“There’s such a bountiful harvest of so many wonderful things right around us, and people still want to go to the store and buy something that comes from a spinach farm in California, or this or that when they could be buying locally.” - Jay Schworn
By Chris Umscheid
SOLON– Jay Schworn and Eric Menzel share a philosophy, and they’d like to share it with you, served-up fresh, hot and tasty.
Together they own Salt Fork Kitchen (the name is a nod to Menzel’s former home), Solon’s newest dining option and a venue putting the spotlight on locally-produced, organically-raised food.
The road to Solon started seven years ago when Schworn first met Menzel. At the time, Schworn was a sous chef at The Motley Cow in Iowa City, and Menzel had just arrived from Illinois and started working in the kitchen. One day a week Schworn would go and work on ground Menzel was farming near Mount Vernon.
“We shared similar philosophies about food, about what was going on with it and the country, and locally as well,” said Schworn who also added, “he’s (Menzel) a very good cook,” in addition to having deep roots in the local food movement, and knowledge in sustainable farming.
In 2012, Schworn decided to take a year off from the restaurant scene and worked a full season on Menzel’s farm, “Salt Fork Farms,” out on Sutliff Road. With a bountiful harvest came a question of what to do with the surplus in chickens, eggs and produce. The answer was the Farmers’ Market and the idea of cooking at the market as a way of making the venture more profitable. The pair obtained a small Coleman camp stove, and with a pot of boiling water, they were up and running. This year, the Coleman was shelved for a $700 portable grill and a trailer to haul it and everything else in. The reason for the upgrade was simple according to Schworn.
“It just started growing in popularity, and we developed quite a following. People would ask where our restaurant was, and I’d tell them, ‘well you’re standing in it right here at the market.’” Based on the positive reviews, the duo decided to attempt to establish a commercial kitchen at the Salt Fork Farm. However, they ran into a bureaucratic nightmare of red tape, which ensnared them and led to ultimately abandoning the idea.
Then, a friend of Schworn’s told him the former home of Reggie’s Weenies was available for lease. With the proximity of downtown Solon to the Salt Fork Farm, it was a no-brainer.
“We decided to take a look at it to see if we could make it happen,” Schworn recalled, “despite the fact we really didn’t have the money to do so.” Some start-ups sell stock shares to raise capital. Schworn and Menzel sold tickets to, “a hypothetical dinner in the future,” to friends, fans and followers. “They helped us get a little seed money,” said Schworn, and along with help from a silent partner, the place has grown steadily if not slowly since. “We decided to try and make it work, and it has,” Schworn said.
After about two months of work the doors opened just a couple of weeks ago with nowhere to go but up. “It’s been kind of ‘shoestring’ and ‘touch-and-go.’ We’ve slowly begun ordering the things we need. We believe in slow and steady growth, and not spending money we don’t have.” That explains the relatively unchanged interior, slightly less seating and a transition from plastic to glass. “We’ve made it work with what we have and we’re slowly upgrading as we go.”
One aspect not in need of upgrades is the food, which is grown and produced locally and organically, or as some would say, the way they used to do it. “The whole premise of this restaurant is to support local farmers and people that are producing wonderful things. I’m really just the guy who gets it to the people,” Schworn said, “They do most of the work. Without their products, I wouldn’t be here.”
Lois Pavelka, through her Pavelka’s Point Farm is the primary provider of the beef, pork and lamb used in the Salt Fork Kitchen, while the milk comes from Hansen’s Dairy Farm out of Hudson. The veggies come from Menzel’s farm as well as other local producers.
In the not-so-distant past, so-called locavores flocked to farmers’ markets and roadside stands to buy food direct from farmers in their local areas. They brought greens like arugula and kale into the public eye as well as dining on seasonal offerings rather than what was trucked-in frozen from somewhere else. Now, however, it’s less of a trendy fad, but rather an increasingly-popular consumer choice.
“There’s such a bountiful harvest of so many wonderful things right around us, and people still want to go to the store and buy something that comes from a spinach farm in California, or this or that when they could be buying locally,” Schworn said. “The food speaks for itself,” he added, “and I do very little manipulation of it. It’s quality stuff and we wanted to make these things affordable and available to your everyday person regardless of income level. It seems like you have to be upper middle class or upper class to afford organic, local food, which really doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“The more people we get to understand that spending an extra dollar or two and supporting your local farmer and restaurants like us, the more the price of that food will go down, and we’ll be able to have it more readily accessible to the general community,” he explained. Not having to pay for processed meat to arrive frozen in a box and delivered by a truck also helps to keep the prices down. “We don’t even have a walk-in freezer,” Schworn added. “The only thing we freeze is meat after it comes from the butcher. Everything else is homemade.”
Salt Fork Kitchen started out as a unique breakfast joint but has expanded into a lunch venue. Among the homemade offerings are fries hand-sliced on-site. “The menu will change based on what’s available and what’s in-season,” Schworn said.
“Our breakfast menu is a little weird,” he said, because you can get the traditional down-home biscuits and gravy and grits, but they also serve up a fried rice dish. “We use one of our eggs and fry that in with the rice.” Then there is the Zayna, a Mediterranean dish. Schworn said, “that’s our most popular dish. It’s vegetables and rice sautéed with two poached eggs on top, homemade balsamic yogurt, people really love it.” In addition, all feature dishes get a side of their veg slaw. According to Schworn, that’s a combination of greens, “whatever root vegetables or whatever we have around,” he said, tossed in yogurt and cider vinegar. “But, you know, we have flapjacks and bacon and all that good stuff, too.”
The lunch menu is also pretty simple, with two or three seasonal soups, buns baked in-house completely from scratch, and “great beef from Pavelka’s for our burgers and melts.” A lamb and feta quesadilla has also become very popular among Salt Fork patrons.
For supper, or dinner, if you prefer, you are pretty much on your own for now. “We’re not doing dinner, we close at 2 p.m.,” Schworn said.
But, once or twice per month, a special dinner will be served. “It’s a fancier deal,” said Schworn. “It’s something we sell tickets to, usually around $50 per person.” For that price patrons get a four or five course meal, “It’s all farm-to-table and seasonal,” served by candlelight with tablecloths and music.
If you’re looking for something a little different on the weekends, Salt Fork Kitchen has started a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar, which has also become quite popular. “We’ve got a lot of leftover tomatoes,” Schworn said, “We have an array of whatever we’ve pickled from the farm and some homemade tomato juice. We give you a glass of vodka and you go to town (with it).” They’ve also concocted some distinct hot sauces whipped up in the kitchen, again, from scratch.
“Business has been great,” Schworn said. “The people of Solon have received us pretty well and have been helpful as well, we’ve had a lot of local folks that have helped work on the place, too. Everyone has been wonderful, we’re really happy to be here.”
Future plans include the possibility of live music some evenings, remodeling the front of the building, a patio for outdoor dining in the back, and a market. Menzel explained the market as, “utilizing everything we have in the menu, we’d like to offer all of the ingredients in fresh form or in a processed form.” The offerings would include vegetables, fruit, eggs, milk, coffee (roasted in Iowa City), honey, and maple syrup, even meats. “We want to have it all available to people so that we can help these local farmers move their stuff and have another outlet where people can get it right here in Solon,” Menzel said. “It’s an important aspect we’re working on. It’ll be like a deli and like a market.” The live music could not only make for a festive atmosphere, it could potentially also benefit others. Menzel explained, “we’d like to run a concert series, every concert would have a portion of the proceeds go to benefit the Farm-to-School program. We’d like to support improving the food quality in the school system.”
Schworn summed up the significance of their joint venture. “There are so many benefits that I could go on and on about sustainable, local, community food, and what it does… not just for health and supporting the economy, but there are so many other things as well,” Schworn said. “It’s just a wonderful thing, it’s going on all around here, and more and more people are becoming aware of it and understanding why it’s important to support these growers and producers and restaurants… and more importantly, your own health.”