for the treatment of animals,” says longtime sales rep Chris Mina. “Not many producers are USDA certified humane; it’s a very hard certification to get. The animals have to be able to roam freely and not be stressed by handling; the rancher has to go above and beyond when raising the animals.”

Mina explains that animals raised without hormones and steroids take longer to raise to optimal weight for harvesting, which tends to make the meat more expensive.

“Because they take longer to grow, it takes more feed, but their meat has more fat marbling,” says Mina. “Beef grown without steroids doesn’t have the shrinkage when cooking that you get from ‘commodity’ beef, and it has a tastier, more beefy flavor.”

Learn more › The Greenhouse Bistro & Venue › 2420 S Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa Springs › (352) 503-7276 › facebook.com/greenhousebistroandmarket or greenhousebistrovenue.com

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