’Til the Well Runs Dry | Food Newsfeed
Erik Voegle

’Til the Well Runs Dry

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As drought conditions worsen in California, restaurant owners and chefs, particularly those who rely on farmers and local ingredients, are panicking. But they are also finding creative ways to stay afloat.
By Sonya Chudgar September 2014 Sustainability

Kitchen staffs in restaurants often have inside jokes and running gags among themselves, but there is a dire joke winding through California kitchens this year: “Nobody is going to ask you to wash every third plate.” The punch line? Every eatery needs to find creative means to save water.

The West Coast is in the midst of its worst drought in 165 years, and every restaurant is feeling the pinch, particularly the farm-to-table varieties. As the summer wraps and the typical growing season fetches little produce, the conversation has shifted to whether restaurants need to raise menu prices, how to sustain a greener operation, and how they will source local ingredients if there are few to purchase—especially as food shortages and commodity prices have become issues beyond the West Coast.

Already, many restaurants in California have stopped serving water or refilling glasses unless a guest asks. “This isn’t just something that is buried on page five of the newspaper and is not that big of a deal,” says Angelica Pappas, communications manager for the California Restaurant Association. “Consumers, they see that water service as being the tip of the iceberg.”

“Tip of the iceberg” is an ironic idiom to use these days. The water content of California’s snowpack, which supplies about one-third of the water to the state’s cities and farms, was at a mere 32 percent of average in April—despite that being the month when the snowpack is normally at its peak before it melts into streams and reservoirs. By May, the water content of the snowpack had slid to a scant 18 percent. The low reservoir storage, coupled with the fact that the winter yielded only five days of rain in some regions of the state, encouraged local municipalities to tell farmers they wouldn’t be receiving their normal irrigation quotas over the summer.

Farm To Unstable

“It’s brutal. It’s really bad out there,” says CJ Jacobson, executive chef at Girasol in Los Angeles and expert forager. “They’re scared, man, the farmers are scared. It’s not like the droughts I grew up with; it’s 40 times worse.”

As 2013 was the driest year on record for many regions of California, Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. declared a state of emergency in January. About 410,000 acres of farmland in California’s Central Valley were left fallow this year, representing a 6 percent loss in irrigable land. That will result in fewer choices for consumers, including restaurateurs, according to a forecast produced by the University of California-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Since California has received only 29 percent of its normal precipitation this year, researchers predict major socio-economic losses will reverberate across the state, particularly in the Central Valley, which faces an estimated 14,500 farm jobs cut. Of the economic losses that will occur in the state, 60 percent, or $1.7 billion, will occur in the San Joaquin Valley, which accounts for more than half of California’s total agricultural output and supplies about one-third of the U.S. vegetable, fruit, and nut crops.

Some farmers are bulldozing their groves, accepting the fact that their trees will die of thirst regardless; others are paying upward of three or four times as much as usual for water to keep their trees on the brink of life.

Due to the lack of planting and growing, major California crops will not be as widely available in 2015, including broccoli, tomatoes, cantaloupes, and garlic. Some commodities that are exclusive to California, such as walnuts, almonds, and olives, will face exponential price increases, researchers say.

“Braised beef cheeks, since Urban Solace opened [in 2007], have gone from $4 a pound to $8 a pound,” says Matt Gordon, chef/owner of three San Diego restaurants. “One of the farms that I was solely buying them from in California went out of business; now, I buy them directly from a different California farm. But if the rain doesn’t fall, and the grass doesn’t grow, and the cows can’t eat grass, then the price just goes up further.”

The Impact on Restaurants

Hovering over every chef and restaurant owner is the possibility of raising menu prices to cushion the blow of increasing food prices. Every chef interviewed for this story says he does not intend to raise prices and pass the cost on to the diners; however, each acknowledged that it might occur as a last resort.

“We’re not planning on raising menu prices this year. If it gets really out of control, we will, but we have some built-in safety valves from that standpoint,” says Jesse Mallgren, executive chef at Madrona Manor, an inn and restaurant in Healdsburg, California, about 70 miles north of San Francisco. Madrona Manor did a small menu price increase at the beginning of the year that Chef Mallgren believes will hold the restaurant over, though he adds, “obviously, if prices skyrocket, then we have to pass it on.”

At Urban Solace in San Diego, $18 used to be the ceiling for most of Chef Gordon’s entrées; in the seven years since the restaurant opened, that number has eked up to $23.

“We can’t really make a decision where we say, ‘It’s just going to be more expensive’ until we are in the middle of it,” Chef Gordon explains. “Then we say, ‘All right, can we add another dollar on this dish, and is that going to help us make it through the next 12 months without taking it off the menu?’ And then see what happens in the fall. If prices don’t come down, then we consider taking it off or making the switch.”

Regardless, if meat prices rise an insufferable amount, Chef Gordon says he will not switch to commodity beef from the grass-fed variety. “I would take it off the menu first.”

Lack of ingredients is a big concern for Chef Jacobson of Girasol, who used to work with a forager named Pascal Baudar. “He was one of the better foragers in Los Angeles, and the only one I know that does restaurants,” Jacobson says. “The drought is so brutal, it makes his job 10 times longer, because he has to drive farther and a lot of [plants] didn’t even come up this season.”

As a rule of thumb, Baudar only picks 20 percent of the wild ingredients he finds, in order to preserve the natural environment. The drought affected the supply of wild produce so miserably that Baudar suspended his services. Jacobson has taken up foraging himself, and he only picks 10 percent.

“Just last week, I put about 500 miles on my car foraging,” Jacobson says. “We like to go where there’s not a lot of human traffic. I’m not going to go pick something that’s been exposed to car fumes all day long. But a lot of plants just aren’t coming up.”

For some restaurants, the availability of produce already dictates what they serve, and the drought has not changed that. “Pretty much all of our restaurants are market-driven, cooking what’s in season,” explains Marc Quinones, vice president of operations for Moana Restaurant Group, which owns and operates 18 full-service restaurants on the West Coast.

“We’re accustomed to cooking what’s being produced, anyway,” Quinones says. “Farm-to-table used to be a movement; now, it’s just the way people cook. I don’t know that we really changed our practices [due to the drought].”

The New Normal

What Moana Restaurants did change, however, was its restaurant operations. Quinones says the leaders reached out to all the employees and created a conversation around conserving water, making it a part of the business’s culture. Every Moana restaurant was inspected by restaurant managers to make sure they fixed leaks and insulated pipes; dish washers went through training so they knew when to fill basins to rinse dishes; bar backs were instructed in how to fully maximize racks; cooks learned to only thaw frozen food in the walk-in refrigerators, not under running water; and the janitorial team was told to use water responsibly. Moana also distributed signs to its restaurants that reminded patrons to think about water conservation.

“Company-wide, we have 1,400 employees, and not all are in the drought area, but the great majority are in California,” Quinones says. “The challenge we put out was: There are 1,400 households you can affect. My 7-year-old daughter saw me brushing my teeth and said, ‘Daddy, why are you letting the water run?’ And she’s in first grade.”

Another common practice is asking guests whether they want water before automatically bringing out glasses filled to the brim, topped with ice cubs, already sweating condensation onto the glass. Some localities, such as Santa Cruz, made it unlawful to serve water unless a patron asked for it.

“We see a lot of restaurants, through social media and their websites and signage in their restaurants, try to communicate what they’re doing,” says Pappas at the California Restaurant Association, “so their consumers know and are encouraged that their favorite eateries are doing what they can to address the drought.”

Chef Gordon in San Diego, however, has stayed away from marketing his water-savvy ways. “People want restaurants to be sexy. They don’t want to know that we’re using less water in our dish machines.”

In June, the National Restaurant Association relaunched its Conserve website to educate restaurateurs about sustainability and how to apply greener business practices. The objective is to provide case studies and best practices surrounding sustainability, including reduced water consumption, considering it is one of the most talked-about topics among restaurateurs and their customers.

“As it goes on, as it becomes more and more of a crisis for the state, you see the concern mount, start to escalate,” Pappas says. “It’s anybody’s guess as to how long this will last. If it does start raining, it’s too late for a harvest this year.”

Not every chef anticipates the weather becoming a stranglehold on his operations. And those who do are actually using the drought to reaffirm their principles.

Chef Gordon says he will only consider sourcing outside of California if he absolutely has to. “What’s the point of doing business in the local economy if you can’t support the local economy?”