Written by Kevin Jamison
I like to think that Commune came about differently than most small businesses; the dreams that it was fueled by, from the beginning, had nothing to do with profit, notariety, or success in a traditional sense.
In the Fall of 2010, I was a full-time farmer and the director of educational programs at New Earth Farm, a completely sustainable farm in Virginia Beach, VA. I was on an overnight bus to New York City to meet my good friend and colleague, Guypson Catalis, when I first had the idea to open a restaurant. At the time, Guypson was working with several farms to learn new organic farming and composting techniques he could bring back to Haiti, and to the farm we had started there together, in Les Cayes.
We spent our first day in New York at Stone Barns Center, about 45 minutes north of the city. Stone Barns was doing everything I wanted to do in regards to farming, education and advocacy. I found myself admist a beautiful 80 acre property with lush vegetable fields, fruit orchards, greenhouses, large swathes of pasture where turkeys and chickens are raised, an impressive large-scale composting program, and a full-service restaurant on-site, Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Guypson and I spent the day with the farm’s crew, harvesting vegetables and fruit; mostly Tuscan kale, Borlotti beans and Asian pears for their CSA program. We also toured the property with Sarah Groat, the manager of soil, recycling and compost operations at Stone Barns. It was like a dream. It was so organized and efficient, countless employees with diverse specializations worked in unison to operate one tremendous property.
Later that day we found the restaurant. It was stunning, calm and absolutely beautiful. On the patio we saw an impressive grill, about 10 ft long with multiple bays for cooking and wheels that cranked the grates up and down to manage the cooking time and temperature. Then, behind the grill, on the stone ledge overlooking the forest, I saw something more exciting than anything else I had seen that day. It was a huge, completely charred bone. Let me explain why.
Back home at New Earth Farm, we had recently started our own charcoal and bio-char program. Biochar is charcoal that has been inoculated with beneficial bacteria and fungus. The charcoal acts as a home to the bacteria and fungi, providing miles of tubes for them to inhabit, expand, and safely live within. Some of the most fertile lands on earth have been found to have large amounts of char present.
In Haiti, the main source of fuel for cooking is wood. So we had been experimenting with other parent materials for making charcoal in order to offer an alternative source of fuel. The country has literally less than 1% of its original forest cover, due in large part to deforestation to make charcoal.
At New Earth Farm we had built several small carbonization units that take any parent material (felled trees and limbs, scrap wood from lumber yards, etc) and in an almost anaerobic environment, heat that material to the point that the structure still exists but the only thing that is left is carbon, charcoal. We did this for two reasons. One was to make charcoal for pressing into briquettes, and the other was for making Biochar. It wasn’t a new idea by any stretch, but due to the steady decline in the quality of soil systems everywhere, it was a technique that was coming back into fashion.
Which brings me back to Stone Barns and the Bone charcoal. As part of a program that attempts to create no, or very minimal waste, utilizing every part of an animal is crucial to making sure the energy spent raising that particular animal is returned in the fullest extent.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns wasn’t just cooking really good food, they had realized that “gourmet” food is about more than high-end ingredients and artful presentation. Good food also had to be sustainable; in the techniques used to prepare it, in where it came from and in how it was grown or raised. Stone Barns was on another level. The chefs walked in and out of the kitchen door, harvesting herbs and greens for that day’s service. They were re-writing our definition of good food.
I was completely enamored.
I decided then and there that the restaurant I had started to envision not only had to source the majority of its ingredients from local farms, but those farms had to use techniques that would be healthy for our customers, our employees and the environment. A lot of people told me that my ideals were impossible and way too expensive, but it seemed so easy as I started dreaming of menu ideas that would propel us through the seasons. I had been managing a farm for years and I already knew what was available throughout the year in our region. I also knew so many farmers that were collectively producing such diverse, interesting and plentiful foods; I knew there would be a steady supply of ingredients for us, even in the dead of winter.
Sitting on the bus, headed back to Virginia Beach, I got lost in writing menus, sketching logos, compiling lists of farmers and contemplating possible locations. At the time, I wanted to open a cafe that served crepes, small appetizers and salads. I was really into crepes. My girlfriend’s father had been making them for us a lot, and it seemed like a such a perfect vehicle for the endless combinations of local foods I was dreaming of. I was also really inspired by the time had I spent at school in Italy, and the small, cozy cafes that created such a real sense of community there. I saw people spend whole mornings in these cafes, reading or working or just passing time with each other. It was this incredibly strong sense of community that I missed so much living in Virginia Beach.
Community Crepes! It was the beginning of the train of thought that led me to Commune Crepes. Commune. In English it means people coming together, and in French it’s the smallest territorial division that exists. It was perfect. Bringing people together through food that is sourced from the smallest distance possible. It made complete sense. It felt right.
When I got back to Virginia Beach I had to make some hard choices. If I went ahead with this, I would have to pull away from the farm completely to get everything together. I really loved the farm, and I really loved my life there. The work made me so happy. At New Earth Farm I had learned so much about what Real Food is to me. Without the time I spent there, I would not have been able to open Commune.
I had gone from working with the Foreign Policy Association, the World Affairs council, the Center for Global Development at St. John’s University and the United Nations, to working in the hot sun with dirt under my fingernails. I had gone from selling paintings for thousands of dollars as a private art dealer to selling vegetables for a few bucks at the farmers market. I had gone from loud, fast, exciting, cut-throat city life, to quiet suburban life on the farm. I was doing something that made me feel healthier, stronger, younger and drastically more relaxed. I was eating the food that I was growing, and that food was packed with vitamins and nutrients due to the nature of the soil it was growing in. There was no going back, this was the lifestyle for me.
I’d spent several years at New Earth Farm, and it was becoming a pretty successful operation. We’d expanded from 5 acres to 21, built barns and greenhouses, planted cover crops, added loads of compost and dead leaves to the soil, and built a great soil system that was yielding loads of super tasty produce. The CSA program had gone from a couple dozen members, to over 100, and our educational programs were gaining notoriety.
Even still, I really felt that if I wanted to promote sustainable food on a large enough scale, I had to peel myself away from comfortable farm life, and re-focus my energy on opening a restaurant that would operate with these same values.
Over the next year and a half I was able to secure some investors and an amazing location in a historical landmark in Virginia Beach’s creative district. The space was much larger than I had originally envisioned. It was more than double the size of the cozy cafe I was planning. I decided that we would just be called Commune, and we would still serve crepes, but we would also serve sandwiches and entrees as well.
We didn’t have a lot of money, so as we started to build our restaurant we relied on the help of skilled friends and family for carpentry work, website design, equipment and so much more. It took months longer than we thought it would, but eventually the end of construction was in sight and I had started to look for the right people to work there. Luckily, the restaurant attracted people who weren’t only looking for a job, but who were super passionate about the issues Commune would focus on. We assembled a stellar team of cooks, managers and servers who really helped put the final touches on the restaurant through the last hectic weeks of construction.
When we knew we were only days away from being open, we put in our first orders from the list of local purveyors we had assembled. The day it all arrived was a dream. We had loads of pasture raised pork, fruits and vegetables from several different farms, local honey, eggs, flour, you name it. Our menu was finalized.
Our final inspections, at 5:00pm on October 24th, gave us the final go ahead to open our doors. We spent that night preparing hundreds of pounds of food for about 20 different dishes that we would begin to serve at 7:00am the very next morning.
Our first customer was my father, which was so fitting since he had spent his career in the restaurant business and was a major force behind getting us up and running. We had a great response from the public. They were dying for this kind of food and the crowds made it obvious that we had made the right choice.
Now that we have our first year of service behind us (one very fast and amazing year) it’s time to come back to why we started this business in the first place. How do we keep advancing our goal of promoting sustainable, local food and a healthy environment?
We hope that Commune is always more than a restaurant. We hope that by serving people beautifully plated, delicious food, we can start a conversation with them. We want to spread the word about sustainable food and why its so important without just standing on a soap box screaming about the issues.
When a customer comes in and orders the cornmeal waffles and their server says “Thats a great choice! The cornmeal they’re made with is super unique. It’s an heirloom variety that’s grown about an hour from here on the eastern shore,” we hope they start to think, maybe even just subconsciously, that the food they’re about to eat is good for them and the environment. We hope that this conversation changes the way people eat and think about food today. We hope it impacts where they spend their money when they shop for groceries or eat out. We want to show people that there’s a choice.
We’re facing so many serious environmental and public health problems that seem so daunting if you’re looking at them from a singular perspective. If we could just change the way our communities think about food and realize that cheap, processed, commodity food is doing so much more harm than good and that the other option; fresh, locally grown food, can not only create healthier people, but a healthier environment and stronger communities as well.
So what do we do next? Part of that answer is the page you are reading now. We’re hoping that with this blog we can talk in more detail about what we do, why we do it, and how you can do it too. We want to introduce you to the individual farmers and producers that we work with, tell you stories about our employees, open a dialogue about issues that are affecting our food system, and ultimately, get you involved!
“Preach the cause, don’t just sell the product” is a phrase I recently read in an article in the Harvard Business Review. If there’s one thing I can say with certainty about our future, it’s that we will never focus only on selling food.