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When it comes down to restaurants and the food they serve, Jay Porter (no relation) nailed it four years ago with a blog entitled “Why 95% of U.S. Restaurants Suck and How We Learn Not To Notice It.”
Porter, owner of North Park’s Linkery, wrote the missive as the result of frustrations he was experiencing in trying to provision the restaurant outside the normal channels of corporate foodservice distribution. In that article he observed, “… the leading obstacle to flavorful, affordable restaurant food is the success of a cooperative effort between big factory food producers (like, say, Tyson) and big distributors…”
Porter thought that there had to be a better way. With the Linkery’s fifth anniversary at hand, and plans afoot to open a second location, I recently paid him a visit to learn more about what it’s like to run a restaurant “off the grid.” As we talked, a group of business leaders from around the region was touring the restaurant, led by representatives of the North Park Main Street organization and accompanied by City Councilman Todd Gloria.
Over the past years the eatery has evolved from an experiment in neighborhood development started by someone with no hospitality background (a surefire formula for failure, so the wags said), to an enterprise that’s being held up as a role model for successful sustainability.
Business is decent and growing, according to Porter, who proudly points out the props the restaurant has received from Gourmet and Bon Appetit, among others. And based on my own observations from dining there, the food’s pretty good, too.
The restaurant makes over a hundred varieties of sausages that rotate through the menu, cures its own sauerkraut to go with them, and even cures its own bacon and hams. With a menu that changes daily, a locally focused beverage program (Mexican Coca Cola, sweetened with cane sugar, is the only corporate potion available) and an unconventional approach to service (a flat service charge shared by the entire staff), it’s encouraging to see the crowds that pack the place most evenings.
“In 2006 it was hard to envision running a restaurant that was not chained to the corporate food distribution system,” says Porter. “Now it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way. We like to say that we’re making or sourcing directly everything but the vinegar. One hundred percent of our meats and about 90 percent (depending on the season) of our produce are bought outside the usual channels.”
Asked about how much of his food is actually locally sourced, he effusively praises the quality of the product he’s getting from local growers that supply the restaurant, and goes on to say, “local food” stands in opposition not to “food from somebody else’s hometown, but in opposition to mass-produced, homogenized food. Food that is bred or cultivated for its ability to withstand long-distance travel with little cosmetic damage. Food that is scientifically produced from the cheapest possible commodities and packaged to stay salable for months or years. Food that exists only as a delivery mechanism for calories or sweetness.”
His view of the future is driven by the notion that the commodity driven economy is in the process of collapsing, as he says in a recent post, “The container economy is either failing for good or in a serious readjustment phase. Places that continue to play by the rules of the container will be brought down to the lowest common denominator, whether that means eating melamine shrimp from abroad or, you know, driving out to low-wage jobs at big box retailers.”
Porter told me that he sees more small, family-run places in the future for restaurants, many of which could even be underground eateries in peoples homes, a trend that has already manifested itself in places like Chicago, New York and Portland, Oregon.
“A couple of our guys are leaving here to start a gourmet local food truck (Miho Gastrotruck). That’s the kind of thing I see happening now.”
The Linkery is located at: 3794 30th St (in North Park), 619 255 8778.