Downtown Harrisonburg restaurants have increased their dedication to serving locally-sourced food

Story by Emma Bleznak

Photos by Loren Probish

The trend toward eating and buying locally has been prominent in the Shenandoah Valley, however, the benefits are lesser known. Within a 5-mile radius of Harrisonburg are over a dozen restaurants and stores, which have become a crucial component of the downtown district. The palette of the eateries features a cornucopia of cuisine, with one important quality in common: a dedication to local ownership and, for a few, sourcing local ingredients. While eating locally sourced food has become a trend in recent years, many of Harrisonburg’s downtown restaurants have been ahead of the game, diving into locally sourced food forks first. As a result, employees have adapted to the relationships with local farmers who provide local ingredients.

“Locally sourcing ingredients … keeps money in the local economy, creates relationships within the community and gives the restaurants a higher quality of healthy, fresh ingredients that they know exactly where they’re getting them from,” Josie Showalter, the Harrisonburg Farmers Market owner, said. One employee turned restaurateur, Amanda Cannon, has had a front-row seat to the popularization of locally sourcing ingredients taking over downtown Harrisonburg. “My experiences have been illustrative to me about how lucky we are here in the Shenandoah Valley to have so many resources,” said Cannon. “Everyone from dairy farmers who then make their own cheeses to buffalo beef out of Lexington.”

Cannon is a past employee of five downtown restaurants. Currently, she owns FoodBarFood, a hotspot for “global comfort food” across from the Ice House on Bruce Street. Cannon’s journey from Joshua Wilton House employee to FoodBarFood owner began shortly after she graduated from James Madison University in 2002. Her friends encouraged her to apply to work at the Joshua Wilton House, a fine-dining establishment and inn on the corner of S Main and Campbell Street.       “Working there was really the foundation for my appreciation of the connection between farmers and food and the guest experience,” Cannon said. “It was the first time that I would see farmers knocking on the back door and talking to the chefs about what was in season.”

While working at the Joshua Wilton House by day and bartending at the Artful Dodger Coffeehouse & Cocktail Lounge by night, Cannon was offered a manager position at Clementine’s Cafe. The promotion came at a pivotal point for downtown Harrisonburg restaurants, as they began to utilize local breweries and local farmers. Among the local farmers who contributed to this growth were those who presented their products at the Harrisonburg Farmer’s Market. Showalter has noticed the shift as well. “When we started the market in 2007, it was a lot smaller … around 2012 I noticed the boom in desire for local ingredients from restaurants,” said Showalter. “It was phenomenal.”

After four years at Clementine’s cafe, Cannon was hired as a general manager at Local Grill & Chop House, a grill-centric eatery in Harrisonburg’s historically renovated City Produce Exchange building.  Their dedication is supplying the community with the best local produce and products the Shenandoah Valley has to offer. Cannon referred to her time at Local Chop & Grill House as “invaluable” in educating her on utilizing locally sourced products and developing relationships in the Valley. This skillset became important in 2014 when Amanda and her business partner, Jeff Minnich, opened FoodBarFood. “From the beginning at FoodBarFood, one of the main things we did was go to the Harrisonburg farmers market and introduce ourselves, and talk with vendors and start building those relationships,” Cannon said.

A few of vendors she found at the time included Grains of Sense, a coffee roaster out of Staunton who helped develop the house-blend coffee at FoodBarFood, and J&L Green Farm, which provides FoodBarFood with grass-fed beef. “It was a continuation of the relationships I’d seen at the Joshua Wilton House where farmers would show up at the kitchen door and talk to the chefs about what they had … even the cocktails I’d make and food we served would depend on the ingredients in season,” Cannon said. Seasonal conditions play a large role in the capability of a restaurant to provide year-round locally sourced ingredients and farm-to-table service. Many farms utilize blue houses and greenhouses to stretch their business relationships with restaurants through all seasons, as well as grow produce in a way that supports the environment. “When we adapt our management style to a model that interacts with all aspects of an ecological system, we’ve found it leads to a healthier product,” said Jordan Green, co-owner of J&L Green farms. “We view nature as something to work with rather than work against.”

Locally sourcing ingredients has proved beneficial to the economic, agricultural and social well-being of the community as well. Among these benefits, Cannon says the connections she’s made in the community are the most invaluable.

“Being a part of downtown Harrisonburg as it has grown and developed is really rewarding … everyone is supportive of each other and recognizes that a rising tide floats all boats.”