Local Business Highlight
This post is dedicated to a local business in McLean VA. We caught up with the founder and owner of LoKL Gourmet. He talked with us about his experience at the Falls Church City Farmers Market, his store and restaurant and his philosophy on food.
Among these include being ranked #3 overall in midsize farmers markets across the entire United States in 2012 by the American Farmland Trust. Among the many acclaimed vendors, Lokl Gourmet is a popular stop.
Mike Larson, owner of Lokl Gourmet, was interviewed on his experience at the farmer’s market as well as his own business and its emphasis on locally sourced goods.
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Interview: Founder of Lokl Gourmet in McLean VA
How long have you been a vendor at the farmer’s market for?
This will be my 4th year. 3 years as a different business called The Nourish Market which was a health food store. This will be our third season, second year as my current business, Lokl Gourmet.
Does your business operate at the farmers market year-round?
Yes we do. The farmers market in Falls Church goes year round. The summer market actually starts May 1st and goes all the way until Thanksgiving and then the winter market is Thanksgiving up to May 1st so we’re still in what’s considered the winter market. There will be a new set of vendors coming in for the spring though and it’s almost twice as big.
Do you offer the same products and menu items at the market that you do in your store?
Yes, we offer an assortment of our side salads. Part of our product mix and what were known for, especially from our previous business in the Falls Church and Mclean communities, is our chicken salad. It’s kind of what made us famous.
We do an assortment of delI sides. We also do roasted vegetable sides. Through the winter we sell a lot of soups. We sell about 12 different kinds of soups, and we do some baked goods like brownies, cookies, stuff like that.
Have you had the chance to walk around the market and explore other vendors? What was your experience?
I’ve gotten to know most of those vendors over the years very well. Actually, many of our partners that we use here for our store are our friends at the farmers market. That Falls Church Farmers Market in particular is the best one around. It’s the biggest one, it’s the one with the most history.
Going to that market is a lot like going to the town fair for the weekend. There’s live music, there’s a lot of people. It’s family and dog friendly. It’s a lot of more high-profile vendors that are there, whereas if you were to go to, say, Columbia Pike or Mclean or Great Falls, you wouldn’t see some of the larger produce vendors.
What, in your opinion, are the advantages of buying local?
We’re Lokl Gourmet, so the platform that we stand on and our mission at hand is to provide accessibility to locally sourced goods. The reason why it was important for me to start a business with the philosophy of sourcing locally is really 3 reasons. The first one is that locally sourced goods, especially food, taste better.
That’s important, for anybody. If you’ve ever gardened and you’ve grown cucumbers or tomatoes or anything like that and you’ve picked that tomato off, it’s going to be the most delicious tomato you’ve ever tasted because it was fresh. Nowadays if you go to the grocery store, there’s going to be tomatoes everywhere.
Those tomatoes were grown somewhere else, hundreds maybe thousands of miles away. They were ripened using ethylene gas, and the end product is something that tastes and looks like a tomato, but it isn’t the same tomato you’re growing out in your garden.
The second reason is that buying local helps the environment. It’s really important for us, as a local business, to minimize our carbon footprint.
When you buy goods from the grocery store, they have been packaged, they’ve been trucked for hundreds or thousands of miles. They’ve been repackaged and repurposed. As a consumer we go into the store and we buy it and take it in another bag, home.
The amount of gas, the amount of paper, the amount of everything that goes into purchasing from a grocery store is expensive on your local tax payer.
We buy our produce from local farms and we meet them at the Falls Church Farmers Market. We place our orders there and then we bring it back and we serve that food for people to eat.
The third reason and probably the most important, why you should buy local, is that it boosts your local economy.
As a locally owned business, I employ people that live around here, I use local vendors, I use local businesses to handle accounts, finances, everything. Now,
I’ll throw a fact at you. If every family in this country were to eat one all locally-sourced meal, all at once, this country would save 1.1 billion dollars in oil. Take that into consideration for a second. One meal for everybody saves over a billion dollars.
Now that is why it’s our mission to make this food accessible for people. I’ll throw another fact at you. For every 100 dollars that your average consumer spends, if they spend that 100 dollars locally, at a locally owned business, 45 of those dollars will get repurposed into your local economy.
Now, if you take that same consumer and they spend 100 dollars in a chain or a national business, only 7 of those dollars are gonna get repurposed into your local community.
We take pride in the neighborhood that we live in by its shops its culture its restaurants, its food and it is important for us to serve the community.
Now you’re not going to get that with larger chains, it’s a numbers game for big business. With small business, we actually care.
What is the difference between buying groceries from your local farmer’s market and buying groceries from a health food store like Whole Foods?
I think the common misconception is what is the difference between organic and conventional or organic versus local? 5 years ago organic was something you could stand behind. It meant that we don’t use genetically modified organisms, we don’t spray anything with herbicides or pesticides, were responsible.
And that still holds true today except for that the government became involved. The USDA made it a process for businesses to become certified organic. It now costs a small business 2 million dollars and it takes 2 years for them to be certified organic.
Now there’s nothing wrong with that, the Whole Foods and the Trader Joes and the health food stores of the world will continue to purchase organic goods, that’s what the consumers want.
But it doesn’t leave any room for the small business. What about Flemming Poultry Farms who we make all of our chicken products with.
That’s a 5-generation family farm that is too small or doesn’t have 2 million dollars to spend to become certified organic. His name is Farmer Joe.
It’s exactly how you would picture him too: overalls, straw. He doesn’t have that money. But does that mean he’s not a responsible farmer? Farmer Joe doesn’t use antibiotics.
Farmer Joe doesn’t use hormones, pesticides, or herbicides. Everything he does is free range. There’s responsible small businesses out there that are doing the right thing, which are not getting the opportunity that some of these larger farms are.
I’ll give you an example; Perdue is the largest chicken distributor in the entire country. Perdue slaughters something like 140,000 chickens per day. Now all Perdue has to do is take a section of their business and say this section is going to be certified organic and then they go through the process. They’ve got billions and billions of dollars, this is a drop in the pan for them.
So then they dedicate this one processing plant to being completely organic. The processes are the same, the way they treat their animals are the same. The only difference now is that they are feeding them organic, non GMO feed.
So yes you’re getting an organic product, does that necessarily mean that it’s better? It might be better, but as an average consumer the marketing that companies like Whole Foods or Trader Joes will do, will tell you that it’s better.
But for those that know or for those that are like-minded in our mission, would much rather support a local business that is responsible and honest and transparent.
One that I can go to their farm, I can pick my own carrots if I want to. That means more to those of us that are seeking this kind of product out. Organic is still one of those things that is good, you pay a premium for it.
Small businesses or businesses that had to pay 2 million dollars are going to charge their customer more for that product. You know it’s important for us to serve food the way it was intended to be.
And there are enough businesses around here that are active and responsible enough to do it, many of which are featured at the Falls Church Farmers Market.
Tell me about your store, Lokl Gourmet:
What we want to do here- we call ourselves a neighborhood market and eatery. Like I said, the availability and accessibility of this type of food, it’s not around.
Especially where we are here, you can always go to whole foods. But they’ve become such a big corporation that you really have to read between the lines. If you’re really interested in supporting your local community, it’s gonna take a lot of label reading.
We wanted to make it really easy for our customer base, our community, our friends, to come in here and know that they’re supporting not only me and my family as a local business owner, but they’re recirculating the dollars back into their own community, where a lot of them live, they grew up here, their kids are here.
So that’s our mission: we call ourselves farm to counter because we’re a quick service restaurant.
Were a gourmet deli and juice bar. We also partner with 30-35 other small businesses that aren’t big enough to get into whole foods.
They’re definitely not gonna get into Trader Joe’s or giant. They don’t really have an avenue to sell their goods except directly online to consumer. Were part of a small percentage of retailers that can offer these guys a platform. We sell pickles made right here in Mclean.
We source local honey, we sell cookies and brownies from two girls who quit their corporate jobs and started a bakery in Baltimore. Gourmet popcorn made in Lancaster, PA by a woman who’s 83 years old.
Route 11 chips that come from mountain range VA, we sell glass bottle milk the way it was intended to be bottled 50 years ago when they used to deliver it to everybody’s house, form an organic farm in Tripling Springs, PA.
That’s what we’re about. Were blessed to be in this area, what we call the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. It’s about a 250 mile stretch from Lancaster, PA down to the Chesapeake Bay.
Were blessed to be in this area because we’re surrounded by quality farms. Everywhere you just have to go 20 miles north, south, or west and you’re in farm country.
These Virginia farms are what we call responsible business. These guys take pride in what they do. Most of our partners have been in business or have been family farms for generations.
Instead of gardening ourselves we purchase produce and livestock from these local farmers and we get the same flavor profile that you would if you were gardening yourself. One of our vendors that we use takes our orders on Monday.
The produce is still in the ground when I order it. It is picked on Wednesday, cleaned and delivered on Thursday. So when we say that we’re farm to table, we really mean it.
The dad’s meatball sub is our most popular sandwich, it’s called that because it was my dad’s recipe.
We get all our meats from the Organic Butcher in Mclean. Which is another local business that were partnered with. It’s a combination of beef, veal, and pork as fresh as can be.
We throw some fresh herbs in there, fresh parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, and that’s it. Everything we do is handcrafted, clean, and simple, that’s the way food was intended to be.
I think that comes through in the flavor profile. It’s an old family recipe that I think I’ve mastered but my dad will come in and tell me I’ve done a pretty good job.
As I came back with my own concept for a business, I wanted to get out of the health food store genre, and get into the food people really like genre. So I got the opportunity to be creative with the menu and at the Falls Church Farmers Market for the last couple years we’ve been doing breakfast tacos.
It’s our most popular item especially come spring-time. It’s a sure-fire winner, we use fresh guac, fresh salsa, as clean as it could possibly be. Pretty much everything we do is simple and elegant.
We like to say that we serve peace of mind. You don’t have to come in and read any of our labels.