You may have noticed the last week or two, we have some new folks around here doing great work as we move into the new year. One of our new co-conspirators asked me to explain a little bit about how the Linkery came to be, and how it came to be known as “farm-to-table” and sustainability-minded. The reality is that our focus of handcrafting local food was arrived at somewhat indirectly. As we approach our 8th Anniversary next month, I thought it might be worth posting a recounting of it here, for those of you who may have joined our universe fairly recently.
The reason I started the Linkery was because I wanted to help make the city center of San Diego into something more viable, and I thought I could so within the framework of an independent small business. We in “the neighborhoods” needed better jobs that we could walk or bike to, so not everyone who wanted to live in the city had to drive to Mira Mesa and work on a tech campus (I exaggerate, but not by that much). It seemed to me that there were a lot of people living in North Park, South Park, etc. who wanted an urban experience and would walk to restaurants if we (small business owners) gave them restaurants worth walking to.
That part turned out to be correct, which has helped a lot over the years.
We started as a sausage-based restaurant for a couple reasons — I thought that was a way we could do something handmade at a more affordable price than, say, steaks; and because I didn’t feel one could get a really delicious sausage in a San Diego restaurant (Sausage King made some pretty tasty ones as a deli item, though). But once we opened, we learned that, emotionally, we wanted to make food with meaning and food that reflected the place where we live. In order to do that, we had to enter the world of independently grown food, which was very difficult for a San Diego restaurant to do in 2005.
At that time, there were very limited opportunities for restaurants here to connect with farmers and buy interesting ingredients. And many of the existing distributors and restaurants didn’t want anyone to open that can of worms, because it would make it harder to sell cheap commodity ingredients at a premium. You can imagine that what we started doing wasn’t universally popular in the industry, behind the scenes, for this reason.
However, there were enough vendors, farmers, restauranteurs and diners in San Diego who were interested in exploring these kinds of foods — particularly independently raised meats, which was a real struggle to procure in those days — that we were able to grow our business based on serving this kind of food. And we were able to help some of the farms grow, too, which was great.
As we got to know more small livestock farmers across the country, we learned that the key to building the supply of pastured, independently raised meats in our region was to buy whole animals — most small farmers can’t meet orders for just a certain number of a given cut. Their only chance of paying their bills is just to sell the animal and let the restaurant part it out. That’s something most restaurants aren’t set up to do, but because of the teams we had, and because of Michael’s interest in butchering, we were able to work that into our operations. And it made intuitive sense since sausage-making is traditionally part of a full butchery program, so when we made this step our menu started to really hang together.
The whole time, our primary goal was to serve delicious food that derived meaning from being in San Diego — food unlike you can get anyplace else, because it reflects the land and people here. But of course we think a lot about the sustainability of what we do as well, because it is — it has to be — tied into to serving food with meaning.
In terms of sustainability, the three biggest unsustainable practices in the US restaurant industry are 1) serving meat/fish that has been raised eating commodity corn and soy, which is an unsustainable farming practice; 2) food waste at many stages during the process; and 3) the economic harm to the community of purchasing produce from faraway, commodity “farms”.
When our guests come to the Linkery, where we serve only grass-fed beef and lamb, wild-caught ocean fish, and independently raised pork, they are reducing our community’s dependence on the petroleum-based corn supply. That’s a big contribution our guests are making.
We reduce food waste by buying whole animals (no part is wasted), cooking with offal, serving bycatch (low-demand, unintentionally caught fish), and not serving huge portions (except every now and then when it feels right). By enjoying some new types of fish, or the taste of offal — from liver pate to heartburgers (which are ridiculously delicious, by the way) – our community is treating the animals, and our ecology, with respect and an eye to future viability.
And, of course, we buy the large majority of our produce from local farms, in an area stretching from the border to Warner Springs. By keeping this money circulating in San Diego, our guests are making the city more viable in the long term, while enjoying the fresh taste of locally grown food. That decision might be the biggest contribution our community makes toward sustainability.
These practices arose from our guests’ desires to eat interesting delicious food. The improved sustainability is really just a byproduct of that. And our interest in doing better things for each other and our community only works if the food is delicious and conveys something essential about our intentions. So far, many more people have found that it is and does, than not, and for that, we are grateful. It means we get to keep doing this thing that we love.