By DAVID DeWITT
ATHENS — Ohio University played host to the Real Food, Real Local, Real Good Institute last week, where foodies from all over joined to explore ways that Athens County is setting itself apart when it comes to eating locally.
A panel discussion titled, “A Bird’s Eye View of the Athens Food Economy,” featured several different speakers from both the university and greater Athens community telling their stories.
This included John Gutekanst, owner of Avalanche Pizza; Matt Rapposelli, executive chef for OU; Todd Wilson, owner of Sol Restaurant; Natalie Shubert, who wrote her dissertation on the Athens food economy; Ana Rosado-Feger and Amy Taylor-Bianco, both OU professors involved in the local food movement.
Shubert, who grew up on a commercial farm in Illinois, said it didn’t take long to notice there was something special about Athens.
“I grew up on a farm, and knew something about conventional farming but when I got to Athens, I noticed there was something different,” she said. She studied the local food market for four years, Shubert recalled, working mainly with family farmers.
Gutekanst said that he’s spent his entire life in the restaurant business and started Avalanche Pizza about 13 years ago.
More recently, Avalanche started buying sausage locally from the King Family Farm. Gutekanst said this is a big step forward, as sausage can often contains ample preservative chemicals, and buying locally does away with that.
“We mix it in house, and we’re working on chicken,” he said. “Wherever possible, we use all sorts of (local) vegetables. I go up to the produce auction every (week).”
Wilson, who opened Sol about five months ago in an alley off North Court Street, said that while the menu is all Cuban fare, the restaurant purchases as much food locally as possible. For instance, he said, Cuban food uses a lot of beans and rice, which aren’t difficult to source in this area. Other, more exotic ingredients aren’t quite as easy, he said.
“We’ve got plans down the road to integrate as many more things as possible,” he said, pointing out numerous opportunities in the Athens area to do networking and establish local food relationships.
Rapposelli said he comes from a long family line of food businesses, and although he originally tried to get away from the food life, he somehow found himself in it anyway. Living in Vermont while attending school, he said, he quickly noticed buying local food wasn’t an effort but rather a way of life there. He said that Athens is on its way toward becoming the same kind of place.
He also spoke about the vast quantities of food used at Ohio University and how it’s difficult to source locally because there’s just so much quantity demand.
For instance, Rapposelli said he remembers his first day on the job when he was at the food-loading docks and saw pallet after pallet of foodstuffs stacked for hundreds of feet. He asked a co-worker how long that food would last. “Today” was the reply.
OU serves more than 20,000 meals per day catering to more than 8,000 students on meal plans. The university has facilities akin to a Sam’s Club worth of food, and freezers the size of greenhouses, he said.
Gutekanst pointed out that it’s never a good idea to try to compete against Rapposelli at the local food produce auction.
“One time I saw a barrel full of hundreds of cantaloupe,” Gutekanst said. “I thought, ‘Who the heck would buy that?’ And sure enough…” He gestured at Rapposelli.
An irony that Rapposelli pointed out comes from the end-of-the-year food surveys the university provides to students. Without fail, students always ask for two things on those surveys, he said: Less fried food and a wider variety of healthier options. But what are the number one foods actually consumed? Fries and chicken nuggets. Rapposelli said OU has freezers stocked with the stuff.
The discussion also turned to using the “local” brand in marketing. Both Gutekanst and Wilson said that this is a crucial way to help offset the higher cost of buying local.
“If I have to pay more for this, I’m going to get marketing from it,” Gutekanst said. “To me, it’s all about marketing.”
He even showed off a new T-shirt that proclaims, “Love Athens, Go Local.”
Wilson acknowledged that there’s definitely a price premium for buying locally that typically gets passed on with somewhat higher prices. But everyone agreed that with the marketability in Athens of local food, people are generally willing to pay the extra dollar for quality.
Wilson has even decorated Sol with framed logos of many of the local food producers the restaurant works with.
“It ties into the way we’ve decorated the restaurant,” he said. “It’s not just a concept or idea or something we say we’re doing. When you walk in the restaurant, it’s right there in your face. So it’s clear who we’re working with and what we’re using.”