On a sunny morning in June, the cooks from 6th Street Bistro went on a field trip with their boss, Ben Stenn. Stenn, co-owner of the bistro, took his crew to tour Zion Farms south of The Dalles so they could see where the fresh produce that’s delivered to the restaurant several times a week comes from.
Stenn wanted his employees to see what goes into cultivating certified organic produce.
“We’re using more expensive ingredients,” Stenn explained. “The lettuce is picked leaf by leaf. If they see that, it means (the food) gets prepared with a little more care.”
Organic produce is just one item on a growing list of ingredients that make up what Stenn calls the “sustainable menu” at 6th Street Bistro. It’s an effort on the part of Stenn and business partners Jacqueline Carey and Maui Meyer to not only use organic and naturally-raised products, but to buy locally — both to support the local economy and also to eliminate the waste of unnecessary transportation.
“There’s what I call the foolish paradox of food,” Stenn said. “Food being produced here in this area, then boxed up and sent to Portland and shipped back here.”
Stenn began buying from Zion Farms about four years ago “because it was a superior product, not just because it was organic,” he said. Before discovering Zion, he had ordered salad greens from a major distributor, but he found the lettuce would only be good for a few days — not surprising since it was picked several days before he got it.
Now, Stenn can call an order in to Zion Farms on Sunday night, the greens are picked Monday morning and delivered that day. It’s a better product and it lasts longer, says Stenn.
With a growing awareness of healthy and sustainable foods Stenn — a former New York City chef who came to Hood River for a summer visit and never left — turned his attention to a staple of the 6th Street menu: burgers. With more and more research pointing to possible detriments of consuming beef raised with hormones and antibiotics, Stenn began ordering naturally raised beef from Painted Hills Ranch, located in Wheeler County.
Eating organic and sustainable food was becoming a personal choice for Stenn. “Health-wise my feeling is I want to know more before I say, ‘This is okay,’” he said. He was betting that customers at his restaurant felt the same way.
The hormone- and antibiotic-free beef cost more — nearly twice as much as regular beef — but Stenn thought it was worth it.
“We’re doing it because we think it’s right,” he said. “We struggle with it all the time. How do we serve the best, healthiest food and still not lose money on it?”
But using products from Zion Farms and Painted Hills Ranch set the stage for Stenn.
“It made us realize there are a lot of other options,” he said. “So I began researching it.”
Three years later, Stenn is buying from nearly a dozen local farmers, ranchers and food producers. His list of organic and naturally raised food ranges from hormone- and antibiotic-free dairy products to pasta made with free-range eggs.
Thanks in large part to co-owner Carey, the bistro is a Green Smart certified business, which means they reuse or recycle all of their glass, plastic, tin, aluminum and paper products. They order napkins and other products made from unbleached paper and with a minimum of packaging. And Stenn and his kitchen staff compost a 32-gallon bin of vegetable waste every day.
In terms of buying locally, Stenn says it makes good business sense.
“We’ll pay more for a superior product, but pay less into the system of moving it around and handling it,” he said. From Hood River Valley fruit to locally roasted coffee to mushrooms he gets from local foragers, Stenn knows what he’s getting in his own backyard is top quality.
“There are restaurants in New York that can’t get what we’re getting right here,” he said.
Stenn continues to look for the next locally-produced item for his menu and for ways to increase the sustainability theme at 6th Street Bistro. He feels it’s his duty — and that of other restaurant owners — to buy locally and support producers who are foregoing larger profits to ensure a sustainable future.
“The cost rise is hard to justify,” he said. “That’s what holds business owners back. But everybody has to make a commitment. I feel like if we all bite the bullet, prices will eventually come down.” He makes a point of asking the large food distributors if they carry certain specialty products — even when he knows they don’t — just so they know the demand is out there.
Stenn knows it would be easier to simply order everything from a one-stop-shopping distributor. “They have every single thing you’d need to run a restaurant,” he said.
As it is, Stenn oversees multiple deliveries every week — sometimes several a day — and is constantly juggling orders. But it’s worth it to know he’s making a difference locally and globally, and that his customers are, too.
“You have to care about what you do,” Stenn said. “There’s never been a question in my mind that it was right to do these things.”