By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor
Imlay City in rural Michigan is the kind of town where the guys at the hardware store will exchange services for cookies, the bankers know customers by name, and the principal will call if your daughter leaves her backpack at home, says the chef and owner of the city’s popular The Mulefoot Gastropub.
This small town is home to 3,500 but the restaurant is putting it on the culinary map, not only regionally but also beyond — guests from all over the country and as far as Europe have descended upon Lapeer County for a taste of the Mulefoot’s modern American fare with a hyperlocal focus.
With recent accolades such as being named one of OpenTable’s Top 100 restaurants in the country, the Mulefoot Gastropub has become a dining destination in just two years after opening its doors. Located in twin brothers Mike and Matt Romine’s parents’ former banquet center, the restaurant offers “fine dining without the bullshit,” as chef and owner Mike Romine puts it.
The Challenges of Farm to Table
Farm to table isn’t exactly a new concept, but the chef duo has put their own stamp on it. Everything at the Mulefoot is made by hand in house, Romine says. Take the burger for example. It’s served on a house-made bun, the beef is dry aged and grinded with pork belly from their Mulefoot hogs. Ketchup, pickles, and mayonnaise are all made in house with locally produced foodstuffs. It’s all served on a plate handmade locally.
With even fast food chains like McDonald’s trying to jump on the “local” bandwagon, The Mulefoot Gastropub is not just talking the talk with laundry lists of farms scrawled on chalkboards and Edison lightbulbs hanging everywhere. Romine and his twin brother, Matt, who is chef de cuisine, are letting the quality of the products speak for themselves through the carefully composed plates that come out of the kitchen. The food is playful and whimsical with a refined, upscale edge. First courses include dishes such as corn dogs (house-made maple pork sausage with molasses-chili reduction) and house-made bologna (chive English muffin, black mustard, Castleveltrano olives, and saffron). For the second course, the cut of the day (the chef’s interpretation of pork) is a popular choice. Even the shrimp is from Michigan, coming from a farm about 80 miles away.
The state’s agricultural bounty was a factor in locating in Imlay City, Romine says. “Michigan is the No. 2 producer of agricultural products in the country, and Lapeer County specifically is one of the top producers in the state,” he says.
They source most of the ingredients within a 20-mile radius, which is a challenge. “It is incredibly difficult to buy so locally,” says Romine. “There is a huge investment in time and money to purchase from local farmers and producers.”
But it’s worth it to them. “We pay a fair price and treat our farmers with respect and they take phenomenal care of us. Our farm community custom grows, packages, and delivers to suit our needs. If we have a tomato emergency at 8 p.m. on a Friday night, our farmers come through with a delivery.”
Purchasing locally means they can be selective. “We love buying local because the quality is in our hands, not the bottom line of a mega-market ‘farm,’ ” he says.
It doesn’t get much more local than the Mulefoot hogs that the Romines’ father raises.
“(Mulefoot pigs) are renowned for their fat, which makes them prized especially in charcuterie circles,” he says. “These animals are marbled like beef, deep red in color, and so rich in flavor.”
He started off with two pigs and cared for them himself. Now they have about 70.
“We are still building our breeding program and are almost to the point where we can produce enough for the restaurant. In the meantime, we purchase from other small farms who operate similarly to us,” Romine says.
Other than the food, the art, decor, the barnwood (which is from a barn Romine took down himself), and even the hand soap are local.
Community Supported Restaurant
Even their funding model is farm inspired; to build capital, the restaurant created a CSR, or community supported restaurant share.
“It works like crowdfunding and is modeled after a community supported agriculture share (CSA),” Romine explains. “At the restaurant, we sell shares of $1,000, $2,500, and $5,000. Those shares essentially get you a monthly allowance that can be used for food, alcohol, swag, anything. It allows us to use the money for capital expenses such as equipment, and ‘pay’ the investor back over a period of time. In our case, the $1,000 is for 20 months and the others are 24-month repayment plans.”
The CSR was especially important because when he first started building the restaurant, he had “not a single dollar to spend,” he says. They sold about 20 shares, which totaled about $80,000 — the entire budget for building the restaurant.
“We made everything with our own hands, including the walls and furniture because we had to, but the shares made it all possible,” he says, adding that the benefit was not having any bank loans. “We have been opened just under two years, and are already profitable,” he says.
The other benefit is that shareholders have become part of the family — and the foundation of their success.
Another key ingredient in their success is building buzz through word of mouth, especially on social media. On Facebook they build excitement and engage fans by reposting customers’ dinners, show support for the community they love, and give a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what they’re making (a recent post showed a ham being turned into prosciutto).
Nearly every post comes from Romine’s phone and that authenticity shines through.
“I think the key is to be personal,” he says. “Nobody gives a shit about your ‘deal of the day’ or ‘specials this week.’ Be a human. Show your guests your garden, or your team laughing in bumper cars. Share your love of food with them. Give them a story, but make sure it’s a real one. Live a little and stop thinking about the bottom line.”
It’s a philosophy that has definitely served them well these past two years.