ORANGE BEACH, AL – Johnny Fisher could take a different approach to how he supplies food to his restaurants at Orange Beach Marina.
Many companies are big distributors to the food industry and can be counted on to supply a myriad of things from napkins to lettuce. It could serve to uncomplicate his ordering process, make running his restaurants a bit easier.
But he’s a bit more discriminating when it comes to what’s brought into Fisher’s Upstairs and Fisher’s Dockside.
Upstairs is fine dining, tablecloths, immaculate décor and Executive Chef Bill Briand’s creations coming out of the kitchen. Dockside is casual dining also inspired by Briand.
“Doing the right thing is not always the easiest,” Fisher said.
Meaning it takes more time to find and build relationships with local growers and have a number of small suppliers instead of letting one big box distributor drop off in bulk his supplies.
Fisher is one of the leaders in a local movement that is seeing more and more Baldwin County growers taking a leap into the fresh market and supplying businesses like Fisher’s who want to serve local produce.
Gulf Coast Media chronicles that trend in Baldwin’s Bounty, a magazine featuring the producers of fresh food for those restaurants seeking local flavor. It will be inside Friday’s Baldwin Times newspaper, sister paper to the Islander.
Fisher gets about 20 percent of his produce from Baldwin vendors, but he’d like that number to be higher. In his kitchen there’s a dry erase board with about four dozen items or ingredients the restaurant uses and who supplies them.
“Ultimately it’s important because it puts the best food on the table,” Fisher said. “The difference between good food and really great food is the ingredients most of the time. A tomato that was picked this morning and is on your plate at night makes all the difference in the world.”
And as much as possible, he wants that tomato to come from right here in Baldwin County.
“There’s all these other benefits that come from this, too,” he said. “This is supporting your buddies, your friend down the street that’s busting his tail to grow this food. When you put money back into the local economy it multiplies a lot more than a dollar that’s going to go to a big distributor that has a home office in Cleveland.”
One of his favorite growers is Craine Creek Farm, a producer of 20 different types of hydroponically grown lettuce in Loxley, owned and operated by Anita Craine and her son Micah Craine.
Another is Local Appetite Growers, a venture in Silverhill by partners Will Mastin and Karl Brantley. They use hydroponics to grow lettuce varieties but also specialize in heirloom tomatoes and a wide range of gourmet vegetables like Japanese cucumbers and Southern staples like squash, okra, cantaloupes and beans.
"We know their family real well; our kids play together,” Fisher said. “This is a second job for him. He’s busting his tail to make this work. He’s growing every year, no pun intended.
“It’s really rewarding to have him pull up and just write a check to him.”
Mastin and Brantley are currently growing at least two items Fisher requested and Fisher hopes more of this type of business relationship continues to flourish.
“He’ll grow specifically for us,” Fisher said. “We’ve asked him to grow these shishito peppers. He grew those specifically for us. We use a lot heirloom tomatoes and he grows them for us. His stuff he delivers to us is usually picked that morning and delivered that afternoon. That’s a big deal.”
At Craine Creek Farm, Anita Craine says Briand of Fisher’s requested a specific type of leaf called magenta spreen in the lambsquarter family, and seeds were hard to come by. She eventually found the variety and found the best ways to grow it.
“The first seeds of it are growing for him now,” Anita Craine said.
It’s those kind of relationships, Fisher says, that will lead to more and more cooperation – and business growth - between restaurants and the locals producing Baldwin’s bounty.
“There’s more that goes into it a lot of times, but it’s worth it from our end,” Fisher said. “You have to really cultivate with these small producers and you have to help them out.”