A recipe for Minnesota’s economy: Dine and eat local on Valentine’s Day

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What could be more romantic for Valentine’s Day than a dinner featuring Minnesota foods and beverages, especially if the well-appointed dining room offers a prix fix meal that includes a first course like the following:

“House-cured Wild Acres Farm Duck Confit with Roasted Winter Squash, Preserved Cherries and Black Walnut Sauce.”

That’s one of the Valentine’s Day dinner offerings at Heartland Contemporary Midwestern Restaurant at 1806 St. Clair Ave. in St. Paul. It is among a number of upscale Twin Cities restaurants specializing in locally produced foods, and they are joined by an expanding number of casual dinning restaurants, eat-in bakeries and neighborhood snack and coffee shops that pay attention to where they get their food.

“If you want to stimulate the local economy, eat local,” says Lenny Russo, chef and owner of Heartland Restaurant. “Think about where your dinner dollar is going. Does it stay here or do you want to send it to California, or Italy, or somewhere else far away?”

Progressive groups are busy at work with support from Minnesota institutions, especially research and development arms of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, to more closely link the Minnesota food chain from farm to dinner table.

The “Made in MN Gift Guide” here at Minnesota 2020 has expanded to include a Restaurant section that features Minnesota foods and ingredients. The current section is only a start. Other purveyors of local potables can be included on the list by sending us an e-mail at info@mn2020.org.

It all makes for economic sense in addition to fine dining and fun entertaining.

At a time when lawmakers from St. Paul to Washington are looking for ways to stimulate the weak U.S. and Minnesota economies, eating local is a bite-size way to do your part–one meal, one box of locally made candy, or one beverage at a time.

Groups such as the Land Stewardship Project, Food Alliance Midwest, Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) at the University, and similar groups at rural Minnesota College and University campuses, are forging links up and down the food chain.

“It helps when your customers know they are helping area farmers,” said Amanda Blaseng, who co-owns and operates Java River Café with her mother, Cathy, at Montevideo.

That west-central Minnesota café is only open for breakfast and lunch most days but does have a pasta buffet– often with entertainment–on Friday nights. Pop Wagner, of “A Prairie Home Companion” fame, performed there this past Friday night.

Despite a somewhat limited menu, Java River gets is hamburger, ground beef steak patties, apples, eggs, onions and potatoes from farmers in and around the Minnesota River Valley. “Of course, we get a lot more of our supplies in season during the summer,” the daughter restaurateur said.

That points out a lingering problem for restaurants and bakeries. There are problems with season growing of produce items, and in warehousing and distribution of locally made foods, said Heartland’s Russo. He gets food products or ingredients from 40 Minnesota farms, and more in the summer and fall fruit and vegetable season. “But it is an inefficient gathering and distribution system,” he said.

Southeast Minnesota Food Network at Elgin (SMFN) is an early group formed to make supply chain sense out of linking local farms with demand by special restaurants and bakeries. That group was started in 2001 and has 90 Southeastern Minnesota farms as co-owners and suppliers. About 40 of the member-owners are Amish farmers who would have difficulty reaching anything but nearby markets.

General Manager Pam Benike said SMFN routinely supplies about 40 restaurants in the Twin Cities metro area in addition to client-customers closer to home in southern Minnesota cities. Again, that number of customers jumps when special crops and products are available, she said.

Demand for local products does exist. A group of restaurants in Duluth and Northeast Minnesota have banded together to access local foods. St. Croix Valley area eateries are now doing the same with a project launched by the Land Stewardship Project.

Trotter’s Café & Bakery on North Cleveland Avenue and Black Dog Coffee & Wine Bar in Lowertown are among St. Paul establishments offering Minnesota produced wines as well as local foods to choosey customers. The same response to demand can be found at Lucia’s Restaurant and other eateries in Minneapolis, and restaurants linked to food co-ops, such as the Seward Café and Common Roots Café in Minneapolis.

The demand is growing.

“Five years ago, almost no one paid any attention to where their food came from,” said Heartland’s Russo. “Now, you better identify the farm on the menu or tell them. If you don’t, your customers will ask.”

For Minnesotans, the restaurant guide is a good place to find places that do.

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