The concept of farm-to-table enterprises conjures up fruits and vegetables full of healthy, nutritious vitamins and antioxidants, fresh-picked and locally grown. Sometimes, though, the food concept popular in Southwest Florida and worldwide may be more show than substance.
Chef David Robbins knows firsthand how difficult it is, in execution, to do a true farm-to-table process from local purveyors. “That’s the biggest challenge in Southwest Florida: just the dynamic where there’s really such a small amount of these actual gentleman farms, so to speak,” he says. “Then they have a short growing season, so you’re stuck with having to buy from industrial purveyors at the end of the day.”
Robbins also knows firsthand how to do farm-to-table. He was chef de cuisine for the dining concept Harvest & Wisdom when it opened in 2019 with Executive Chef Allen Fisher at Shangri-La Springs historic resort in Bonita Springs. The organic, farm-to-table restaurant was built from the ground up.
“Harvest & Wisdom’s superspecial because we had a 5-acre, actually certified organic garden on site. And a gardener, Cecilia, who actually understands food forest dynamics—and she understood how to grow food 12 months out of the year out of that space,” Robbins says.
The garden is no-till, an all-natural growing method that’s easier on the soil and better for preserving micronutrients. Head gardener Cecelia Morales oversees five full-time gardeners.
The restaurant’s seasonal menu included items such as squash salad with shaved organic zucchini and yellow squash, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, flake sea salt, small batch hand-crafted olive oil, feta cheese and just-picked baby opal basil and mint; Circle C Farm lamb sausage with lentiled pigeon peas, pickled fennel, fennel fronds, pickled mustard seed and demi-glace; and Circle C Farm bone-in ribeye garnished with shaved purple carrots, sautéed radishes and seared garlic kale.
Everything the restaurant used was organic and free-trade, from the produce grown on site to the wines, sodas, even the spices. Harvest & Wisdom sourced grass-fed, pasture-raised protein such as meats and eggs from Circle C Farm in nearby Felda.
In August 2017, Circle C Farm was awarded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grant of Inspection, making it Florida’s first and only on-farm USDA federally inspected abattoir and butcher shop for both red and white meats, and only one of three in the nation.
“We are completely grass-fed and grass-finished. And that is absolutely critical,” said Nicole Cruz, owner of Circle C Farm, a family owned and operated farm in Lee and Hendry counties. “The value of the meat and the lack of stress in these animals translates directly to the meat profile flavors that come after the harvesting process of our meat.”
In addition to producing beef, lamb, pork and poultry, Circle C has several thousand laying hens for egg production. The farm, which promises “from our pasture to your plate,” sells its meat and eggs in a little store just north of Shangri-La Springs in Bonita.
Chef Robbins has the experience and ability to create incredible results with fresh produce. He grew up in Hawaii, where he developed a passion for ecology at his family’s flower and lei business and all-natural produce farm. He moved to Florida as a teenager and graduated with a degree in cultural ecology from Florida Gulf Coast University.
The Shangri-La Springs garden in Bonita didn’t close during the pandemic, although the hotel and restaurant did temporarily. Owner Addison Fischer kept the garden staffed full time with four or five people to keep growing organic produce, but when the restaurant closed, Robbins parted ways and founded Not A Burger.
After a nearly two-year hiatus, Harvest & Wisdom restaurant reopened in January with a new chef and menu at the hotel, which was built in 1921 on Old 41 Road. It’s another milestone in the hotel’s storied past that saw it shuttered for more than 20 years before undergoing a complete renovation and being relaunched a few years ago.
Harvest & Wisdom is open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday. Its new organic, seasonal menu includes brunch items such as green papaya salad with toasted peanuts, green beans, firecracker chili, crispy shallots and nuóc chãm dressing; and house-made vegan burgers with vegan mayo, Dijon mustard, garden lettuce, longevity spinach, tomato and onion. Its lunch items feature Shangri-La Toast Du Jour, a seasonal selection from the resort’s garden.
Robbins’ new project, Not A Burger, is much more than it’s not. It’s an all-natural superfood plant-based protein patty made with premium whole food ingredients. They are 100% vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO and sustainable. Then came Not A Meatball and Not A Cotta, a ricotta-inspired garlic herb, cashew cheese spread. He’s working on a chorizo crumble and a chicken nugget. “Just really trying to push this more than just a one-farmers-market business and make it something substantial,” Robbins says.
Nevertheless, look for Not A Burger’s tent Saturday mornings at Third Street South Farmer’s Market in downtown Naples. Burgers can be grilled to go, or the patties and other plant-based products are packaged to take home and are available for local delivery and pickup. “We actually just incorporated into an LLC called Future Foods,” Robbins says.
“There’s this whole scene of plant-based products out there that are overprocessed, industrial junk food. They’re full of chemicals, additives, artificial ingredients,” Robbins says. “So, we’re using locally grown organic beets, quinoa, fresh lentils, whole-grain oats, tamari, fermented chili paste. It’s all superfood ingredients. It’s all high-quality ingredients.”
Paying more for organic and healthier food, of course, becomes more difficult when faced with already-inflationary prices at the grocery store and elsewhere.
“It’s always a challenge,” Robbins says. “We’re fortunate to be in a demographic like Naples.”
Although many restaurants, grocery stores and businesses in the food service industry promote their products with popular buzzwords such as fresh, local, organic and farm to table, some of these places talk the talk but do not really walk the walk, so to speak. They make claims that often can’t be proven. “It’s inauthentic,” says Robbins, who said he is familiar with the term greenwashing.
Greenwashing, or green sheen, is a form of marketing spin that misleads consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. There are more green products than ever before … but not all are environmentally friendly.
“It’s farm-to-table restaurants. It’s the plant-based industry at large. There’s definitely a lot of marketing where they use buzz terms to manipulate customer perception,” Robbins says. “You’re right to be suspicious and you’re right to ask questions. That’s why I encourage my clients and customers to build relationships. Get to know the farmer, the restaurateur, the chefs, the business owner. Hit them up to see if you can tour their space, too. Most of these people are happy to, if they’re the real deal.”
Oakes Farms walks the walk on its thousands of acres in Collier and Hendry counties. “You can source the best product, but you shouldn’t be able to call it local if it’s not local,” says Alfie Oakes, founder of Oakes Farms.
Oakes and other local farms invite visitors out to see what they are growing and how they’re growing it. Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm welcomes folks to its 100 acres in North Fort Myers. Its open-air restaurant in a tree-filled dining room is open by reservation only Thursday through Sunday.
Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm was founded by Rose O’Dell King, who wanted healthy, good quality food for her family, produced in an honest, wholesome way. She founded and became the first president of Slow Food Southwest Florida, a local chapter of the worldwide organization dedicated to good, clean and fair food. Rosy Tomorrows’ website promotes food that is produced “organically, holistically, sustainably, humanely and as close to nature as possible.”
The term organic is the only term that’s actually regulated by a regulatory authority, the USDA. “Technically, a health inspector can go into a restaurant and, if it says organic Inyoni tomatoes on your menu, they can technically audit your invoices, if they felt so inclined,” Robbins says.
As USDA-certified organic farmers, Nick and Natalie Batty grow certified organic products at their Inyoni Organic Farm on 10 acres off Immokalee Road in Collier County—without the use of synthetic ingredients as fertilizers or for pest control. The local business grows a lot of lettuce and baby greens for local restaurants. The turnaround time of less than 60 days for those greens is good for the farm’s bottom line ahead of cucumbers, eggplants, squash and tomatoes, which it also grows. Inyoni seasonally provides strawberries, broccoli, Napa cabbage, orange and purple carrots, green onions, dandelion greens, jicama, sweet peppers, Swiss chard and herbs such as dill, cilantro and parsley.
Operating now for two decades, Inyoni was there years ago when The Local Restaurant launched in Bed Bath & Beyond Plaza at Airport-Pulling and Pine Ridge roads in Naples. Chef-owner Jeff Mitchell, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, created a menu filled with locally sourced food fresh from the Gulf and from area farms.
The Battys give Mitchell the opportunity to choose the seeds he wants planted in the farm plot. Mitchell has partnered with Inyoni the entire time since opening with consistent results, especially with seasonal produce such as kale, arugula and spinach varieties.
Mitchell also uses Blue Star Seafood for supplying all the local fish at the restaurant. He tries to source products locally, whether they be from a mushroom farmer or Farmer Mike’s growing business in Bonita Springs.
“We look at it that we are trying to support those people instead of just going to the big box for everything,” Mitchell says.
A new kid on the farm-to-table scene is The 239 Naples, planning to open soon at Mercato in North Naples. The restaurant and bar promises fresh, clean eating with craft cocktails and artisanal foods from the farms and fisheries of Southwest Florida. The 239 is moving into the former spaces of Zoës Kitchen and Taps. Cavo Lounge wraps around it near the middle of the open-air center.
Also in North Naples, the all-organic restaurant and market Food & Thought 2 is planning to launch this spring. Its Fountain Park address fronting Airport-Pulling Road formerly was home to The Founders Market & Bistro, Original Pancake House and Calistoga.
Oakes Farms founder Alfie Oakes is partnering with The Founders’ owner Randy Johns and Anthony High of Marjon Specialty Foods on the new local food venture. Oakes operates the original Food & Thought, marketed as “the organic general store,” in the Gateway of Naples retail center on U.S. 41. Established in 2005, Food & Thought features a 100% organic produce market, cafe, juice bar, coffee shop and retail health food store. Food & Thought 2 will have a restaurant and market, each in individual 6,000-square-foot buildings separated by a large courtyard. Executive Chef Dan Kniola and Executive Sous Chef Raena Hobson have created recipes using an abundance of healthy, farm-to-table products.
From the farm
Oakes Farms covers both ends of the food chain. Its more than 3,000 acres supply stores, restaurants and consumers in Southwest Florida, including its own Seed to Table store. “We probably have 50 or 60 items coming in from the farm, and every single one of them is going to our store and into the culinary department. It’s all the items that we can grow here,” says Oakes, the owner of the local agricultural conglomerate that feeds thousands.
“Outside of the corporate chains, I think we have the overwhelming majority of the independents in Collier County and a good part of Lee County, as well, with our distribution,” Oakes says. “So, we have a farm where everything that goes to Food & Thought and the front of Seed To Table is all organic, but a lot of what we grow is not organic that goes to other chain stores. The percentage of items is probably 30% of items that we grow are strictly organic. All the lettuces, all the kales, all of our heirlooms are organic; the root vegetables such as onions and radishes and carrots are all organic.”
The end result is a healthier product grown with 100% organic fertilizer and not chemical fertilizers, Oakes said. “It’s grown in real, organic fertilizer that has all the micronutrients in it. So, when you eat it, you’re getting all the micronutrients,” he says.
Oakes, a first-generation farmer, started working a 15-acre piece when he was 19 years old. Frank Oakes, Alfie’s dad and founder of the Food & Thought organic general store, started farming 10 years after Alfie, but he made quite an impression on the younger Oakes.
“I used to farm completely conventional when I started farming. My dad had a lot to do with changing my mind on that,” Oakes says. “He was the first one to ever farm anything organic in the family. I was farming completely conventional, and then he got into organics.”
Frank Oakes started farming in Lee County but never had a big farm, Oakes said. “The biggest farm he ever grew was probably 15 or 20 acres, but he did it militantly organic. He did one row of this and one row of that and he was doing worm castings and doing all his own composting himself on site.”
Oakes feels people can tell the difference when produce is home-grown. “I think the things that people really notice the difference in are the heirloom tomatoes, our vine-ripe tomatoes, the fresh lettuces that are so crisp and fresh; all the stuff that you would make a salad out of, whether it’s onions, peppers, red peppers, all the different varieties of peppers, all the eggplant, squash, the melons—all that type of stuff is so much better when you’re getting it fresh and local.”
Oakes attributes his overall personal health to knowing what he’s putting into his body.
“We don’t really hear that much about how much healthier it is when you get stuff that’s like living within a day or two from the time that you eat it—the living, electric energy that’s in the product—versus something that is a week to two weeks old,” he said.
Oakes feels blessed to be around the farm-to-table process, around stuff that’s picked that day, he said. “Almost every day, I’m out on the farm eating something that comes right off the plant. There are health benefits to that beyond what I think our medical profession even understands at this point.”