Moving up

On making the move from fine dining to casual curbside fare

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Grace Boyle

Tim Payne is a busy man.

Through his food business Farmer Girl, he’s a caterer, runs a food truck, hosts farm and pop-up dinners, and he just opened a stand in Avanti’s food hall and eatery in Denver.

Glancing at his portfolio, the concepts are mobile and casual, yet diversified. However, Payne’s food business hasn’t always been that way.

With a traditional culinary background, Payne received classical training from Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona. Throughout culinary school and immediately following, he worked his way up from the bottom, learning the ins and outs of restaurants. He started as a line cook, has been a front-of-thehouse manager, and even served a stint as pastry chef at well-known restaurants in the Phoenix area.

Ready to open his own restaurant, he opened Terroir with his wife Melissa Newell in downtown Longmont in December of 2007, serving organic, elevated, farm-to-table cuisine. Although he opened before the economic crash of 2008, Payne saw business stay relatively strong all five years they were open.

After a disagreement with the building owners regarding leasing terms and costs, Terroir closed in the fall of 2012. Payne earnestly tried to look at different locations but he decided unless he owned the building, he didn’t want to start over from scratch or be tied to something he didn’t own, so he took it as a sign to step back from owning his own restaurant, and take some time to evaluate.

Soon after closing Terroir, Payne launched Feast Supper Club (later rebranded as Farmer Girl, hosting farm dinners and pop-ups) which is how he maintained a connection with his loyal customers from Terroir. In between farm dinners, he rotated through some of Denver’s finest restaurants, working in kitchens such as Trillium, Row14 and Z Cuisine. He’s no stranger to being a chef at the helm of fine dining establishments.

In November of 2014, Payne bought The Tasterie Truck — an already existing food truck with an audience, menu and brand — from its previous owners (he plans to move that to the Farmer Girl brand soon).

When asked about the name Farmer Girl, Payne says it’s a combination of sourcing locally for all his food ventures; an homage to his wife as she farms a small plot of land that she leases from Lone Hawk Farm in Longmont (her farm supplies 30-40 percent of the produce for all Payne’s ventures); and in honor of the “strong women” who are incredible farmers (a traditionally male role) that he works with and greatly respects, in Boulder County.

The freedom to do as you please 

As Payne slowly has been building up his business, his intent and drive was to be his own boss, have independence and “have the freedom to do what I wanted to do,” Payne says.

“I used to think the food business was all about brick and mortar restaurants, and anything less than that, I might have looked down at. It’s not really like that [anymore],” Payne says.

Payne has spent many hours researching other cities and businesses that had a focus on mobile, pop-up restaurants or underground supper clubs. By doing so, Payne started to “look at food a different way,” as he found these concepts succeeding all around the country, with focused efforts, often smaller concepts, but always varied.

Payne cites Comida as a great local example that has diversified its business through both a strong mobile presence and a brick and mortar facility. Other well-known restaurants have done the same, such as the nationally recognized Frasca, which opened the more casual Pizzeria Locale in both Boulder and Denver.

Jack Li, managing director of Chicago-based Datassential, a leading food insights agency shared in a July 2015 article “Menus go Micro” on Restaurant Business Online, says, “Whether it’s a fast-casual place that specializes in waffle sandwiches or an upscale casual restaurant that prints everything on a single-page menu, the thinking today is that ‘smaller is better.’ That level of focus says ‘quality’ to [consumers].”

Payne asserts, “that’s the way to do it — to have several different ways to say what you want with your food, out to the public.”

Is mobile just a trend?

In Technomic’s 2011 Food Trucks Innovation Report, they cited 91 percent of consumers familiar with food trucks say they view them as no passing fad. The humble food outlet is on the rise, and it appears, is here to stay.

When asked about the shift, and perhaps the trend of seeing fine dining owners and chefs moving to more mobile, low-key dining options, Payne identifies a variety of causes: economics, independence, access and diversity.

“Economically, when you lease a restaurant space, you don’t get any longterm investment. You don’t own anything. You only own a book of a business. However, with a food truck for example, you own a mobile restaurant on top of everything else, and there’s tangible value there,” Payne shares.

Although Payne doesn’t believe brick and mortar is over (he even wishes one day he might have his own again), he knows if that does happen, he will approach it differently and he’ll consider with every venture what it will look like at the end of 15 years and ask himself first, what can you walk away with? This is the independence factor that has become so important to him for his livelihood and ultimately his legacy.

From an access standpoint, a lot of the farm-to-table food starts with white linen tablecloths at high-end restaurants, but it is restrictive to the general population who may not have access due to the cost. Payne believes this is partially “inhibiting the growth of eating local,” and he knows there aren’t enough people doing organic, fresh food in the mid-level pricing range. This reasoning was a huge attraction for him to go mobile, as he can get good food out there to people who may not have accessed it before through many different avenues, meeting people where they already are.

Payne wants the movement to continue. He says he believes organic, sustainable and farm-to-table doesn’t have to be pretentious or only for wealthy people.

From a diversity standpoint, Payne thinks long gone is the day when someone owns a fine dining restaurant and that’s all they have.

Not only is it fun to do more, Payne says, “you have to stay mentally stimulated, and if you get stagnant doing the same thing, you’ll lose customers. If you’re not into it, they’ll taste it.” The freedom and creativity has allowed Payne to break free from some constraints of fine dining that can often be seen as a little rigid. Stripping it down to make it more casual and unpretentious allows him to not be defined by just one cuisine or style.

For instance, Payne can do a creative farm dinner for $65 per person, presented on nice plates in a beautiful environment with refined food, or he can sell something from the food truck that might be deep fried and served on compostable plates, with a trash can outside the food truck door for $8.

Economically, the diversity is smart.

“As far as a business perspective, the more diverse your portfolio is, the more unlikely you’re going to be subject to those economic variables,” Payne notes. “For instance, if you have a downturn in fine dining, maybe the low-end, mid-level food projects have an upturn.”

When asked about what’s next for his diverse portfolio of on-the-go, mobile cuisine options he would love to expand working with his wife on her plot of land. He’s thinking about more canning and preserving, and cross pollinating that with the food truck and Avanti. He is also considering a storefront — not a traditional restaurant per se, but something where people can come and order food and he could sell things from the farm there, and perhaps canned goods they preserve — akin to a food stand that we might see in Europe or somewhere in Northern California’s small-town wine country.

Payne says as he’s the president, CEO, CFO, COO, janitor and more with this business, it doesn’t mean making this shift is easy. And the nature of his business can be transient with seasons and that his business is literally always on the move.

He says he learns from what he doesn’t do well, and, occasionally, he admits he may drop the ball by doing so many things. But he credits his days at Terroir for making him successful in this diversified business.

Payne is a prime example of a highend, experienced chef making the move to multiple casual, on-the-go concepts, that range in diversity, but all offer high-quality food, at a reasonable price. One thing’s for sure from Payne’s story: the possibilities are endless for a restaurateur when you aren’t tied to a single space.

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