• Thursday, April 27, 2017

What’s Cooking in Culinary Tourism

Feature photo: The Country Cat owners, Adam & Jackie Sappington.

By Teree Caruthers for Growing Oregon magazine

Oregon’s abundant variety of foods create a feast of flavors for hungry tourists flocking to the state each year. Judiaann Woo, an Oregon native and director of global communications for the Oregon Tourism Commission, says she’s noticed an uptick in visitors looking to participate in culinary activities.

“We know that Oregon ranks high on people’s radar. Lots of great cities have restaurants and exciting food and drink scenes, but Oregon is still small enough that people can come and really engage with the people who are making the food and drink they’re sampling,” she says.

It’s that customer engagement that drives Adam and Jackie Sappington, owners of The Country Cat in Portland.

“It seems like when we opened in 2007, farm-to-table was a big movement. But for us, it was a way of life,” Jackie Sappington says. “It wasn’t a marketing strategy. It was just that we know the bounty that Oregon has to offer, and for the people who come and eat here who aren’t from the area – our food is their introduction to what Portland and Oregon are about.”

The husband-and-wife team recently opened a second Country Cat location in Portland International Airport, built around the same principle of incorporating local ingredients in the menu.

“When people get off the plane, they can go to Country Cat and know the servers are educated about where the food’s coming from and that they’re eating something different,” Sappington says. “When people sit and see this gorgeous asparagus or these amazing radishes … they can taste the difference, and it’s like, ‘Wow, this is Oregon!’ ”

Natural Attractions

Greg Higgins, owner of Higgins Restaurant in Portland, has been sourcing directly from local farms since the restaurant opened in 1994. Higgins says that while summers offered the most diversity in terms of locally sourced ingredients, back then, the season was also the slowest in terms of the restaurant’s customers. But with the popularity of culinary tourism, that trend has reversed.

“Summertime wasn’t the most busy time back then, and tourists only accounted for about 10 percent of our business. It has completely flip-flopped since then,” Higgins says. “Now, starting around April when school starts to wind down, business picks up and tourism accounts for more than 40 percent of our business.”

Higgins believes another reason Oregon’s locavore scene has taken off is the availability of fresh meats and produce.

“I came to Portland in 1984 when there were fewer people set up to bring their product to market. There were only three farmers markets in Portland back then. Now, we have 30 plus markets in Portland,” he says. “Oregon also has a maritime climate, which allows an extended growing season. Couple that with the fact that Portland had the urban growth boundary, which basically established accessible agriculture within a short drive of the city, making it easier for farmers to get their products to town.”

Higgins, who grew up in rural, upstate New York and worked on farms as a kid, says his devotion to agriculture runs deep.

“It’s in my blood, and it didn’t take long to realize that if you wanted the best possible product to cook with, you wanted to make sure it came from the closest possible source,” he says.

Higgins Restaurant, 1239 SW Broadway, Portland, OR

Higgins Restaurant, 1239 SW Broadway, Portland, OR

Bringing Farm Fresh To The Masses

Higgins’ devotion to the state’s producers is shared by Jeff Harvey, president and CEO of the Burgerville restaurant chain. Harvey says Burgerville locally sources 72 percent of its menu, which includes its signature hamburgers, as well as chicken, turkey and fish sandwiches. The company is continually striving to build new relationships with farmers.

“When we started, the relationship with the local farmers is the only thing that saved our bacon. If we hadn’t had those relationships, it would have been very difficult to succeed as a business,” Harvey says. “To us, [sourcing locally] means jobs; it means economy; it means healthier food; it means lower emissions and a better environment.”

The state’s culinary heritage runs deep.

“Part of it is the geography,” says Woo of the Oregon Tourism Commission. “Another part is having this agricultural base; people want to support that.”

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