Buy local: Ann Arbor's Restaurant Week 2018 takes a new direction

Inside the wholesale local farmers market curated for this year's chefs

By Meredith Bruckner - Community News Producer

(Photo: Aventura)

ANN ARBOR - Ann Arbor Restaurant Week is around the corner as the new year fast approaches.

This year, January's Restaurant Week is trying something completely different. It has partnered with Taste the Local Difference, a social enterprise based in Traverse City that acts as Michigan's local food marketing agency. By 2020, it aims to have 20% of all food sold in Michigan be sourced from Michigan farms and food businesses.

On Monday, Dec. 11, it held a special wholesale event downtown at The Celtic Room at Conor O'Neill's on Main St., where chefs could buy directly from local farmers.

Restaurants that participated in the market committed to purchasing $500 of produce from select local farms. To distinguish participating businesses, Restaurant Week customers will find a special Taste the Local Difference logo next to participating restaurant's names on its website.

The concept was the brainchild of Jae Gerhart and Maura Thomson. Gerhart, Washtenaw County's local food coordinator, and Thomson, executive director of the Main Street Area Association, were discussing Restaurant Week, and Gerhart suggested sourcing from local farms.

"As we talked, we realized that Restaurant Week was the perfect fit," Thomson said. "We thought, what better way to introduce our chefs to our local farmers in January?"

"This is a pilot, and we hope to grow (it)," Thomson explained. "The long-term goal of this is to, hopefully, connect farmers with chefs and for long-term relationships to be established."


Seeley Farm's produce on display

"We wanted to market to local chefs who sometimes buy from local farms but aren’t always on the scene," Gerhart said. "We call them our ‘second-tier local shoppers.’ And I think we’re achieving that goal. (It's about) getting farmers connected to chefs and having sales. They’re really making a connection over a product that’s going to be a transaction and that, to me, is a stronger relationship than just, ‘Hi, here’s my business card.'"

Kelly Wilson, Taste the Local Difference's local food coordinator for southeast Michigan, expressed her excitement to be taking part in the event.

"We’re really excited to partner with Maura and everyone at Ann Arbor Restaurant Week,” she said. "We are working to be that recognizable local food brand, so that when people see it, they know there’s a third-party behind (it) that has verified the purchasing, and that there really are local ingredients going into that food." 


Chefs meet with local farmers at a popup wholesale market

Laura Wanke, director of operations at Melange, said once her team heard about the initiative, they were on board. "We love what they’re doing this year with the farmers market. It’s a great opportunity to connect (with) local farmers that maybe we hadn’t been aware of, and a lot of the different offerings that they may have throughout the year, instead of us buying from the normal suppliers," she said.

"This is a great opportunity for us to get to know people, to see their faces," Wanke said. "We’ve already talked to a couple people and we’re very excited to get their price list and have some of their offerings in our restaurant, and not just during Restaurant Week; we want to have it throughout the year."

It's farmer Malaika Whitney's first year participating in Restaurant Week. "It’s something we’ve never done," she said. "We’ve always done all of our sales direct with consumers, so we just wanted to learn about that process. It was an interesting process to come up with wholesale prices and really think about what that means to sell wholesale."


Farmer Malaika Whitney of Whitney Farmstead

She works on her family's fifth-generation farm, Whitney Farmstead, in Webster Township, and raises pastured pork, beef, lamb, chicken and also makes maple syrup. They sell at Argus Farm Stop, the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and also run a meat CSA.

As for her personal background, she was born and raised in Ann Arbor, and her family can trace their roots to the area all the way back to 1900. 

"All of my grandparents and my father, we all went to Ann Arbor Public Schools, which was 10 minutes from our house, but we live on a farm," Whitney said. "So I think that aspect of having a really lively community base downtown and then having rural areas 10 minutes away is a really nice part of living here."

Restaurants supporting the local initiative include:

See the complete Restaurant Week list here.


Diners enjoy a meal at Aventura (Photo: Aventura)

About Ann Arbor Restaurant Week:

The event takes place twice a year in January and June. This year, the dates are:

  • Jan. 14-19
  • June 10-15

According to the event's website:

"Restaurant Week is your opportunity to try as many great Ann Arbor restaurants as your schedule allows for one incredibly low fixed price. $15 for lunch and $28 for a three course dinner with many restaurants offering 2 for 1 pricing!"

Tickets are not required for the event. Simply make reservations at the restaurants you would like to try. Most participating restaurants take reservations, but some don't so be sure to call ahead of time.

For more information and FAQs, visit Restaurant Week's website.

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