This story originally appeared in Oregon Business Magazine
When the historic Lostine Tavern closed in January 2013, residents of the Wallowa Valley in Eastern Oregon lost a central meeting place.
The tavern, located in a 1902 gothic building, had been a cornerstone of this rural farming community since the 1940s. It was the kind of place where locals would meet for a beer or come for a hearty breakfast before heading out to the ranch for a day’s work.
“They did taco nights and socials,” says local writer and chef Lynne Curry. ““It was beloved.” But it hadn’t been a viable business for awhile.
The gothic façade of the Lostine Tavern, in Eastern Oregon
Curry, former chair of Wallowa’s Slow Food chapter and the author of Pure Beef (a guide to cooking grass-fed beef), had wanted to open a farm-to-table restaurant ever since she moved to Wallowa in 2001. But there were obstacles. Wallowa County produces enormous amounts of beef and wheat, but most of it leaves the state, feeding the commodity food system instead of local residents.
“I went to a cattleman’s meeting the other night and met a rancher who said he could get enough beef to feed 40,000 people a year!” says Curry. According to the last Agriculture Census, only 2.16% of the livestock and crops produced in Wallowa County are direct sales. The rest — 97.84% — is sold outside the county, typically to the commodity market.
Curry and fellow Slow Food board member Peter Ferré had been hatching a plan to serve local food in Wallowa when the Lostine Tavern went on the market. Ferré snapped up the tavern (which narrowly escaped an explosive fire this February) and Curry became his business partner. (In January, Lisa Armstrong-Roepke joined on as a third business partner.)
Curry has an impressive pedigree: she’s cooked at both Seattle’s Herbfarm and at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island. But the revamped Lostine Tavern, which is slated to open mid-May, will not be upscale. Curry envisions an old-timey menu with pot pies, sourdough biscuits, pepper steak, and fruit cobbler. “I want to hearken back to the most deluxe mining camp you can imagine,” says Curry, who will run the kitchen. “The funny part is that making pickles, canning, sourdough—all the things that are so popular now—they’ve never gone out of style here. We’ll do all the things people have done for generations.” She also plans to revive taco nights and pie socials.
Until recently, Lostine (population 213) was a food desert, with the closest full-service grocery store — a Safeway in Enterprise — ten miles away. But that’s starting to change. Last summer, internationally-known furniture designer Tyler Hays (a Wallowa native) moved back and bought M. Crow Mercantile, keeping the 100-year-old general store stocked with fresh local produce, eggs, and meat. June Colony, who aggregates produce grown in the lower valley and sells it via June’s Local Market in Lostine, recently got a $68,000 grant from the USDA to invest in infrastructure like cold storage units and a refrigerated truck that will help her increase Wallowa residents' access to high-quality produce.
The revamped Lostine Tavern, though it won’t have a grocery section, will also expand residents’ access to local, quality food with a deli that will have sandwiches, meats and cheeses by the pound (including a housemade pastrami), and all kinds of prepared seasonal salads — from green to potato.
Keeping prices affordable for this farming community, where 28% of residents qualify for food stamps, is crucial to the Lostine Tavern’s success, says Curry. She and her business partners will achieve this by raising as much money up-front as possible via ChangeFunder, a new crowd-funding site that focuses exclusively on Northwest businesses that have a mission of growing healthy communities. ChangeFunder is a project of Springboard Innovation, a Portland-based nonprofit dedicated to helping people launch sustainable ventures. The Lostine Tavern was the first project to go live on the site.
“Lynne and Peter have the same kind of values that we do,” says Amy Pearl, founder and CEO of Springboard Innovation. “They want to build a value chain for local markets that doesn’t exist right now.” Wallowa farmers and ranchers like Beth Gibans at Backyard Gardens and Liza Jane McAlister and Adele Nash at 6 Ranch have already expressed interest in supplying Lostine Tavern, and Curry is talking to a local woman who is raising pastured chickens.
The economic impact of keeping money in the local foodshed could be huge. Research from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa shows that $1 spent on local food can have a "multiplier effect" of as much as $2.60. In other words, for every dollar a Wallowa County farmer makes, $2.60 is generated in the wider local economy (because he or she is paying employees and buying goods and services at local businesses like M. Crow Mercantile). “That same $1 spent at a national grocery chain leaves the county quickly because that chain—for the most part—doesn’t buy local goods and services and profits go wherever the corporate headquarters are located,” explains Portland-based food systems consultant Matthew Buck.
Another happy result of the Lostine Tavern sourcing locally-produced food? Not only will Wallowa-area farmers and ranchers be able to charge higher prices selling locally than they would by selling to the commodity market, they’ll be able to keep a larger share of that end price.