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A Farmer-Owned Restaurant in Washington, DC

Founding Farmers is a series of restaurants started by North Dakota Farmers Union.

Little did I know when walking into a Washington, DC, restaurant recently that I would be supporting North Dakota farmers.

That’s exactly what I learned when eating at Founding Farmers, located at 19th and Pennsylvania Avenue in the heart of the nation’s capital. The restaurant is “exceeding our expectations,” says Mark Watne, a North Dakota farmer and president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. The union is opening its seventh restaurant on the East Coast in March.

Why would a farmers’ union start a chain of restaurants? Watne says it’s all in an effort to connect farmers – and what it produces – with consumers. The union was interested in a long-term way to earn more margin to what was its primary commodity business, so the members decided to get involved in every dimension of the food business: from sourcing food primarily from farmers, to distribution and logistics, to creating a fast casual dining experience.

In short, they wanted to make money from the farm gate to the customer’s plate. It’s working. Today, they are serving 55,000 meals in the current six restaurants, and the ambience is welcoming and the food tastes good at fair prices. My lunch for two cost $51. The waiting area at Founding Farmers (a word play on Founding Fathers) includes books on food and agriculture, along with a pamphlet from the Farmers Union.

Watne says the restaurants employ 1,000 people, and they are all trained in customer service and the philosophy of where the food comes from: American farmers.

Diners enjoy fast-casual food in Washington, DC.
Farmers Restaurant Group
The project started with an investment by 200 members of the union buying a minimum of 20 shares at $100 each. Dividends are paid annually. The first restaurant struggled, but the members quickly pivoted to a new format and it’s taken off since.

“It’s working to go right to the consumer,” Watne says. It’s important to build a relationship with the end customer.”

The restaurant sources  North Dakota flour, potatoes, sugar beets, and they are working on sourcing honey and canola oils. They also pick up dairy products through Minnesota and Wisconsin along the route to their East Coast locations.

The union is all in. The goal is to have 25 restaurants in the next 10 years.

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