With a trunk full of empty coolers, T.J. Oakley pulled out of the parking lot at the Bristol Bar & Grille‘s headquarters in the company minivan last Thursday morning and headed toward Danville, Ky.
By the end of the day, Oakley, Bristol’s operations manager, hoped to fill the coolers with regionally sourced lamb and fish for the Bristol’s chefs to use.
His first stop was a tour and lunch at the 400-acre Kubale Farm in Danville, where Four Hills Farm owner Jim Mansfield leased property for his sheep, then onward to Bluegrass Aquaponics, a tilapia farm in Versailles, Ky.
During the drive, Oakley talked about how the Bristol started incorporating more regional food products in its menu and how it works with “back door farmers” who show up at its restaurants with produce.
The main challenge of working with regional farmers, Oakley said, is predicting the growing season for produce when putting menus together.
Weather, pests and other factors can influence how much and when various crops are harvested. For example, this year, heavy rains delayed the tomato harvest.
“Getting all those things to pair up is the trickiest part,” Oakley said.
Finding producers also can be difficult because restaurants and stores have to make sure the small-time farmers can supply enough produce or meat consistently to keep items on their menu.
As Oakley continued down I-64 East, Bluegrass Aquaponics owner Ed Ginter called to say the fish the Bristol ordered weren’t ready to be picked up.
Half the fish had died after they were cooled too quickly in an aquaponics tank, and as small-time farmers, they didn’t have the fish stockpiled to get the order ready as originally planned. However, Ginter said he’d have the fish the Bristol needed ready by Sunday.
“That can be some of the issues that come up,” Oakley said after hanging up the phone.
About an hour later, Oakley pulled on Kubale Farm in Danville along with about 10 other food buyers to see farmer Jim Mansfield’s flocks of sheep.
As the buyers stood staring at the sheep, who maintained a comfortable distance between themselves and the unknown group of humans, Mansfield told the guests about a modified fescue grass he planted that, unlike traditional fescue grass, doesn’t become toxic to animals in the summer.
He spoke about the need to buy Anatolian shepherd dogs, which tend to be more aggressive, in order to fend off coyotes that have been attacking the flocks.
He also mentioned that not only are his Katahdin sheep less gamey tasting than other breeds, but they also shed their wool, meaning they don’t need to be sheared.
The tour wasn’t about selling his lamb to the visiting buyers, who already are his customers. The goal of the event was to continue building a relationship between the farmer and the buyer, Oakley said.
In addition, the tour allowed Oakley, who’s also general manager of the Bristol downtown, to gather facts about the farm that Bristol employees can then pass on to the restaurant’s customers.
Oakley gets to visit about six farms a year and has driven the Bristol’s efforts to add more regional food products in its menu.
The Bristol already features some of its farmers on its menu year-round, but by January, the Bristol plans to spotlight a different farmer for a full month at its locations, Oakley said.
“We think it is a great marketing opportunity for our growers,” he said.
To celebrate these partnerships, the Bristol hosts an annual Farmer Appreciation Dinner, and this year, Mansfield’s Four Hills Farm is one of five regional producers highlighted during the five-course meal on Thursday, Oct. 22.
Four Hills Farms is the Bristol’s largest lamb supplier, and its meat is always on the menu in some form. Currently, the lamb is used in a meatball and linguine dish.
The farm doesn’t have a distributor, but Oakley is working with them to help find one. In the meantime, they’ve set up meeting points for Oakley to pick up the meat or plan ahead to have Mansfield drop it off when he visits Louisville.
“I probably work harder for him. I just have a lot of loyalty for him,” said Oakley, noting that Mansfield started pushing his lamb product about the same time the Bristol started focusing on connecting to regional suppliers around 2010.
Four Hills Farms supplies five restaurants, Whole Foods Markets in Kentucky and Ohio, Centre College and farming cooperatives. The farm also sells directly to individuals and provides specialty cuts to Kentucky-based wholesale companies Central Kentucky Meats and Marksbury Farms.
Lamb is priced higher than beef or pork products, which keeps demand in check, Mansfield said. But he must still keep his supply of lamb consistent.
“We have to keep them coming, so we have to space out the breeding,” Mansfield said.
His ewes and rams “lamb,” or procreate, during the spring, fall and winter.
Four Hills Farms has about 400 ewes and a handful of rams. Each ewe gives birth to 1.5 babies a year on average.
The sheep are vaccinated against disease but are not given hormones, Mansfield said. At Four Hills Farms, the sheep roam the pasture year-round, with a separate pasture for mothers and their suckling lambs.
Some of the babies are raised to breed, while others are sent to a processing facility around the ages of 7 months to 12 months to be slaughtered.
The lambs must be 100 to 125 pounds before they can be sent to market, and they gain that weight naturally by eating fresh grass, weeds and clovers planted on the farm, Mansfield said. Some also are fed grain as a supplement to help them gain weight.
Although the Bristol doesn’t require its supplier be certified organic, it does require humane conditions like those at Mansfield’s farm. Mansfield is known for saying he only wants his sheep to ever have one bad day in their lives.
“They really work hard to make sure they have high standards for the animals,” Oakley said.
After a lunch of lamb sausage, corn tortilla, fresh tomatoes and peppers, Oakley packed about 65 pounds of lamb into coolers and drove it back to the Bristol for the restaurant’s customers to enjoy.
If you go:
The Bristol Bar & Grille’s annual Farmer Appreciation Dinner is at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 22. The cost is $50 per person, not including tax and gratuity or alcohol.
For reservations, call 582-1995.
The menu includes:
Todd Clark Family Farm smoked chicken spring rolls with Hot 2 Trot blackberry horseradish sauce
Hillerich Family Farm beet salad with Capriole Farm goat cheese and spiced walnuts with local greens
Bluegrass Aquaponics pan-seared tilapia topped with local fresh wild mushrooms and Weisenberger Mill grits
Four Hills Farm lamb stew with local root vegetables
Geez Beez local honey and Capriole Sofia crêpes