One of our missions here at Farms Work Wonders is to create food and farm-based social enterprises that generate income to help sustain our nonprofit organization. Those enterprises are also “living classrooms” to provide real-life experiences and skills to our Junior Crew (youth employees). Our first three enterprises – our organic farm, market, and from-scratch bakery – have not only provided great learning experiences but have brought in revenue that has been 100% reinvested back into the community since 2016! We continue to learn and improve our operations every day, and our customers have rewarded us with their loyalty and generosity. With these lessons under our belt, in 2020, we planned to open two more enterprises – a commercial kitchen and a farm-connected restaurant.
The planning for those new ventures actually started in 2019, before any signs of a pandemic. We secured the perfect spot on Main Street, just blocks from our farm operations, a building that was historically the local International Order of Oddfellows Lodge. Unfortunately, the building we thought would need light renovations turned out to have a failed foundation and needed to be torn down and completely rebuilt. That was a surprise but gave us opportunities we did not have previously. We spent hundreds of hours discussing the two new enterprises – what we wanted the restaurant to look and feel like, what kind of food we wanted to serve, how we wanted to layout the commercial kitchen, and how we planned on incorporating culinary and hospitality training for our Junior Crew. As living classrooms, the restaurant and commercial kitchen are not only meant to be amazing food operations but also environments for training and skill-building.
When news first circulated about the coronavirus and the unknown impact it would have, we knew we had to pause and adapt. So we slowed everything down. When we closed all of our operations in early March, the building demolition was complete, and the new foundations were set, but major construction had not started on the building yet. We were lucky in the sense that we still had the opportunity to revisit our plans and adapt instead of having to retrofit later. We kept asking ourselves: “Who opens a restaurant during a worldwide pandemic? Should we keep going blindly forward? Should we shut the project down entirely?” We also consulted with our Board of Directors and people in the restaurant community who have helped us along the way to make the best decisions.
The forced, unplanned pause allowed us to come up with a new plan. To preserve as many future options as possible, we decided to prioritize the production kitchen part of the project and put a hold on the restaurant. A commercial kitchen enterprise would be essential for us, with or without a pandemic. And, people still needed to eat. Our farm was still going to be producing vegetables, and they needed an outlet for excess produce and seconds (also known as ugly produce). Creating our own line of value-added products (jams, sauces, jellies, pickles, relish, etc…) is one of the best ways to reduce produce waste since the shelf life of the produce is extended by preserving it in ways such as canning, fermenting, or freezing.
This commercial kitchen will also house our new, expanded bakery. Our current bakery is co-located in our farmhouse market, previously a 100-year-old residential farmhouse, which is currently bursting at the seams and producing more and more from-scratch baked goods every year. This also opened up another opportunity for us. When our current bakery moves into the new space, that will allow us to open up the farmhouse market space (currently ⅓ market and ⅔ bakery) to be 100% market. This will allow us to expand our offerings, bring in more locally sourced food products, offer more grab and go food options, and provide some much needed indoor seating (and many more surprises!)
In mid-2020, we got back to work planning, with this shift in focus. Although we were extremely excited about opening up a locally-sourced restaurant in town, we knew that putting our attention on the commercial kitchen was the smarter move. And although revisiting and shifting our plans held us back in the short term, in the long run, it will help us be a more sustainable, long-lasting enterprise.
Soon you will start seeing lots of activity on the building, from finishing the exterior to building out the interior of the kitchen. This new 2,000 square foot, state-of-the-art commercial kitchen will allow us to teach classes remotely via streaming video as well as conduct live, in-house, hands-on classes and training. All of our new equipment arrives at the end of February and we are planning for an April or May opening, as long as there are no other setbacks.
And don’t worry, the restaurant hasn’t been forgotten! We’re rethinking our concept, looking at how to incorporate outdoor seating, and looking at what else we could do with the space that still focuses on locally grown food and community. We’re keeping it a blank canvas for now and will continue to be open to new ideas.
My name is Violaine and I’m involved in all things food at Farms Work Wonders. I’m a mountain girl at heart who moved to West Virginia from DC so I could hike more, live a simpler life, and cook with food from farmers I know by name.
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