- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2006

A collective led by a group of North Dakota farmers is hoping to make some dough off its handmade pasta, straight from the farm.

The nearly 500 farmer-investors will hold the grand opening of Agraria Restaurant in Georgetown tomorrow, selling farm-raised beef, vegetables and products, such as pasta, made with fresh ingredients.

The North Dakota Farmers Union decided to open the restaurant to make money and spread the word on the importance of American farmers.

“They were searching for a way to get a larger share of consumers’ food dollars,” said Robert L. Carlson, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union in Jamestown, N.D. “They felt like they were not getting rewarded properly for the care and attention they’re putting into their products.”

The farmers decided to cut out the middleman and put their products directly on consumers’ plates. The result is the only farmer-owned restaurant of its size and upscale nature.

The menu at Agraria, which means “from (or of) the land” in Latin and is the base for the word “agriculture,” is a classic American cuisine of beef and pasta. Anywhere from 40 percent to 80 percent of the menu — which will be revised according to what is fresh — comes directly from farms, said Tom Prescott, project manager of the restaurant.

Pastas are made with North Dakota-ground wheat, while crab comes from Maryland and avocados on the menu are from California.

Even the restaurant’s bar sticks with the organic, farm-grown concept. The “M Street Cosmo” includes ingredients such as fresh lime juice, organic dried cranberries from Massachusetts and cranberry bog honey — honey with a slight cranberry flavor because of its proximity to cranberry bogs and their flowers.

Eventually, Mr. Prescott said he hopes to serve even organic, freshly prepared condiments and boost a 100 percent farm-sourced menu.

Diners will see a difference in Agraria from the moment they read the menu, which includes stories about the farmers, and talks to the waiters and waitresses, who are required to know where each ingredient is grown, Mr. Carlson said during an interview in the restaurant, which is decorated in appropriately matched earth tones of cream, brown and tan with green accents. Fresh flowers top each table.

Unlike most restaurants, Agraria’s strategic direction will be driven by a board of directors composed completely of farmers. Day-to-day decisions on the menu will be made by the executive chef, who has yet to be named.

Paul Anthony Morello, former chef of Les Halles, was executive chef at the new restaurant until about two weeks ago when the parties decided to part ways “amicably.” Agraria plans to name a new head chef within weeks.

The farmers who have invested in the restaurant, Mr. Carlson said, will see dividends matching the restaurant’s growth. The farmers who supply the restaurant won’t see too much profit until there are many more restaurants under Agraria’s ownership, he said.

The group decided on locating in Washington because of its high disposable income and education levels. Mr. Carlson said there is no political message behind making Washington its home.

If Agraria’s Washington location is successful, the group plans to open restaurants in other cities, he said, though they don’t know where the second location would be yet. Mr. Carlson declined to reveal expected sales figure.

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