From the outside looking in, the North Dakota Farmers Union doesn’t seem like it would have much in common with a couple of East Coast restaurateurs. But over the last decade, the group representing thousands of farmer families in North Dakota has forged a unique partnership with a restaurant management company near the nation’s capital. Together, farmers and entrepreneurs have created a restaurant portfolio that now encompasses seven on-premise locations and a thriving distillery operation. They put mission over money and boast a “Made in America” farming ethos that resonates with modern consumers.
The restaurateurs are Michael Vucurevich and Dan Simons, founders of consulting and hospitality company Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group (VSAG), which is based in Kensington, Maryland. They began working with the North Dakota Farmers Union in 2005—forming Farmers Restaurant Group—and three years later opened their first joint restaurant venture, Founding Farmers, in Washington, D.C. The concept was created to showcase American family farmers and continues to do so today, emphasizing foods that are grown, raised, and harvested on family-run farms across the country. The Founding Farmers restaurant concept now boasts five locations in Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and is joined by two additional restaurants—Farmers Fishers Bakers and Farmers & Distillers, both with single units in Washington, D.C. The latter incorporates Founding Spirits Distillery, a spirits-producing project that has a similar approach to its restaurant portfoliomates, sourcing ingredients from American farmers to produce vodka, American whiskey, amaro, rye, and gin.
Farmer’s Restaurant Group does more than $85 million in annual revenues, with 25% of total restaurant sales coming from beverage alcohol. Farming and responsible product sourcing are the foundation of the company’s business, but the beverage component is a critical part of the overall concept. They put a huge emphasis on cocktails, augmented by their own spirits products, and also have well-rounded beer and wine lists at each concept.
“We started this project by combining our vision of hospitality and restaurateurship with the mission of our partners in the North Dakota Farmers Union to advocate for American family farmers,” says Simons. “We’re able to put mission over profit. That’s what makes us different and has allowed us to stand the test of time for more than ten years. We strive for all-natural products and for transparency in what we do so that our guests can see, feel, and hear our values.”
The North Dakota Farmers Union spearheaded the efforts to create a restaurant that uses only farm-sourced ingredients and homegrown products to create awareness and support for rural America. They chose to start in Washington, D.C. because they felt the nation’s capital would provide access to a wide swath of consumers and create ample exposure. The farmers union approached VSAG with the idea, and Farmers Restaurant Group grew from there.
“Our partners in North Dakota felt like D.C. would be a great area to get noticed and spread the message for American family farming,” Simons explains. The group supports small businesses over large conglomerates and global corporations. “We have a huge advantage because we can put mission over profit,” Simons adds. “We’ve never taken capital or private equity money and have no interest in going public. We think like farmers and grow as we’re ready.”
The North Dakota Farmers Union is a majority owner of Farmers Restaurant Group. From proposing the first restaurant in 2005 to opening it in 2008, the company has benefited from measured growth in the nation’s capital and outward into Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Their approach isn’t easy; the group seeks LEED energy and environmental certification for each of its buildings and sources most of its ingredients from its farmer partners. Simons admits this is labor-intensive and costly, but adds that it offers a lot of benefits, too. “It’s incredibly rewarding,” he says. “There’s no easy way to get food grown by independent farmers and it takes a lot of extra effort. But I don’t need to get the lowest price because I’m cutting out the middle man. We want to unbundle the supply chain, which has become too industrialized. It makes us more dynamic. We pay more to the farmer but shrink the supply chain to produce a premium product at less cost.”
This is true for both the food and beverage components of Farmers Restaurant Group. The company puts a high priority on offering quality drinks programs at each restaurant. Roughly a quarter of its $85 million-plus annual restaurant revenue comes from drinks. Spirits and cocktails make up about 70% of beverage sales, followed by wine at 20% and beer at 10%. The distillery portion is poised to reach $1 million in revenue this year.
“The beverage piece is incredibly important because it plays such a big part in creating an experience for our guests,” Simons says. “Our guests like to explore different spirits and ingredients and flavors. We take the craft of mixology seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We want people to have fun and explore the drinks. When drinks bring people together around the table, it warms my heart.”
Farmers Restaurant Group approaches drinks in the same way it does food, highlighting its ingredients’ sourcing and local producers when possible. Since the company operates a distillery, it uses its own spirits first in most cases, though every venue has a full roster behind the bar. The restaurant drinks programs and spirits production is headed by Jon Arroyo, the group’s vice president of beverage operations, managing partner, and distillery director. The company works with nearby Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia on the proprietary spirits projects.
Copper Fox is the primary producer for Founding Farmers rye ($45 a 750-ml.) and Founding Farmers gin ($35), which existed before the restaurant group but have since been rebranded as proprietary products for the company. Copper Fox also helps with Founding Spirits vodka ($25), Founding Spirits American whiskey ($45), and Founding Spirits Arroyo’s Never Bitter amaro ($35), though much of the production for those spirits takes place at the facility within Farmers & Distillers restaurant. The distillery opened three years ago with the launch of the restaurant and those inaugural labels.
“The original intent of our bar program was to introduce a pre-Prohibition-style cocktail bar where we could bring back the notion of making cocktails the way they were intended to be made—from scratch with fine spirits and ingredients made in-house,” Arroyo explains. “The original distillers of America were farmers. It’s more labor intensive, but you can’t quantify effort when it comes to producing quality.”
All the Founding Spirits labels are available in the restaurants and in several other on- and off-premise venues in Washington, D.C. The company hopes to expand its spirits offerings immensely and ultimately make them available nationwide. Growth will be deliberate and Arroyo says the plan is to saturate the D.C. market before moving on. Other products will also be added. Though he couldn’t provide specifics at press time, Arroyo notes that he’s readying new spirits labels for launch next year.
“There are people who come to our group just to have drinks and experience the offerings we produce,” Arroyo says. “We’ve garnered a good reputation over the years for our beverage program. We continue to evolve, to push the envelope, and to figure out ways to enhance the guest experience through drinks.”
Though the menus at each Farmers Restaurant Group venue vary, there’s one drink that’s listed at every location—the Cucumber Delight ($12 at Founding Farmers D.C.). Made with Founding Spirits vodka, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, lemon juice, and muddled cucumber and cantaloupe, the cocktail is the company’s top-selling drink and is a prime example of how the restaurants showcase their own spirits alongside well-known brands.
Farmers & Distillers highlights the company’s own spirits lineup heavily at the bar. The venue’s menu is broken down by spirits type, with each of the company’s products designed to anchor the drinks in its respective area. Vodka drinks range from Mules to Martinis, while whiskey drinks include Sours, Juleps, and several other classics (cocktails are $12-$14). Standouts range from the Bubbles & Berries, made with Founding Spirits vodka, Senior Curaçao liqueur, Martell VS Cognac, lemon juice, and muddled blackberries, topped with Segura Viudas Brut Cava, and the Smokey Cocktail, mixing Founding Spirits American whiskey, Arroyo’s Never Bitter amaro, Sandeman Fine Ruby Port, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, and El Silencio Espadín mezcal, garnished with a sprig of smoked rosemary.
In addition to Farmers & Distillers’ 35-plus cocktails, the drinks menu offers an array of non-alcoholic drinks and more than 60 wines from around the world ($12-$25 a glass; $36-$295 a 750-ml.). Farmers & Distillers has the company’s most extensive wine list, with several sustainable and biodynamic labels, as well as a Director’s List with upscale brands. Selections range from Stag’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc and Duckhorn’s Goldeneye Pinot Noir to J. Moreau & Fils Chablis and Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon. Farmers & Distillers also has 12 beers on tap ($6-$10). All of this complements a varied food menu with sections for higher-end American fare, Chinatown favorites, and Italian pastas ($11-$50).
Glass pours dominate wine sales throughout the company. Though spirits and cocktails receive the most attention—largely because of the distillery project—Farmers Restaurant Group also collaborates with nearby Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, Virginia for a rosé that’s available by the glass at every location ($13 at Founding Farmers D.C.). In beer, the company puts most of its efforts into craft labels and European brews. “We only do draft, except for cider in cans and bottles, and we try to support as many local brewers as we can,” Arroyo says. The venues have between eight and 24 tap handles.
For a completely different take on cocktails, Farmers Fishers Bakers is all about tiki culture. The bar at this concept offers more than 30 tiki and island-inspired drinks, as well as a handful of signatures made with the company’s own spirits ($12-$15). Highlights include the Amaro Zombie, mixing Founding Spirits Arroyo’s Never Bitter amaro, Pernod absinthe, Avua Prata cachaça, house-made falernum, grenadine, and lime, grapefruit, and pineapple juices. Wines and beers are also available, complementing a menu that emphasizes seafood but also includes burgers, tacos, and pizzas ($6-$34).
“We have a tremendously strong cocktail program that we get a ton of great feedback on,” Arroyo says. “I’ve evolved the program over time to ensure our guests feel like there’s something here for them, whether it’s a cocktail, glass of wine, or beer.”
The flagship Founding Farmers unit in Washington, D.C., is a good example of this. The company’s first restaurant covers all bases in the realm of beverage alcohol, listing roughly 40 cocktails ($12-$14) alongside a well-edited wine list ($11-$18 a glass; $33-$54 a 750-ml.) and a variety of craft beers ($6-$10), as well as upscale classic American fare ($6-$30). Signature drinks include The Bone, made with Knob Creek Bourbon, lime juice, and Tabasco sauce, and garnished with a bacon lollipop.
“We were one of the first restaurants in the D.C. market to do craft cocktails,” Simons says. “We wanted to create something that we could make affordable and approachable.” Going forward, Arroyo plans to put more emphasis on health-conscious cocktails, introducing low-alcohol and low-sugar drinks, as well as expanding the company’s roster of alcohol-free offerings at the bar.
The bar spaces at each Farmers Restaurant Group location are impressive. The company highlights large U-shaped bars with big back areas to display spirits, using a mix of wood and metal design elements. This aesthetic, which evokes a modern farmhouse that mixes both old and new items, can be found at each concept.
“The common thread for our restaurants is the farmer-owned DNA and the commitment of putting mission over profit,” Simons explains, adding that the company’s growth has exceeded all expectations. While no specific additions are currently in the works, Simons says that he hopes to eventually expand the Farmers Restaurant Group brand and that he sees potential in cities like Boston and Philadelphia. “The huge focus for us now is Founding Spirits,” Simons adds. “We love the thought of getting our spirits into more places. It’s great for us to able to talk about that chunk of our business through the same farmer-owned lens that we do our food. We’re inspired to apply that mindfulness to alcohol.”