Sourcing success at Clarkson University

Dining venue goes to 100% local products.

Two years ago, when the dining services team at Clarkson University, in upstate Potsdam, N.Y., began integrating locally sourced foods into campus menus, it couldn’t have foreseen where it would be today. This fall saw the opening of the Main Street Grill, a meal exchange café offering menu items created with 100% locally sourced produce, meat and dairy products purchased from farms located within 200 miles of the approximately 3,500-student campus.

“Our Clarkson students, faculty and staff have a great interest in sustainability and are always encouraging us to look for ways to defy the standard concepts of campus dining,” says John Lehmann senior director of dining services. “So, this venue is the next logical step in our ‘green’ practices. We’re not only supporting our local, regional and state businesses, but we’re also being sustainable by using fewer nonrenewable resources to have food delivered to campus.”

Dining services had full administrative support to pursue implementation of more locally sourced ingredients in order to support local farmers while being environmentally conscious. The university’s president, Anthony Collins, is co-chair of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council. “With that support,” Lehmann explains, “we aimed to use as many local products as possible.” Before long, dining services’ efforts proved to be more than fruitful, and it soon had established enough relationships to showcase the locally sourced ingredients within the new Main Street Grill.

Sourcing ingredients has been a challenge, Lehmann says. However, by establishing relationships with local producers and continually spreading the word about the university’s goal, the dining services team is making headway. Working with local farmers is more of a networking nightmare than anything, explains Campus Executive Chef Kyle Mayette. “One [farmer] does one thing really well, and another does other things. There are a lot of little guys, but no one is really big,” Mayette says. “You have to get out there and talk to them to produce for you.”

Proving to the farmers that the sale is worth the production is a slow process. “My goal is to get more producers in the area,” Mayette says, “and if we buy more stuff, producers will produce more stuff.” Mayette spreads the word through press releases and articles in the paper and finds that local farmers, “once they see that I’m buying large quantities of things, they’re more inclined to participate.” 

Actually picking up the purchases is also a hassle. Mayette dreams of the day when he can make only one stop to source his local ingredients rather than driving farm-to-farm to meet with growers. “It would be easier if there was one stop where all of the local schools could benefit [from working out purchasing agreements with local farms],” Mayette says. “There are farms that specialize in one thing, but no one wholesales it in. We use 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of corn each year—there’s no reason why that can’t be produced down the road. And there’s no reason why that mindset can’t change.” 

In addition to hand-cut fries and poutine made from Meier’s Artisan Cheese curds from Fort Covington, N.Y., a limited, seasonally updated offering is available at the Main Street Grill. The menu is broken up into three sections:

  1. From the Pasture: One-third pound Angus Beef patty from Kilcoyne Farms, in Brasher Falls, N.Y., served on a whole-wheat bun from the Potsdam Food Co-op’s Carriage House Bakery, topped with Great Lakes Cheese from Adams, N.Y., and local mixed greens and tomato.
  2. From the Coop: A sandwich featuring a grilled free-range chicken breast from Wellington Farms, in Ontario, Canada, served on a Carriage House multi-grain bun, topped with a goat cheese spread from the Vermont Creamery, in Websterville, Vt., house-pickled local red onions, local mixed greens and tomato.
  3. From the Field: A sandwich featuring local seasonal vegetables, Carriage House pita bread, Vermont Creamery goat cheese spread, local mixed greens and tomato.

Although the 100% locally sourced menu is more expensive, the added cost isn’t passed onto students, Mayette explains. “It’s pricey to begin with, which we don’t mind paying for,” Mayette says. “But as a meal exchange concept, we had to make the menu and weights align and be creative. Center of plate can’t be very expensive, so we make up for it with sides and [have to] be precise about recipe and menu design.” Not using disposable containers has also helped to offset costs. This year, all dining facilities implemented non-disposable to-go containers, which students purchase for a one-time fee.

The Main Street Grill has been successful, despite challenges to ramp up sourcing options. Mayette says the new iteration of the Main Street Grill has seen an increase in the amount of transactions. Before becoming the current 100% locally sourced dining venue, the Main Street Grill was a burrito station. “Using locally sourced ingredients “adds more labor and more time,” Mayette adds, “but it’s a better product. Customers realize that this is superior to the other options.”

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