Wisconsin café, bakery, and market is working to change sourcing patterns
Simple Food Group is a cafe, bakery, and market in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. For the last 14 years, the eatery has drawn fans from down the street as well as Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee, the radius from which most of their ingredients also originate.
After founders Tom and Lori Hartz read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, they were inspired to start a local foods restaurant…despite having no restaurant experience! As a retired architect, Tom dove into renovating the long-ago coal storage facility, but halfway through the project realized he needed a manager to make the dream work. Luckily he found Young Cho, who had a hospitality consulting firm built on three decades of experience as a restaurateur and chef.
“At first, our conversations centered around trying to convince Tom that opening a restaurant was not a great idea,” Young said. The country was in the middle of the largest recession since the Great Depression, and running a restaurant is demanding work even in good economic times. In these chats, they discovered they shared similar values and eventually became partners, now describing their relationship as the best business partnership they've ever had.
The bakery portion of the business arose from the restaurant’s need for great bread, which wasn’t available nearby at the time. This quickly morphed into artisan pastries, cakes, and a host of other locally produced retail items. “I would drive 2 1/2 hours each way to pick up flour from Lonesome Stone Milling on a weekly basis, hauling around 1,000 pounds in my Prius,” Young said. Conversations with Gilbert Williams and his miller, Chris, expanded Young’s knowledge and curiosity about grains and flour, and included his first introduction to AGC.
Young’s flour-toting Prius is still running today, clocking more than 400K miles, which represents the connections Simple has forged with farmers and food producers. While many enterprises now deliver to Lake Geneva, Young and Bakery Manager Michelle Noel are stitched to their sources. The Simple team relishes being with the people who make the food they use and jump at opportunities to get their staff on farms.
“Relationships forge community, and it is because of relationships that we have an opportunity to create delicious food,” said Young, riffing further on buying ingredients as a conduit to collaborate with people who care for animals and the land, growing, raising and crafting real food in an increasingly challenging environment.
Another way they care for community is by donating up to 14K pounds of baked goods annually to food banks and to their local YMCA for summer meal programs for students. Simple also feeds the region through employment. They regularly accept youth apprenticeship program participants, and interns from nearby culinary programs often transition into long-term team members. Young and Michelle reach far beyond their doors to help shape culinary education, recently working with the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation to revise and rewrite curriculum and textbooks that are used by 165,000 students in over 1,800 high schools across the country.“ We are making sure that local grainshed conversations make it into the curriculum,” said Young.
Their enthusiasm is obvious in the work Simple does with AGC. Young and Michelle are active members and regularly participate in a variety of projects and activities. They teamed up with us to host a gathering for area AGC members back in March, and also participated in our April grain trials with the University of Madison-Wisconsin. Last year at Granor Farm, they actively engaged in envisioning our Grain Chain Connections video series. And did we mention? In the height of the season the café and bakery employ over 70 staff!
If this sounds like a lot, it is. But Young is passionate and eager for their next steps—expanding the bakery and café into a much larger establishment, big enough to include teaching and demonstration facilities, meeting spaces, and a media production center to tell stories in mediums from podcasts to film. “We plan to teach not only baking and cooking classes, but also business, management, and leadership courses,” he said. A focus of this training will be incorporating local grains into operations.
Shifts in both business and consumer behavior are required to reconnect food systems to communities and fit a changing climate. Turning education and awareness into action is key to adjusting sourcing patterns in the hospitality industry, and purchasing preferences in the public. That vision is clearly stated on staff t-shirts that read, “Changing the world one bite at a time.”
While Simple puts these ambitions into shape, you can taste what they mean at their home base in Lake Geneva or at one of the many farmers’ markets their team attends (follow them on social for details).