KC chef sees Midwest mindset changing to locally grown over cheap restaurant food

People coming to Executive Chef Dan Wehner’s The Westside Local Restaurant in Kansas City are looking for more than just an inexpensive meal.

Wehner, known for purchasing his produce and meats from local farmers in and around the city, says that while his menu items may cost more, they taste better, are nutritionally superior and are environmentally friendly — things that his savvy customers are looking for.Dan Wehner

“People see the price is a little higher, but when you tell them why, they decide that this adds value to their dining experience and they come back,” he said.

“I can get frozen rabbits from China for $3 per pound, compared to the $9.89 it costs to source fresh rabbits from Wichita,” he said. “Customers initially question the higher menu cost until I tell them how the cheap rabbits were grown, processed and shipped.  Then, customers taste the difference and they almost always ask for the local products.  The quality and taste difference is that dramatic.”

Farm to Table Festival Farm to Table Festival, June 12-13

Wehner will be one of more than 15 chefs, nutrition experts and farmers who will speak at the first annual Farm to Table Festival, to be held June 12-13 at the University Club on the University of Missouri campus.

Wehner will describe the trend of restaurants building an infrastructure of local suppliers to provide healthier and more ethical food choices for customers.

Sponsored by the University Club of MU, University Catering and Event Services and the American Culinary Federation Central Missouri Chapter, the event will feature demonstrations by celebrity chefs, hands-on workshops, master classes, cooking-at-home presentations and an outdoor farmers market.

Customers more concerned about the relationship between their health and what they eat

“The mindset of Midwestern diners is changing,” Wehner said.  “Once we accepted cheap and processed food. Now, people are more cautious of food grown overseas or from factory farms.  People know that local farmers care about what they serve to their communities.  My customers are also becoming more concerned about the relationship between their health and what they eat.”

Wehner’s BLTs cost a few dollars more than a fast food place, but the sandwich has loyal followers who don’t mind.  “They know that our tomatoes cost more because they are locally grown and our customers want to support that,” he said.  “The bacon is sourced from a small farm and doesn’t contain the growth hormones that can come from larger meat operations.  Our bread comes fresh daily from a neighborhood bakery.  And, make no mistake, taste is a factor.  If the food tastes better, people will pay more for it.”Eggplant

Wehner’s customers also appreciate the fact that locally grown food requires less fossil fuel to transport.  “People are looking for ways to support environmentally friendly products,” Wehner said.  “Buying local food is one simple way to do that.”

Many of his customers also indicate that they care about the manner in which the animals were treated before slaughter.  “My clients want to know that the animal was treated humanely,” Wehner said.  “Ethical practices add value to a meal and people will support the effort.”

To help new customers experience locally produced food, Wehner offers samples of meats, cheeses and vegetables for $2 an item.  “This almost always convinces people.  They ask, why doesn’t all food taste this good.”

Wehner’s locally-grown philosophy and passion for food

Wehner is Kansas City born and his passion for food emerged while making pancakes with his mother.  “I really like creating something that people enjoy,” he said.  That led him to culinary school.  He honed his skills at local restaurants including the Webster House, Blue Bird Bistro and Pierpont’s at the Kansas City Union Station.

He has lived in South America and Portland, Oregon, immersing himself in food and culture while also expanding his techniques at fine-dining establishments.

Wehner is taking his locally-grown philosophy to the next step by contracting with a local farm to plant and maintain a micro-farm behind his urban Kansas City restaurant.  “Maybe the tomatoes and asparagus that we grow will not be as consistent as the corporate multi-national food producers, but I can tell my customers exactly what went into the process.  This will add evidence that our clients are getting the best product that can be grown for them,” he said.