Photo by Chris Casella

Fast food from the farm

Todd Mills wants you to eat better. Like farm-to-table fresh, Whole Foods, organic better. And he wants to serve it to you through a drive-thru window.

Photo by Chris Casella

Photo by Chris Casella

After unveiling his first brick-and-mortar restaurant on High Street in Clintonville, he’s finally getting his wish. ACRE: Farm-to-Table To-Go opened midway through last month with the goal of providing fresh, local, high-quality food that’s affordable, quick, and widely accessible. Though farm-fresh cuisine served in the same manner as a McGutbomb might seem counterintuitive, it’s a crucial piece of the agriculture-to-consumer puzzle for Mills.

The new restaurant concept traces its roots back to his time as director of development with Local Matters, the food-centric nonprofit. Mills and his colleagues identified the primary obstacles in the way of healthier dietary options for most people, particularly low-income families: either it costs too much to purchase better-prepared foods, or they lacked the knowledge, skills, and time to prepare them at home. So Mills began playing with the idea of a restaurant model that could make locally sourced, higher-quality meals more accessible to a wider swath of the population.

After leaving Local Matters in 2012, he attended Ohio State to earn his MBA, and he and some fellow students entered his restaurant concept into the Center for Entrepreneurship’s Business Plan Competition, eventually placing second overall. The contest provided critical feedback that allowed him to adjust his plan and refine the target market. He tested the menu as a pop-up lunch spot—under the name The Granary Grill—at The Hills Market in Worthington during the summer after his first year of business school. Over the course of two years, his affordable, accessible, farm-fresh concept was vetted, adapted, and confirmed, though he was forced to delay placing his first store in a mixed-income neighborhood as he originally intended.

“I want folks to understand that good food can be accessible, and that supporting growers in Central Ohio can be done outside of fine dining and the farmer’s market.”

“The reality of getting a business off the ground and finding investors who were willing to take a risk on it was that I had to sort of minimize the market risk by starting with a neighborhood that I knew would embrace the concept,” Mills said. Hence, ACRE: Farm-to-Table To-Go landed in Clintonville with the idea that once the restaurant is proven and on solid ground financially, he has the option of expanding to neighborhoods where its meals are more unfamiliar, and thus more necessary.

The opening menu features bowls, salads, wraps, and tacos created from some products grown, raised, and produced in Ohio but infused with global flavors like Peking, moo shu, tabouli, and molé. All the main entrees cost less than $9, and a portion of the ingredients come from local and regional farms and producers, like Bluescreek Farm Meats, Lucky Cat Bakery, and Shagbark Seed and Mill.

“I’m gonna be sourcing as much product from Ohio growers as I can in season,” Mills said. “And then when we’re out of season on our core menu, we’ll be doing North American organic stuff.” He also plans to introduce a seasonal menu in 2015 to showcase Ohio crops at their peak freshness throughout the year.

Mills intends to open the drive-thru about a month after the dine-in and to-go operations because of the logistical hurdle of producing meals that quickly. He also understands that it’s what people want, and what some of them need in order to begin emphasizing farm-to-table food in their diets. If successful, ACRE could provide a vital initial link between local farmers and the people who otherwise would get their meals from a grocery store freezer or a far less health-conscious drive-thru.

“I want folks to understand that good food can be accessible,” he said, “and that supporting growers in Central Ohio can be done outside of fine dining and the farmer’s market.”

ACRE: Farm-to-Table To-Go is located at 2700 N High St. For more information, visit www.acretogo.com.

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