Shelves filled with jars or pickles and such are the only down-home note in the place. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg

No doubt about it, Potomac’s Founding Farmers has an appealing formula. Like its downtown sibling, the new restaurant features sustainable ingredients from family farms, comfort food at reasonable prices and a casual atmosphere. It’s a feel-good package that has hit a digestive chord.

The Founding Farmers in Foggy Bottom, opened in 2008 by the North Dakota Farmers Union, was the country’s most-booked restaurant on Open Table in 2011 (1,300 people a day).

It’s so popular that I’ve never been able to snag a reservation, even after a couple of tries. And after being open only a few weeks, its Potomac outpost was already booked for reservations a week and a half in advance.

The new restaurant is owned, operated and managed by the Farmers Restaurant Group, which includes investors, the North Dakota Farmers Union and other farm organizations. In terms of appearance and menu, it’s a near-twin to its city sister, even as it offers more chicken dishes, roasted vegetables, pickled and preserved items, house-made sausages, homemade sodas, an expanded bakery and afternoon tea.

Despite its burgeoning popularity, I can’t say I’m a fan. The restaurant’s motto is “true food & drink,” and its website and extensive menu come on strong touting the restaurant’s environmental consciousness and from-scratch preparations. But after a few early visits to the place, I found that Potomac’s Founding Farmers promises more than it delivers, with the execution falling as flat as an Iowa cornfield. The hefty portions of mostly average-tasting fare seem mass-produced, like something you’d get at a chain restaurant.

There might be a reason for that: The culinary team behind the restaurants seems to specialize in large-feeding operations. Among other gigs, the corporate chef previously held top positions at hotel restaurants, and the executive chef spent the bulk of his career working at and managing Cheesecake Factory restaurants.

Advertisement

And while the notion of “family farms” might conjure up quaint images of overalls-clad mom-and-pop types tilling the familial soil, the quantities of food—and the steady, dependable supply the Founding Farmers restaurants require—can’t be met by small, artisanal producers. So its purveyors, albeit family-owned, are often firms that sell to other area restaurants and supermarkets.

For example, the Founding Farmers restaurants get their eggs from Eggland’s Best, a company that distributes nationally, including to major supermarkets and Walmart. Poultry comes from Bell & Evans, whose chickens are available locally at Whole Foods Markets, Balducci’s and other stores. Pork comes from Niman Ranch, whose most well-known restaurant client is Chipotle. Its salmon comes from Cooke Aquaculture, a huge Canadian firm that sells more than 115 million pounds of farmed Atlantic salmon annually.

That said, these—and other items in Potomac’s Founding Farmers’ pantry—are good-quality products, and the chefs have come up with inventive ways to prepare them, even if that doesn’t always translate into the finished dish.  

Advertisement