I have met a lot of farmers over the years, and pretty much all of them could cook their ingredients with pride.
The new Founding Farmers in King of Prussia? Can't even cook a potato. At least not based on the greasy stacks of half-cooked fries that bulged across our plates with a starchy inner rawness that made me think someone had skipped a step. Or two. Piled beneath an equally soggy fillet of fried cod, they were so wrong that my guest, usually the one lobbying for the critic's compassion, was grumbling that this seemingly promising addition to King of Prussia was deserving of a grumpy review.
But wait one second here! This potato has an economic empowerment story to tell.
This spud was grown by family farmers in North Dakota whose 47,000-member union, plus a handful of other agricultural institutions, are majority owners in this wildly popular and expanding restaurant chain from the Washington area. The 260-seat bi-level behemoth perched on "Main Street" at the edge of a little green surrounded by other chains in King of Prussia's new Town Center development is the sixth location. And with 1,800 seats in its restaurants across the Mid-Atlantic, the Farmer Restaurant Group is trying to redefine how corporate restaurant chains redistribute food dollars to their source.
By trucking those potatoes on its own big rig out from the Midwest, laden also with sugar and flour, plus grits from a stop in Kentucky, the company cuts out the traditional middleman distributor and can give its farmers a greater return, says company co-owner Dan Simons. Instead of the farmers getting $5 a case for potatoes, "I can pay [them] $13, cover my costs, and still pay less overall than I used to," he says. "Everybody wins."
Well, there's the environmental trade-off of trucking ingredients 1,500 miles instead of purchasing them locally, though, to be fair, this Founding Farmers does buy most of its perishable products from Pennsylvania producers.
But I cannot say I felt like a winner having paid to eat those sorry fries along with the disheartening array of other American comfort foods on this big menu that were mistreated here with seemingly equal disregard for the principles of good cooking. We chose pork pierogis from an entire section of pierogi variations deliberately crafted for the Philly audience (among a few menu items exclusive to King of Prussia, along with those colonial blue plates). They were pasty inside and wrapped in a dough so oddly tough it was like biting through an oily little wallet. The shiny cauliflower-parsnip hummus was so slippery it refused to be scooped up by the overly cheesy bread sticks. The cracker-fried shrimp were hard as rubber. The "Chesapeake-style" crab cakes were pitifully puny discs of overcooked, bready splotches on my plate. For $30, the Chesapeake would like its name back.
The puffy pan pizza was a sauce-smothered mush of crust laced with plasticky "pizza cheese." The breads are made twice daily in the bake house cafe on the restaurant's ground floor because, as our server touted, "We are a scratch kitchen."
But what's the point of that effort if they still arrived at our table curiously cold from a fridge? What's the benefit of distilling your own spirits, like Founding Farmers' D.C. branch does, if the bartenders can't make a decently balanced cocktail for $13 to $15? And what's the real value of making pasta from their own farmers' flour if a flawed dough recipe (the extra protein of egg is not advisable for thick-walled extruded pastas) left fresh rigatoni tasting half-raw and gummy beneath an otherwise flavorful short rib ragù? It could have been a really good dish.
I didn't hate everything. The Southern fried chicken was adequate, with the fried bonus of a doughnut. The skillet of corn bread was pudding moist and filled with sweet niblets. A woman at the neighboring table devoured a simple whole trout with such gusto I wished I'd ordered it instead.
But the disappointments were plentiful enough to make one question where lofty corporate-speak ends and the sloppy reality of running a rising restaurant chain takes over. Is Founding Farmers a "woke" Cheesecake Factory for the farm-to-table generation? Or just a Cheesecake Factory dressed in farmers' clothes, with jars of produce on the shelves and a live moss chicken sculpture in the foyer for full rustic effect? By the way, what was the fishy smell of a singing kettle that wafted around the corner as we stood there waiting for our table? ("And our soup of the day today is …clam chowder." Yup.)
This letdown of earnest promises unfulfilled is something I've experienced with increasing frequency in King of Prussia, where a wave of new chains beckoning to our most enlightened 2018 impulses – to eat locally, healthfully, ethically – have blossomed with full irony in the garden of parking lots ringing America's largest luxury mall. The impersonal blandness of Applebee's no longer suffices.
In this era of epic double-speak, we should be skeptical when entering a burger-salad bowl chain wrapped in wall-size photos of local farmers called B.GOOD (#FoodWithRoots), or a sit-down destination like the airy True Food Kitchen, where the servers come at you with T-shirts proclaiming them "Honest" and "Farmy."
Do I think they're fibbing? No. I optimistically believe these places are trying to reimagine a better kind of chain. But the struggle to consistently deliver the customized wholesomeness and careful cooking we aspire to despite the commercial demands of mass-standardization is a daunting challenge indeed.
In fact, Founding Farmers delivered on its economic goals — with more than $2 million in profits to its farmer partners last year, says Simons. At B.GOOD just down Main Street, you do get an "all natural" burger ground in-house and cooked to order. But our patty was completely unseasoned, and the whole-wheat bun was squished to oblivion over a thick wedge of tasteless pink (albeit sustainably grown) tomato. Do go for the shakes made with dairy from the Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, Pa.
The soaring glass box dining room of health-driven True Food Kitchen, meanwhile, offers hope that improvement is possible even with a chain. I returned six months after a first disappointing taste of their "anti-inflammatory"-friendly menu to find a meal of genuinely satisfying flavors. I loved the perfectly roasted salmon over ancient grains, an earthy Moroccan chicken, and witnessed mastery of the mashed avocado. It made me want to head across the mall parking lot to buy new yoga pants.
I can only hope Founding Farmers follows a similar trajectory. But Simons insists his restaurant goes beyond the mere pursuit of good food: "What some of our critics don't get is that there's a lot more going on here than … the flavor profile of the soup. I'm not saying I'm not passionate about the soup. But I'm more passionate about the person who made it."
Let me tell you: The soup needs work. And so does the gloppy chicken stew in the pot pie topped with a prebaked lid of puff pastry.
But the investment in quality people — the company offers health care, massage, and psychotherapy benefits — paid off with a dining room staff that impressed me as one of the best things about Founding Farmers. They gave honest advice, well-informed details about the menu (who knew this kitchen added cream to its cacio e pepe? Our server did), and made every effort to compensate for our disappointments.
One server immediately replaced my pisco cocktail, so spicy with an overdose of ginger it was like chugging hot sauce, with an opportunity to explore the restaurant's surprisingly excellent list of local beers, which includes lesser-known names like Highway Manor, Levante, Locust Lane, and Saucony Creek. I also should have listened when he politely warned against the $25 prime rib, which was simultaneously overcooked on the outside and undercooked at the cool rare center, with a side of au jus that had congealed into grainy gelatin.
I should have heeded my first night's server, too, when she firmly advised against those crab cakes. My bad, I confessed, not expecting sympathy. But she immediately encouraged me in another choice. And the avocado-poblano pepper cheese burger would have been perfect — had the kitchen remembered the avocado.
"Is there anything I can do to make your experience better?" our waiter asked again as he dropped off a perfectly delicious apple pie with all the comforting good flavors I'd been searching for until then.