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Restaurants are serving up more fresh, local ingredients

Joanna Richards

It's a busy Sunday morning at Empire Brewing Company in Syracuse. Behind the line, cooks shout brunch orders and the dining area is filling up with customers. A blues band is setting up for a set, a weekly tradition here.

Company president David Katleski sits in a big booth near the kitchen. The sounds are like any other busy restaurant, but there's something different going on here."In 2007, after I did a carbon footprint analysis and determined that our food, our average bite of food, was traveling over 3,000 miles, I changed the way we did business," he said. "So we really changed our business model to incorporate locally-produced food."

Sourcing locally

Empire now works with over 60 producers to source its ingredients locally as much as possible. The restaurant and brewery has even invested in farms and started its own garden, blurring the line between the restaurant business and the farming world. The new way of doing business just makes sense for Katleski.

"After I learned much about the amount of local foods that were available, it just seemed to be prudent," he said. "And frankly, the food tastes better as a result of it."

Empire's menu is designed around what the company can source locally. The elk burger comes from Canastota; the Kobe burger comes from Cazenovia. The spicy pig burger features local ground pork, New York state cheddar cheese, and a chili sauce made from local peppers - when they're in season.

And business is good.

"You know, we're seeing, since we've done this, huge growth. Thirty percent growth, each year-over-year. Although I've never taken a poll, I have to attribute it to our commitment to local and our ability to do something good with the local ingredients," Katleski said.

Many of those local ingredients come from Greyrock Farm, near Cazenovia in Madison County, where owner Matt Volz tries to offers a fresher option for restauranteurs.

"The stuff that we're harvesting Thursday or Friday and they're gonna have in the restaurant on the weekend. So it's fresh stuff, it's gonna taste really good. It looks really great," he said.

"It just makes sense"

A Jefferson County restaurant, too, is getting in on the local foods trend. The Hops Spot, in Sackets Harbor, prides itself on its great selection of microbrew beers. Its motto is “All Craft, No Crap.”

That cheeky slogan could apply to its food as well. The menu features locally-sourced grass-fed beef burgers, local cheese curd used in its poutine – a not-exactly healthy but tasty concoction of French fries, cheese curd and gravy – and a variety of regional produce used in salads and appetizers.

"Well, I think having all the farms so close at hand out here, it just makes sense, instead of having beef and whatnot shipped all the way from Texas – just to use the local farmers keeps the money within the community, and it helps them out," said Ryan Chaif, owner of The Hops Spot.

Customers seem to appreciate the regionally-sourced fare, according to Chaif.

That's true of at least one diner - Paul Linnertz, of Syracuse. He and his family have a lake house in the area and his daughter scoped out The Hops Spot online, he said.

"I had a hamburger that was local beef. I think that it's good for the local economy, that they continue to use local products, so that everyone can continue to survive in this tough economic time," Linnertz said.

His burger was tasty, too, he said.