TAMPA — Waiters at Tampa's most iconic restaurant, the venerable Bern's Steak House, tell diners about the 8-acre organic farm on which Bern's grows its vegetables. The Bern's menu says that many vegetables used "are grown organically on our farm." And an ad in the new magazine Local Dirt asserts that "all of (Bern's) vegetables are organically grown on their own urban farm in Tampa."
This part of Bern's story has captivated the media as well as the dining public, drawing U.S. presidents, celebrities and thousands of reservations each week. The promise of house-grown organic vegetables has helped to cement Bern's place in the pantheon of the nation's top steak houses.
But it's a promise the restaurant doesn't keep.
The farm is a field of grass and dirt and no vegetables are evident. Most of the restaurant's produce comes from major food-service providers, and just a small portion of it is organic.
Bern's is hardly the first restaurant to let its marketing get ahead of reality. Much of the relationship between diner and restaurant is unverifiable and based on trust. Even the most discerning customer must take on faith that the fish is what it is advertised to be, the meat is the USDA grade claimed and the provenance of the produce is as described. If it turns out not to be, it can mean trouble for the restaurant.
Such a revelation is particularly embarrassing to Bern's, whose near-mythical status among Florida restaurants comes with the burden of heavy expectations from diners.
In the early 1970s, Bern Laxer set about transforming a plot of land in Tampa's Town 'N Country neighborhood into an organic farm to service his enormously popular steak house. In January, however, cultivation of this land at 5702 W Waters Ave. stopped, with the aim of repurposing the land and moving farming operations to a much smaller lot across the street.
A first crop will likely be planted in the fall, with a yield expected in the winter. In the meantime, aside from dirt and an empty greenhouse, all that can be seen on the land at 5711 W Waters Ave. are some flats of microgreens and tubs of potted herbs and flowers.
Acknowledging in an interview that there has been a hiatus in production, owner David Laxer estimates that less than 5 percent of the produce Bern's uses has come from the farm recently.
And Laxer estimates that of the total produce used, sourced from mega-distributors like Sysco, 20 percent is organic.
Laxer said delivering fresh organic produce has "always been a struggle because of the volume we do. On Friday and Saturday we average around 800 dinners. On a night like New Year's Eve or Valentine's Day we may do 1,300." To provide a sense of scale, Bern's public relations director Brooke Palmer estimates that the restaurant uses five 25-pound boxes of tomatoes a day, a figure that might exhaust the capabilities of all the local, organic farms put together.
Enter, exit Sweetwater
After Bern Laxer's death in 2002, the farm was overseen by staff gardeners until Sweetwater Organic Farm took over in 2007.
The first community-supported agriculture farm in Florida, Sweetwater had outgrown its original 6-acre suburban property along Sweetwater Creek in Town 'N Country. It needed more space to service its subscribers. In a relationship Sweetwater founder Rick Martinez describes as "mutually beneficial," Sweetwater got to use Bern's land, and separate beds were overseen by Martinez and crew to grow produce for Bern's.
The relationship ended in February, Martinez says, when Sweetwater began farming a 7-acre site near the Children's Home in Tampa. According to Martinez, the 8-acre Bern's farm site is scheduled to be turned into youth soccer fields and a gas station.
"David's father was a food fanatic. David is a soccer fanatic," Martinez adds.
When asked to estimate how much of Bern's Steak House's produce came from the farm during his tenure there, Martinez said only, "That would be a no comment."
Issue of the day
The nation has seen a dramatic uptick in the number of restaurants touting a commitment to serving seasonal, local and organic food. According to Harry Balzer, who researches food trends for the NPD Group, the farm-to-table movement is largely about marketing. He sees consumers first and foremost as novelty seekers, with words like "local" and "sustainable" the flavor of the moment.
" 'Local' clearly has a wonderful feel to it right now and we're seeing a trend toward clean ingredients and local food. It's the issue of the day — what cholesterol was in the 1980s and nutraceuticals were in the 1990s. We go through fads. Consumers are always looking for new ways to define their food."
In fact, Chipotle, one of the country's fastest-growing chains, has built its brand with a tagline of "food with integrity." It, too, "sources organic and local produce when practical." Which raises the question, how often is that?
The irony is that Bern's sister restaurant SideBern's, led by executive chef Chad Johnson, has spearheaded efforts to purchase food products from local farms and purveyors. Teaming up with chefs from restaurants like the Refinery and Cafe Dufrain, and working with distributor Suncoast Food Alliance, Johnson has forged relationships with farms in Hillsborough County, Manatee County and beyond.
According to Laxer, this different approach is a function of volume and agenda. Where Bern's may see 1,000 customers in an evening, SideBern's may serve only 100.
"SideBern's is more about chef-driven specialty items. That's not what the steak house is about. Iceberg lettuce isn't going to (SideBern's)," he says. And as for the January ad in Local Dirt, Laxer says neither he nor his staff were responsible for the text.
Stickler for details
Once called "the most remarkable restaurant in the entire world" by Esquire food critic John Mariani, Bern's has built its reputation with a captivating story that includes the largest wine cellar in the world, steaks painstakingly dry-aged in house and a romantic dessert room in which people dine in converted wine casks.
Before it became a tuxedoed-waiter, red-draped bastion of luxurious excess (21 choices of caviar), Bern's was a bar on Howard Avenue called the Beer Haven. Bern Laxer, a stickler for details, oversaw every aspect of the business as it grew, adding a machine shop, 1,200-gallon tanks in the kitchen for live, local fish and, eventually, the farm. Laxer's farming efforts predated most of the nation's restaurant farms, but perhaps he never intended it to produce all of the veggies for the restaurant.
According to Joyce LaFray, author of Bern's Steak House: Reflections and Recipes from a Remarkable Restaurant, "Bern's expertise was marketing. The idea of an organic farm was great. It was sort of his hobby and he did a lot of it himself."
David Laxer says his father's motivation was to exert control over more of the restaurant's variables.
"My father was a city boy. He started reading about organic gardening. No one did organic gardening back then. It was all about big, fast and help-through-chemicals. Part of it for him was therapy, but it was about producing volume for the restaurant. He tried to grow as much as he could. It was about what he could grow on a large scale, given our volume and the seasonality in Florida."
He tells the story of one year when watermelons were so plentiful on the farm that diners all went home with free melons at the end of their meals. Still, Laxer estimates that even during its heyday, the farm produced only 20 percent of the restaurant's produce.
The story today
At dinner last month, a waiter went through the Bern's Steak House legend, walking diners along the many-paged menu, describing the wine cellar, the dessert room and Bern's 8-acre organic farm. He told how waiter trainees must log 40 hours on the farm before they can begin serving guests. When pressed, he mentioned menu items he said had come from the farm (microgreens, oyster mushrooms and hearts of palm).
Yes, microgreens (which are seedlings harvested when the first true leaves appear) are from there, but public relations director Palmer says the waiter misspoke: no hearts of palm or mushrooms.
If from January to November of this year Bern's farm is in a "fallow" period, is it disingenuous for the menu and servers to continue telling the story?
David Laxer likened the hiatus to having a disruption in a supply of Madagascar vanilla beans — it would be silly, he said, to reprint a dessert menu to reflect this. Still, when asked about the future, Laxer said, "Once we get through the first growing season, we'll adjust the story appropriately. We'll have to analyze it in our first full season this winter. There have always been ebbs and flows."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.