What Do Respect, Honesty and Transparency Have to Do With Food?

  • December 16, 2009 by Corbett Barr
  • 23 Comments

farm-animal-cookies

What kind of restaurant would list “respect, honesty and transparency” as key values on their website?

The kind of restaurant I would want to invest in, it turns out.

I just love serendipity (the effect, not the movie that my wife made me watch recently). Even better, I love serendipity when it happens at the intersection of multiple things I hold dear.

That’s what happened with a new restaurant called Gather that opens this week in the new David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley.


It all started just a few weeks ago on Thanksgiving. We were gracefully invited over to a family Thanksgiving dinner at a friends house. It was my wife and me, our two friends (a married couple), and his entire family. We had great food, interesting conversation and a fun time. When you live in a city away from family, it’s nice to be invited to spend holidays with other adopted families sometimes.

Anyways, our friend’s brother-in-law got to talking about a new restaurant that he’s going to be working for. The concept for the restaurant sounded really interesting. They were planning to be as organic, local and sustainable as humanly possible.

I wanted to learn more, and it turns out the restaurant was looking for a few final investors before opening in three weeks. We were introduced to the CEO over email and I started digging into details about the restaurant.

The Glamorous Life of a Flexitarian

My wife and I have been “flexitarians” for about the past 6 or 7 years. We decided to cut back on eating meat (especially factory-farmed meat) after passing some enormous cattle feed lots on I-5 on a trip to L.A. one year.

Being a flexitarian isn’t always easy to describe to people. Usually, we just end up saying that one of us is a vegetarian when we don’t want to have the whole conversation about why.

Basically, we don’t have any problem with people eating meat. We enjoy a good steak now and then, and eat poultry and fish a couple of times a month.

The issue we have is more with the way animals are treated by the factory farming system that has taken over the mainstream American diet. We also don’t like what that system has done to the environment or farmers over the past few decades.

It’s not exactly the most uplifting dinner conversation, so we end up avoiding meat when we don’t know where it came from. That’s fine with us because we really enjoy eating vegetarian anyways.

The issues of food politics have recently been popularized by people like Michael Pollan and the movie Food, Inc. People are starting to catch on (at least in certain socio-economic groups) that we need to pay more attention to our food, for our health, our environment and the stability of our world.

Restaurants and grocery stores are starting to catch on, too. Our neighborhood grocery store called Bi Rite Market is really great about supporting local farmers and choosing organic, sustainable and naturally raised meats and produce. In our neighborhood at least, it’s getting easier to eat according to our values.

This little utopian bubble we live in is hopefully the start of something that will change the way food is created and shared around the country. That’s where the restaurant Gather comes in.

Organic, Sustainable and Expensive

Even though many of the restaurants in our neighborhood try to serve local, organic and sustainable foods, most of them only do so “whenever possible.” That little phrase leaves the door open to cutting corners without having to make a statement about it to diners. The other problem with our food utopia so far is that it tends to cost an arm-and-a-leg.

We were impressed by the vision for Gather restaurant because they aim to solve both of those problems and to be something completely new and ambitious in the restaurant world. They scrutinize every single ingredient that goes into the food, as well as the materials for the restaurant. From the locally recycled wood tables to the reused-vodka-bottle lighting to the all-organic liquor, beer and wine to the grass-fed pasture-raised beef, every aspect of the restaurant has a purpose.

Maybe more impressive than the thought that goes into everything at Gather is the fact that the meals there are quite affordable (by Bay Area dining standards), and that they will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days a week.

It’s really a model for what we hope food and restaurants will become if enough people care. That’s why we decided to become investors in the restaurant. I have no idea if the restaurant will be a success, but we feel great about being part of something like Gather.

Slow Money

Which brings me to the second part of that serendipity I mentioned earlier. Not only are we supporting something that aligns with our food values, but we’re also doing something that I recently discovered is known as “slow money.”

Slow money is about supporting small food enterprises on the local, grass-roots level through what founder Woody Tasch calls nurture capital.

Gather CEO and co-founder Ari Derfel spoke at a slow money conference last year, and was able to raise money to complete the restaurant largely through 60+ small independent angel investors. It’s an impressive feat considering the reputation restaurants have for being bad investments.

When It All Came Together

My wife and I had the incredible pleasure of attending a pre-opening party for Gather last Friday night. I say that it was an incredible pleasure because the party was like nothing I’ve ever attended before. The event was filled with so much unique emotion and aspiration that I find it hard to convey in words.

Ari and Eric, the founders of Gather, have been nurturing the vision for the restaurant for nearly a decade. They have worked together in the organic catering and outdoor adventure businesses they created since 2000. The two of them shared the journey that led to the creation of the restaurant during a touching 2-hour presentation before the pre-opening party.

It was clear from all the emotion and dedication we witnessed that the project is much more than a restaurant. It’s really about community and our connection with the earth. It all hit home when Ari shared one of his favorite stories that had kept him focused on succeeding even when it appeared all hope was lost:

A Cherokee woman was teaching her grandchildren about life. She said, “A battle is raging inside me. It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The old woman looked at the children with a firm stare. “This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”

The children thought about it for a minute, and then one child asked his grandmother, “which wolf will win?”

The grandmother replied: “The one you feed.”

Which wolf will you feed?

Oh, and the food at Gather? It’s incredible. Fresh, local, in-season and organic all add up to one incredible meal. If you’re in Berkeley anytime soon, you won’t want to miss Gather.

photo by Scorpions and Centaurs

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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David Krug December 16, 2009 at 12:45 am

Thanks for sharing this. I too believe that health and healthy habits are a huge part of the whole lifestyle design movement. I know that it has been a huge goal of mine. The insights and transparency at which you share is what makes this site really intriguing and encouraging for me.

Corbett Barr December 16, 2009 at 3:12 pm

I know the article was a bit “off topic” from the normal lifestyle design stuff, but I thought people might find it interesting. I’m glad you liked it David.

Andrew December 16, 2009 at 1:33 am

Corbett you’ve totally ripped off my next blog post!

Flexitarian, love it. I’ve been googling and trying to think of a word for ‘what I was’. Similar to yourself, meat isn’t an essential at every meal and I strongly disagree with the way most livestock animals are treated.

I wish the general public were made aware of what goes on. I’ve taken to free range meat and eggs. Meals have become an adventure, the ‘vegetarian’ aspect of cooking makes you explore more avenues and now when I do feel like a nice piece of chicken or steak it gets treated to a good marinade.

Sounds wanky, but it’s almost ‘respecting’ the animal you’re eating. Plus it doesn’t hurt the wallet as much for the weekly food shop!

Great post, you took the words right out of my mouth.

Corbett Barr December 16, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Ugh, sorry for ripping off your next post ;) I agree, I think it is about respect, not just for the animal, but for the environment and the people who raise and prepare our food. The “general public” is probably not aware of what goes on, and many people may just not care at this point, given how many people are just trying to make ends meet.

Kristin December 16, 2009 at 1:55 am

I love the term Flexitarian! Great idea, Corbett.

I know there are a lot of resources out there to expose the standards of livestock raising in the US, but a friend of mine put together a fabulous award winning documentary about it that’s totally worth checking out (http://www.sustainabletablemovie.com/).

I’m flying into SF tomorrow morning, I’ll have to see if I can swing by and check out this recommendation!

Corbett Barr December 16, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Hey Kristin, let me know how you like the place if you do make it over. Thanks for the recommendation on the movie. I’m always interested in new films about food.

Henri December 16, 2009 at 4:43 am

Flexitarian is an interesting term, never heard of it that way. It is actually what I am too. I try to avoid meat and eat mostly vegan, but I don’t mind eating meat (and dairy) sometimes.

You make me want to eat at Gather, but it’s such a long way from Europe. Great post! ;)

Beth@SmartFamilyTips December 16, 2009 at 5:39 am

Gather sounds like a great place, Corbett. We, too, have been much more careful about where our food comes from. I first became aware of and more interested in eating locally and more sustainably after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

This year we purchased grass-finished beef in bulk from a local farmer.

I wish there were many more restaurants like Gather out there.

Corbett Barr December 16, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Haven’t checked out the Kingsolver book. I have heard of more and more people buying meat from local farmers, or even purchasing a half hog or cow.

Liz December 16, 2009 at 6:07 am

I don’t mind paying a bit more for eggs from free-range chickens or grass-fed beef. We need to support the efforts of small local producers and strive to consume the very best, while avoiding inexpensive and convenient factory made food, as much as possible. Factory farming is cruel to animals and harmful to our health.

Traveling overseas and experiencing what real food can taste like is another way to open our eyes and taste buds. Even Dannon yogurt is richer, creamier and better tasting in Europe than in the U.S. I’ve always wondered how they get away with selling us inferior yogurt. Greek yogurt is available in the US but a bit expensive for the average consumer.

Seeing how people overseas can enjoy large, home-cooked meals, bottles of wine and coffee loaded with sugar, consequence-free, suggests to me there may be a link between obesity and eating highly processed, low-quality food.

Corbett Barr December 16, 2009 at 11:35 pm

Yes, it’s amazing how much rich food people seem to eat in European and other countries while still remaining slim as a population, isn’t it?

Robert December 16, 2009 at 7:24 am

Reminds me of a restaurant I love right outside of Philly called Elevation Burger. No cutting corners, organic, friendly, healthy.

Good on you for getting into “angel investing” (not sure if you knew anything about that before or not) sounds pretty cool, especially when you have the money and the heart to do so…most do not. Wish I was back in California!

Nate December 16, 2009 at 11:06 am

Sounds like an amazing place, Corbett. Thanks for sharing this here. If I’m ever in the area I will definitely check this place out.

Casey December 16, 2009 at 11:06 am

I love the wolf story. That was awesome.

James NomadRip December 16, 2009 at 12:13 pm

That eating style pretty well describes me. SWMBO has been a vegetarian-ish for 20+ years (eats fish though). Sounds like a great place! I hope it goes well for you.

A long time ago, I had a client in Fresno that was one of those cattle plants you drove past. I don’t recall the numbers they told me then, but it was somewhere around 2,000 cows got slaughtered each day there. They supplied the meat only for a super-sized fast food chain. But that was only to the southern California stores.

I only went there once in the mid 90′s. I can still smell the factory floor.

Corbett Barr December 16, 2009 at 11:36 pm

Wow, you were on the factory floor of one of those places? I can still smell the feed lot, and that was just from driving by.

Carmen December 16, 2009 at 1:00 pm

Nice post, Corbett. I am always refreshed when I meet people who are conscious about the choices they make. We may each come to different conclusions but it’s really important to think through what we do and why we do it. Our food sources are one important topic in this regard. I got to accompany one of my teens last year to an organic farm that teaches about world hunger issues. For one exercise, the kids were taken to a typical 3rd world kitchen that was built in an adobe building, given the supplis a typical family in a 3rd world country would have (ie, rice, beans, corn meal), pointed the way to the fresh water source 1/2 mile away, and shown what weeds were edible. They were then told to make a meal for themselves. They were also told that if they wanted meat they would go to the chicken coop, choose an animal, kill and butcher it. It was an amazing learning experience for them and really helped them and me to appreciate the value of our food and where it comes from.

Corbett Barr December 16, 2009 at 11:38 pm

That is an amazing experience, no doubt. My wife had the experience of slaughtering a couple of chickens in the back yard of a house here in San Francisco last year (for an art class, don’t ask). She hasn’t thought of food the same since.

Monica O'Brien December 16, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Hi Corbett,

Great topic, and I really appreciate when I hear of other couples spreading the word about factory farming. My husband and I swore off meat 2 years ago for this exact reason as well, and we both consider ourselves vegetarians just because it’s easier to say. I hadn’t heard the term flexitarian outside of this blog post, but I think it’s a neat way to describe sustainability practices.

Anyway, congrats on Gather and thank you for sharing your serendipitous moment. I think I am having one myself right now, and hopefully I can write a great blog post about it soon :)

Corbett Barr December 16, 2009 at 11:39 pm

Cheers, Monica. Please share more about your serendipitous moment soon.

Earl December 16, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Hey Corbett – After reading this post I plan to look for a resource on the web that lists restaurants/grocery shops around the world with similar values as Gather. It would be quite helpful as I travel around to know more about the places where I am eating and support the ones who take sustainability seriously.

Thanks for this post. And for introducing the term flexitarian to me as well!

jforest December 17, 2009 at 6:57 pm

I have been avoiding seeing “Food Inc.” for now, I figure… after the holidays. Oof, I just checked, it is streamable on netflix if you’re someone like me with a netflix account. I guess I might be seeing this prior to christmas.

I have been trying to eat more veggies, not meat at every meal. I have been doing this for a couple of reason, it’s far more environmentally responsible to eat vegetables than meat, and it’s far cheaper too. The only problem is my pregnant girlfriend doesn’t really want to eat things like beans. Finding vegetables that she’ll eat that will provide enough nutrients is hard. For now, meat!

Kerry January 2, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Wow, wonderful post. I hope to visit Gather when I’m in the area!

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