HOLLY SPRINGS — Regan Stachler, 35, heads out most mornings to find dinner for a few dozen people. From the fields and yields of a few small farms, Stachler and his crew craft an ever-changing menu for their new restaurant, Little Hen.
“You have to go to them, pick it up, drive it everywhere,” Stachler said. “Your menu can’t be consistent.”
The business serves almost exclusively locally-grown food. Stachler and company mill grits with a local farmer, select pasture-raised swine and contract shares of crops to supply the 70-seat eatery, which opened about a month ago.
At Little Hen, a recent weeknight’s five-entree menu included chicken-veal boudin sausage from Lilly Den Farm in Goldston, Frenched pork chops from the restaurant’s pigs at Siler City’s Okfuskee Farms, and eggs from Pipa’s Farm in Holly Springs. Local beer flows from the taps, and all the restaurant’s meat and eggs, and much of its produce, comes from farms within about 40 miles of the restaurant.
Regan and his wife, Dawn, follow a “farm-to-table” philosophy that has carved a foothold in North Carolina. They trust the quality of small farms’ crops and the soundness of their methods over the industrial agriculture that arrives at many restaurants in tractor-trailers. By providing a market for those farms, the Stachlers hope they can become a cog in a growing agricultural economy.
“There’s something to be said about feeding people what you would eat yourself. We’re not preaching. We’re not these giant hippies,” said Dawn Stachler one afternoon, leaning on the bar her husband crafted. A giant pitchfork and plow parts adorned the wall, and bare bulbs hung from the rafters above bright red chairs at dark wood tables.
Other locally-supplied restaurants draw crowds to chic downtown Raleigh spaces. But Little Hen, where plates cost about $15 to $30, lives inconspicuously at the end of a less-generic (tasteful, even) shopping center, in a town that’s still awaiting its first Target.
“It’s our goal that people – from Durham, from Chapel Hill and from Raleigh – that they drive out to eat here,” Dawn said. “...We know of no restaurant in the Fuquay, Apex, Holly Springs area that does this kind of food and this kind of service. It’s different.”
They believe they can break the stereotyped image of organic-obsessed food snobs. “Hipster? You don’t have to be. You’re supporting your local farmers,” Regan said.
Okfuskee Farms, the restaurant’s main supplier, lays out a set of farming principles it says are aimed at permaculture and agroecology – the creation, in other words, of a self-sustaining web of plant and animal species on a carefully designed plot of land. Okfuskee and other Little Hen suppliers also aim to eliminate many synthetic chemicals, including some fertilizers, pesticides and genetically-modified organisms.
“It’s the oldest idea. Initially, you had to do things this way. You cook simple food properly,” said sous chef Bo Peterson.
Yet part of the young restaurant’s challenge will be to convince Holly Springs residents to pay more for food with its own philosophy. Early Internet reviews praise the cooking but note the prices.
The cost stems in part from the small-scale production of the food. Tiny farms grow more expensive broccoli, so the Stachlers are trying to shave costs both by making harvest-sized orders and finding new ways to cook.
“Want to see some fun stuff?” asks bartender Sean Hamilton as he plops packages of beef heart and bone marrow on a kitchen counter. Unfamiliar maybe, but a recent experiment, chicken hearts served on a skewer, reminded a few customers of Grandma’s cooking.
Dawn’s own sense of food is rooted in Singapore, where she grew up with “a really diverse food culture, a big food culture.” Regan’s mother cooked with Spanish influence and makes a mean pie crust, but he – a Florida native – cemented his culinary philosophy in a series of high-pressure New York City cooking jobs, including Gramercy Tavern, a pioneering farm-to-table restaurant.
The couple met in the city, in a cooking class at the French Culinary Institute, where Dawn went for a distraction from law school – yes, she says hesitantly, she is still a lawyer.
They moved to Raleigh in 2008 almost on a whim, knowing that they wanted to be closer to the farms that make organic food much cheaper and simpler here. “We moved blind. We just picked a place,” Dawn said.
In 2009, they moved to Holly Springs with the birth of their child. Alongside their new life emerged the idea for Little Hen, once named “Husbandry.”
They struggled in the past year to open the restaurant, with renovations running months long as bills mounted and custom-ordered crops went to seed. Its opening a month ago was the realization of a dream, said Regan, an emotional guy, as tears welled.
Now the weekend crowds are growing, and the chef says the menu will bloom as spring crops of peas, beans and asparagus roll in.
Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary