The pace at Standard Foods is slow.
Early on a summer afternoon, construction workers hack away at a dining room meant to seat 80 diners. Nearby, in the prep kitchen of the combination restaurant-and-boutique-grocery in Raleigh's redeveloped Person Street Plaza, a giant steam kettle sits beside a jumble of elaborate cooking equipment. Eventually, the kettle will roil non-stop—through nights, weekends and holidays, too—boiling bones into broth and reducing simple sauces.
Despite the specialized tool, it's a lengthy process. But doing things well, even if it takes a lot longer, seems to be the Standard Foods maxim—really, the entire reason it exists. That's also why, when Standard Foods finally opened at the end of last week, it was a full year late.
Until a month ago, large sheets of white paper plastered the windows of the joint venture between John Holmes, the president of real estate firm Hobby Properties, and Scott Crawford, formerly the head chef of Herons at The Umstead in Cary. The restaurant's name and logo dominated the coverings, as did a promise: "Opening Late Fall 2014." But after the holidays came and went, Holmes—who also manages the plaza—ran a strip of electrical tape through the proclamation's back half.
It read, simply, "Opening Late."
"I was sick of being reminded that I was behind schedule," Holmes admits. "Originally, we weren't going to do much inside. But we looked at the approach Scott was taking—seeking out local people doing interesting things—and decided to work with local craftsmen to design the rest of the space. We want the design to reflect what we're trying to do with the food. That's where the delay comes in."
In the interim, some potential employees moved on to other opportunities. And for the past several months, the Standard Foods chef de cuisine, Bret Edlund, worked out of a small kitchen Holmes owns on Glenwood Avenue. He shifted from preparing a winter menu to a spring menu and, ultimately, to finishing a fall menu. The time has finally come to serve it.
Standard Foods is a restaurant, but it's also a market and charcuterie. The ventures are meant to reinforce one another: You can have a meal of boiled peanut chowder and pork cheek in the dining room, then head to the grocery to paw through the chef's pantry-for-purchase. Were you partial to the brown butter or apricot mustard? You'll find them for sale, along with stocks and sauces, soups and salads. And with a whole-animal butchery adjacent to the kitchen, Standard Foods offers smoked and fresh meats for sale, plus North Carolina seafood and shellfish. The team hopes to harken back to a time when shoppers knew their butcher (that's Steve Goff, by the way) and the grower of their greens. Crawford and Holmes recognize those connections will take time, but they seem prepared for the long haul—and the significant affect their plan could have on the local food market over time.
Before partnering with Holmes, the chef traveled the country opening restaurants for the Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel chain. More recently, he managed 150 employees and a massive food and beverage budget at The Umstead, including the five-star restaurant. During his tenure there, Crawford and his wife, Jessica, built a home near the state farmers market, where they're raising their two children, Jiles and Jolie. Yet he desired a stronger sense of community than a hotel could offer.
"I got tired of being a special-occasion chef. I would literally see people once a year, which took some of the magic out of what I was doing," Crawford says, dipping his head beneath a sad smile. At 42, Crawford's colorful tattoos and a typically easy smile belie his age, though his salt-and-pepper hair is a bit of a tattletale.
"I want to relate to and connect with my audience, which I just wasn't doing at Herons," he says. "It started to become more about that 10-million-dollar bottom line and that Forbes five-star rating, and less about what the customers want."
Standard Foods is intended as the antidote to that feeling, and it seems to be working. Now, when Crawford talks about the complex maze of sourcing local and organic milk (it's a rare dairy that offers both) or brandishes a plant-based container that holds its form and won't leach—even during microwaving—his eyes light up. He's taken his time to find these supplies for Standard.
"With a hotel, things run on schedule, or else people start working 24/7," he says. "Slow growth is really something I've had to adapt to."
Despite lagging behind its scheduled start and only opening last week, Standard Foods has already gotten national attention. In February, a crew from the PBS show A Chef's Journey visited Standard Foods to film Crawford working in his kitchen, cooking for 20 at CAM Raleigh and riding his motorcycle in single-degree weather.
"Scott is a very unique chef," says the show's host, Steven Meese. "He makes ingredients shine on their own without adding any fluff to them."
Meese was most impressed by Crawford's take on vichyssoise, a French soup typically made from potatoes and leeks. Crawford replaced the potatoes with parsnips, and instead of relying on stock, he used the natural jus from the creamy root instead. The process is indicative of Crawford's patient, thoughtful approach—and, by extension, the core of Standard's slow mission.
"He does that with every item, through every course," Meese says. "His utilization of the whole animal—and the whole ingredient—intrigues me."
The crew also traveled to Ray Farms in Louisburg to film Crawford with Chad Ray, a local producer of grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork who will help supply the restaurant.
Such relationships will be critical to Standard Foods' mission. Holmes has long dreamed of reimagining the neighborhood grocery, focusing on local sourcing and sustainable food pathways. That was his goal with Market Restaurant, a similar concept originally slotted for the Standard space that never materialized.
Together, he and Crawford are building relationships with farmers and even building their own farm—acts they hope separate their endeavor both from other failed area attempts at boutique grocery stores and supermarket shopping.
Maggie Lawrence worked with Crawford for four years as the full-time food producer for Herons, developing the one-acre plot that eventually became The Culinary Farm at SAS Campus. Lawrence has joined Crawford again to implement a farm plan for the restaurant and grocer. It might seem strange to invest in their own plot when Standard's closest neighbor is Raleigh City Farm, a productive urban acre that has supplied restaurants like Poole's, Capital Club 16 and the Raleigh Times since 2011. Lawrence disagrees.
"Historically, every kitchen was tied to a farm, so we see it as a no-brainer," she says. "Scott wants to be on the cutting edge of food, so he's going to need to have relationships with farmers, as well as with his own farm."
During the planning stage, Crawford requested a staggering number of herbs—more than a hundred, Lawrence estimates. Take lavender, which can be grown in aromatic and edible varieties. Within the edible realm, there are nuttier and sweeter versions. It's the kind of down-the-rabbit-hole thinking that no traditional farm would be able to sustain, at least not without the promise of a purchaser. Crawford wants to use the test garden to decide what he needs, then be able to pay another farmer to grow it in the future.
"Scott and his farmer, Sean Baker, can grow something like a hakurei turnip with soft, white flesh. They can root it, and then turn around and say, 'Farmers, if you want to grow this, I can buy 100 pounds every week for three weeks,'" Lawrence explains. "Then, he begins to control the food market. I see Scott's vision changing the whole food scene."
Crawford and Holmes want to be accessible, too. That's why there's a small room in the back of the restaurant where whole animals will be broken apart to supply the grocery's meat case. Butchering animals on-site allows the chef to source from small, local producers while absorbing the significant cost of extracting the meat. Growing exotic varieties in the tiny test farm is part of that, too.
"When you're trying to advance trends and get rare things, those rare things are expensive. But if you can have a relationship with a farm, that's where you cut your costs," Lawrence says. "It's the bell curve. Once all the other farmers are on board, the price goes down."
Holmes and Crawford recognize that their continued growth as partners will help speed that mission along. They see Standard Foods as a springboard, not an end. They've formed the Nash Hospitality Group and have even settled on their next project—an upscale American tavern across from Nash Square in downtown Raleigh.
They'll just need to find the time to get to it.
"It's funny," says Crawford, finally flashing a joyous smile. "I worked so hard to make the money, climb the ladder and get recognized. I don't mean to speak negatively of anything I've done in my career, because it made me realize what's important at this stage in my life. But I'm here now, and I'm absolutely loving it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Made to order"