Founding Farmers keeps farming legacy alive at King of Prussia Town Center

Founding Farmers cofounder and co-owner Dan Simons inside the sunroom of his newest restaurant, in the King of Prussia Town Center. It is the chain’s first location outside the Washington area.

The guy seated at the bar in the long-sleeve plaid shirt and jeans, sipping whiskey and dining on grilled fish, isn’t a typical customer.

He’s Dan Simons, a hospitality consultant and co-owner of Farmers Restaurant Group, which opens its sixth Founding Farmers restaurant, at King of Prussia Town Center, on Nov. 1. It marks the group’s first foray outside its home base, the Maryland-D.C. market.

The five existing restaurants – three in D.C. (Farmers & Distillers; Founding Farmers; and Farmers Fishers Bakers); Founding Farmers MoCo in Montgomery County, Md.; and Founding Farmers in Tysons Corner, Va. — each generate $9.5 million to $17 million a year in revenue, Simons said.

But the business model is unusual: Simons and longtime partner Michael Vucurevich answer to the group supplying ingredients to their restaurants. Founding Farmers is backed by farmers and farm groups.

Its investors include the North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota farmers unions, as well as the 200,000-member National Farmers Union.

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The Founding Farmers restaurant at the King of Prussia Town Center in Upper Merion Township. The restaurant backed by farmer investors will open to the public this Wednesday.

With more than 30 years of operating and consulting experience, Simons is a seasoned hand. But he’s still a ball of nerves about this project, referring to opening day as his Super Bowl. His new employees have been training all month.

“There’s a lot on the line for us,” said Simons, as workers put finishing touches at his new bi-level baby, which takes up 14,000 square feet, including a sunroom with plants.

The “modern farmhouse” design with large windows is divided between 11,000 square feet for the bar and restaurant on the upper level and 3,000 square feet for the café and creamery on the ground floor, where you can enjoy your morning coffee and homemade bagels and doughnuts. That butter for your English muffin will be made from scratch, too, as will the after-dinner ice cream.

“This isn’t just about money,” said Simons, 47. “The mission is trying to spread the message of American family farmers and increase the demand for family farm products, while employing a lot of people [1,000 in the five restaurants, 200 more in King of Prussia], paying well above average, and being an awesome employer.”

Generating a healthy return for the farmer-investors is critical, too. The number of American family farms has decreased from six million in 1945 to just over two million in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Total acres farmed in the U.S. have dropped 24 percent to 912 million acres.

Simons takes a trip each year to North Dakota and its biggest investor group to present the chain’s results. He gives a quarterly report to a 13-member board of directors that consists of Simons, Vucuverich, and 11 farmers.

“If you read the trade magazines, most restaurants are trying to save on costs, like how to buy frozen food, hire co-packers and outsourcing, and shrink the kitchen and use kiosks instead of human beings,” Simons said. “But to do really awesome food that you are proud of, you have to be willing to grow and train people.”

His employees follow a nine-page document, called the Constitution, that spells out the owners’ passions and goals.

“I want this to be like the new puppy that you come home to after a bad day of work,” Simons said.

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Founding Farmers co-owner Dan Simons (right) discusses an entree with Joe Goetze, executive chef for his newest restaurant location in the King of Prussia Town Center.

The idea came together in 2005 after Simons and Vucurevich’ formed VSAG, which stands for Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group. A new client,  the North Dakota Farmers Union, requested support with their first farmer-owned restaurant, called Agraria. That restaurant struggled, so they refined the concept and renamed it Founding Farmers in 2008. The NDFU and Simons’ firm formed a partnership to grow the concept.

“We are really trying to figure out a way for farmers to make a little more money because they typically sell into a commodity market and sell cheaply,” said Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, who plants wheat, soybeans, canola, and barley. “We call this value-added agriculture, where we go right to the consumer.”

Farmer investors supply flour for pizza dough, bread, and baking, and sugar for baking and desserts. Maple syrup for the $9 pancakes comes from an Upstate New York forest; all pork, chicken, and eggs originate at Pennsylvania farms, while dairy products come from Wisconsin farmers and Trickling Springs in Pennsylvania. This month, the North Dakota Farmers Union bought a truck and began delivering wheat to make vodka in the Founding Farmers-owned distillery, called Founding Spirits, that’s inside the Farmers &  Distillers restaurant.

Simons held a preview last week for media, at which he served plates with large portions of comfort food: fried chicken, pork loin, ravioli, baked trout, and handmade doughnuts. After each plate, he asked how the food was. Simons also met with potential local investors and gave them a tour.

“We have to make a lot of new friends here,” he said.

He was courted by King of Prussia Mall to locate there, less than half a mile away, but chose King of Prussia Town Center, partly, he said, because Founding Farmers serves breakfast, and malls tend to open later.

As a lifestyle center, King of Prussia Town Center opened in mid-2016 under owner JBG Cos. out of Chevy Chase, Md. It is anchored by WegmansNordstrom RackUlta BeautyREI, and LA Fitness. The center also has a “downtown” – or Main Street — consisting of dining, retail, and service establishments and a Town Square. JBG sold the shopping center for $183 million earlier this year to an equity fund backed by CBRE Global Investments, but continues to manage the property.

Restaurants account for 18 percent of the total leased space, including Wegmans, according to CBRE Inc., the center’s exclusive leasing agent. “He was definitely passionate about the look and feel he wanted to create,” said CBRE’s Mallory Scaccetti, who brokered the Founding Farmers deal with colleague Adam Kohler.

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Founding Farmers co-founder and co-owner Dan Simons said the restaurant gives him a platform to spread the message and struggle of the American family farmer. The restaurant is majority-owned by farmers and farm groups.

Simons said that to generate a return on the $8.5 million investment at King of Prussia, the goal is to feed 7,000 to  8,000 guests a week. His D.C. restaurant five blocks from the White House attracts about 10,000 guests a week with 265 seats and has been ranked the top requested restaurant in the United States on Open Table reservations for the last five years.

The group’s seventh restaurant, Founding Farmers Reston, will open in January in Virginia.

All the restaurants are LEED-certified and as little as possible goes to landfills; food waste is recycled and composted. Simons recently installed a biodigester at the KOP restaurant which he says will minimize even more the amount of waste produced.

“The American family farmer is under assault,” Simons said. “They have a  shrinking share of the food dollar.”

But “one of the things that made America was that our founding fathers and mothers were farmers; Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington brought seeds from all over the world and pioneered ‘ag’ techniques, and made us the largest producers of high-quality food.

“I feel my role as a restaurateur is to connect that story right  here – back for the diner around the plate.”