The sprawling Founding Farmers — with a bake shop, creamery, and service from breakfast to late night — was set to open Wednesday in the King of Prussia Town Center, the latest addition to King of Prussia's expanding restaurant scene.
The restaurant is an alliance between big-city consultants Dan Simons and Michael Vucurevich, and the 42,000 family farmers of the North Dakota Farmers Union. The union's president and point man in its restaurant holdings, Mark Watne, is a fourth-generation wheat, corn, barley, and soybean farmer whose great-grandfather's homestead certificate was stamped by Teddy Roosevelt in 1903.
They've been partners since 2008, when Simons and Vucurevich stepped in to rebrand the NDFU's first restaurant, a fine-dining establishment called Agraria, in Washington. (It is now Farmers Fishers Bakers, a mile from the flagship Founding Farmers.)
I sat with Simons and Watne in King of Prussia's second-floor dining room.
Where and how did Jamestown, N.D., meet Washington, D.C.?
Watne: We're commodity producers, correct? We were taking durum [wheat] into semolina and pasta. We took a commodity. We ended up with a commodity. We did that with some spring-wheat projects. We did it with some oilseeds. And every time, we ended up with a commodity, and we're always just selling at a commodity price level, which didn't leave any margins, or very little margins, for the farmers.
So, there was a theory: Why don't we go closer to the consumer, and then own the whole system? And we studied that for about six months to a year. The reality was, at the end, the quickest and the fastest way to get to the consumer's base was to do a restaurant.
Then we started the process. Where do you locate? We determined that [Washington] was recession-proof because, when you're in a recession, people go to D.C., and they have expense checks, and they buy, and they eat out, and they have meetings. And we decided, 'Let's take the recession potential out of the net and locate there first.' It met all the other criteria: Its acceptance of the family farm and population.
Do you provide all the ingredients for everything here?
Watne: Our goal is 100 percent U.S. family-farm food. We are sensitive to use the local area farmers as much as we can. Right now, from North Dakota, we don't produce fruits and vegetables, so there are certain things that we aren't ever going to provide. But we are very good at pasta flour and hard red spring wheat flour for breads. We produce a lot of sugar. We brought other products out here. We're working on potatoes. We pick up cheese in Wisconsin from our farmers that we know there — and butter out of Minnesota. We've got some cherries, fresh cherries, potentially coming out of Montana in season.
Simons: Can I say the vast majority of what we offer is from family farms? Yes. Can I say every year, we take bigger and bigger steps? Yes. When I say compare us to the [corporate chains], they miss the boat on everything from quality to patriotism to understanding what makes America strong.
Restaurants are high-risk, tight-profit businesses. Why invest in restaurants?
Watne: Farmers are about producing food, and we see this as a long-term venture where we get the consumer in the U.S. to understand that we are really good at what we do. And we have the highest-quality food in the world. And we believe the education and the awareness that we're getting out of these retail fronts to represent family farmers is essential to the consumers in the U.S. buying our products.
We're going into the marketplace to do some labeling of our products. Other countries do it all the time. You could label olive oil from Italy. You can label champagne. We want the consumer, every time they go into a store or a restaurant, to request that they get U.S. family-farm food. … We can connect it at the table, but what really matters is: What do the guests think? Is the food delicious? Do they come back? Do they want to come back? Do they want to tell their friends?
Why choose King of Prussia for your second town?
Simons: We do need a lot of people, so step one is population, because this is big — a 14,000-square-foot operation. We don't squeeze every penny of profit at every moment. We're trying to essentially do the right thing, live the vision. So that means we need high volume, because if I have to worry that I could get something cheaper by 10 cents a pound because my sales are so low, that wouldn't work for our vision.
King of Prussia gave us a lot of potential guests, a lot of potential employees. We do need a sophisticated employee. But more importantly than the demographics, we need the psychographics, meaning that we need what I call the mindful guest. And when I saw the reaction to the population around here to Wegmans, and when I saw the reaction to REI, I realized that there are a lot of mindful guests here. And there's a lot of diversity — religions, socioeconomic levels.
What's the goal for this?