Forget your wallet

A ploughman’s lunch and a local craft brew in Antigonish, N.S., and you already paid the bill—two years ago.

The community shared/supported agriculture (CSA) model has been around since the 1990s in Canada.  In case you’re not familiar with it, the idea is that consumers pay for their season’s produce up front, in the early spring, allowing struggling organic farmers to have the cash up front to pay for seeds and equipment (see Annie Crane’s feature in our last issue on the draw of faulty labor practices, partly because organic farms struggle to make ends meet while also needing more labor). CSA members then share in the harvest of the season, and their original deposit means that the farmers can breathe a little easier if one of their crops has a hard year. So if the heritage Brandywine tomatoes or garlic scapes don’t make it that year, the whole community takes the blow. Traditionally CSAs were for local produce, but grain farms have also used the model, reported the Globe and Mail way back in ’08 of a farm in Nelson, B.C., in that case as a result of the sweeping 100-mile diet trend. Meanwhile, cow-shares, wine-shares and bread-shares are popping up as an alternative to mainstream food retailers, and as a way to provide some security to otherwise volatile businesses.

In recent years, I’ve been hearing more and more about community-shared restaurants and pubs. For example, old friends of mine, Rose Murphy and Terry Piercey in Antigonish, N.S. are working on their vision of starting a local brew pub, the Townhouse, inspired by this 2008 New York Times article which discussed Claire’s restaurant in Hardwick, Vermont.  Claire’s sold $50,000 in $1,000 subscriptions which entitled buyers to $25 of food for 10 months of the year for four years. Writes Murphy, after talking to Claire’s: “it’s important to note that these subscriptions are not guaranteed—as in Community Supported Agriculture, part of the deal is that subscription holders share the risk of failure with the business.” And unlike cooperatives, with the CSA model, restaurant owners are just that:  owners.

The Townhouse in Antigonish has also raised $50,000 in subscriptions so far, and $100,000 in loans from community members. Needless to say, quite a few pub lunches and a load of craft brew pints will be doled out in the next four years, just as soon as the Townhouse opens this June.

So when I heard last week about another similar venture opening up in my new stomping ground in Guelph, Ontario, I was intrigued. Granted, the cute posters of “chess and figs” helped draw me in (well some of us like that sort of thing). Mark Rodford, Owner of the well-loved Cornerstone café and a specialty food store, Ouderkirk & Taylor, has decided to open a restaurant that offers food from local farmers, and a unique business model.  “OX is offering community bonds, sold at $500 each. Those who purchase a community bond are considered a member of the Founders Club and will receive $750 in food and non-alcoholic beverage credits to be used within the first two years of the opening of OX,” reported the Guelph Mercury.

Other community-shared restaurants exist across Canada, including Ottawa’s Zen Kitchen (with rave reviews here), but not a ton. Zen’s owners, Caroline Ishii and Dave Loan, sold $10,000 worth of gift certificates in order to raise funds for the restaurant before it was built. (The story of their business was highlighted in a Canadian docudrama on OWN launched in 2010, “The Restaurant Adventures of Caroline and Dave”).

In light of public service job losses creating a ripple effect in local economies, with regions like Nova Scotia being hit hardest, it comes as no surprise that business owners will continue to look to their local community to provide security and job creation.  In the meantime, entrepreneurs like Murphy, Piercey and Rodford are bringing local fare closer and closer to home and inviting you to join in the fray. For once, it’s OK to forget your wallet.

Anna Bowen will be writing about food and food politics every other Tuesday at this.org.