Surrounded by coiled brambles of razor wire and shattered concrete, Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow, co-owners of Diner and Bonita, dream of greener pastures. "We are ready for new challenges," says Tarlow, his eyes looking past the teetering horizon of South Williamsburg toward the rolling hills of upstate New York, where the two partners plan to start an organic farm this coming spring to furnish fresh produce for their restaurants.
Firth and Tarlow have become veritable titans of the Williamsburg restaurant world, with their minted model of refashioning local dives into tightly run, service-oriented machines with eclectic and satisfying menus. But today, as phrases like "franchise restaurant" and "change the world" roll off their tongues, one hopes that they don’t forego the magic formula of their success.
Diner, their first restaurant, opened in 1998 with a simple concept: to serve the kind of food that Firth and Tarlow liked to eat, both made as delicious and served as cheaply as possible. Housed in a ramshackle, lightly remodeled 1927 diner, sparked by Chef Caroline Fidanza’s menu of nouveau diner cuisine, Diner’s blend of effortless cool and great food have made it a cornerstone in the Williamsburg community.
This year, buoyed by Diner’s success, the two partners tried the formula again, revamping a Mexican dive a few blocks away on Bedford Avenue. Keeping the original sign, Bonita serves traditional Mexican and South American food with a twist, and has been declared a winner by both critics and customers alike.
Now, the two partners have decided to take a chance, leaving behind the pattern of refashioning the neighborhood. "The real estate guy said we had come up with the worst business plan ever," laughs Firth nonchalantly, recounting warnings that they have chosen to combine the two businesses with the lowest returns, farms and restaurants.
Although an organic farm may seem antithetical to their urban surroundings, according to both partners, the idea is a natural evolution. Since they opened Diner, Firth and Tarlow have shopped at local farmer’s markets for produce for the restaurant. "You feel totally inspired at the farmer’s markets," explains Firth. "The food still has dirt on it." Despite the use of locally grown, fresh produce, neither restaurant has advertised its use of organic produce. "I think people just subconsciously know," says Firth.
Though the partners had begun to attend conferences of the Slow Food Movement, an international organization opposed to the industrialization of farming, and also started researching the merits of "going organic," it was a particular crop of heirloom tomatoes this past summer that planted the real seed for their organic farm. The tomatoes, brought back from an upstate organic farm run by Tarlow’s father-in-law, were an instant sensation in the restaurants, served up in summer salads, salsas, and burgers.
Customers reacted quickly with superlatives, and every time someone would ask, Tarlow would collect a handful of tomatoes and give them away. "They were some of the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted," Tarlow sighs wistfully. This fortuitous crop made up their minds that it was time to start a farm.
The concept of organic farming began with Sir Albert Howard, who, in 1940, published An Agricultural Testament in the United Kingdom, advocating soil fertilization alternatives and a holistic, non-synthetic approach to agricultural life cycles. These principles took root throughout Europe and the United States, generating an increased consciousness of the nutritional and environmental hazards of industrial farming. The US Department of Agriculture recently reported that organics have become an increasingly lucrative market, with retail sales increasing more than 20% annually since 1990.
This past October 21st, the USDA instituted a system of regulated labeling that distinguishes the different levels of organic compatibility and certification. These guidelines prohibit the use of any synthetic substance, genetic engineering, or environmentally aggressive farming in certified organic production and handling. In grocery stores across the country, organic and non-organic produce is now meticulously separated by plastic barriers and compartments. While there is no proof that organics are healthier than non-organics, advocates testify to their environmental impact, taste, and pristine natural state.
"Both of the restaurants were based on what we wanted," explains Tarlow. "Now we want our own farm fresh produce." While a number of high profile restaurants in Manhattan serve organic and free range foods, such as Savoy and the Union Square Café, both men say they have never heard of anyone starting an organic farm expressly for servicing a restaurant. Firth laughs, "There’s no band wagon to jump on because no one else, to our knowledge, has done it."
When they opened Diner five years ago, both Firth and Tarlow were already long-time veterans of the Manhattan restaurant industry as waiters at Balthazar and The Odeon, where they met. Firth, originally from Zambia, and Tarlow, from Long Island, moved into a 6,000-square-foot loft together in 1996. Both were frustrated by the lack of dining or drinking options in Williamsburg. "When we opened," explains Firth, "you couldn’t have a night out without crossing the bridge."
"Everything we do is by the seat of our pants," says Firth. As of mid-December, Firth and Tarlow had not yet found their own farm, but they had begun to forge ties with existing growers, with an eye towards distributing more organic produce locally starting this coming summer. And, as they canvass the farmlands of upstate New York and New Jersey, in search of the perfect pasture, the partners are committed to having a first crop of their own produce in the ground by this spring.
Firth and Tarlow plan to start small, with perhaps 20 acres. But as the conversation ensues, the two partners begin to describe the possibilities of vineyards, free-range live stock, dairy farms, and maybe even one day, an organic franchise restaurant. Given their track record, Firth and Tarlow’s vision will soon quite likely turn from a pipe dream to reality.
Claire Hoffman is a journalist based in Williamsburg.