One of the more memorable sketches on the IFC comedy series Portlandia features Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein playing a couple obsessed with the provenance of the chicken at a Portland restaurant. The server tells them the chicken is "a Heritage breed, woodland-raised chicken that's been fed a diet of sheep's milk, soy and hazelnut." But that's not enough: Soon the server brings the couple a folder including a photo of the chicken and paperwork outlining its pedigree. Next thing you know, Armisen and Brownstein visit the chicken farm, and get lured into a cult of hippie farmers.
The scenario may be absurd — welcome to Portlandia — but many readers will recognize the phenomenon it parodies: People are becoming more interested in the origins of the food they're eating, particularly in cities such as Nashville that have thriving independent restaurant scenes. After being brought up on meats, fruits and vegetables from all over the world that have been fed, sprayed or injected with God knows what, discerning diners are increasingly drawn to local CSAs and food artisans. They can see the farms and kitchens where their foods are being produced, and even get to know the people who produce them.
That's much of the inspiration behind The Silly Goose Co-op, a project recently launched on Kickstarter by Roderick Bailey, owner of the popular East Nashville restaurant of the same name.
Since opening in October 2009, The Silly Goose has whenever possible used produce, artisan cheeses, honeys and other goods from local purveyors in creating its roster of sandwiches, salads, couscous dishes and entrées. And the approach has paid off, making it one of the most beloved and consistently packed restaurants in town.
But Bailey has a broader vision for The Silly Goose — creating a network that would connect his customers with local farmers and artisans, essentially bringing the local food community together. And he's looking to raise capital for a variety of projects: expanding his retail operation, which features the Goose's popular reduced balsamic vinegar, syrups, oils, pestos, signature coffee (roasted by Bongo Java), and will eventually include prepared takeout meals too; establishing a catering arm of the business; finding a plot of land nearby to grow herbs and produce; and, not insignificantly, paying off the debt he incurred when he bought out his business partner in December. Furthermore, with his recent acquisition of a liquor license, he's looking to develop his wine inventory.
A Silly Goose regular came up with the idea of using Kickstarter, an online funding platform for creative projects, to tie these goals together. Though most commonly known for providing capital for bands to record albums and filmmakers to make movies, Kickstarter also promotes its service for technology, design, publishing and, yes, food projects. Bailey has seen restaurateurs use Kickstarter to raise startup money — in one instance, he says, more than $900,000 — but he's never seen a campaign quite like The Silly Goose Co-op. He says the folks at Kickstarter are excited about the project, adding, "I think they feel like this could open a whole new usage for Kickstarter. I think that's why they approved it so quickly." The campaign officially began Saturday.
The rewards for the various donation levels are the manifestation of Bailey's vision for a community food network. For $50 you get a Silly Goose T-shirt, the newsletter and access to a blog that will include recipes, information about local purveyors such as Noble Springs Cheese, Kenny's Farmhouse, Green Door Gourmet and True Bee Honey, as well as videos of cooking demonstrations and visits to his vendors' farms and kitchens. For $250, you get all of that plus a co-op basket filled with local produce, cheeses, honey and Silly Goose-made foods. For $500, you get two co-op baskets from different seasons, two cooking demos for you and a friend (hosted at the Goose), two T-shirts, the blog and the newsletter. The rewards keep increasing up to the $5,000 level, which includes a private dinner party at your house (cooked and served by Bailey and his staff), two exclusive multi-course dinners for four at the restaurant, unlimited cooking demos, four premium co-op baskets from each season, T-shirts, the newsletter, the blog — and you will have a Silly Goose menu item named after you. All of the various meals and cooking demos will highlight local food purveyors.
Of course, Kickstarter campaigns don't get funded (and donors don't get charged) unless they reach their goal. Bailey has set his sights high — he has until Monday, April 2, at 12:01 a.m. to raise $125,000. Why that amount?
"It's going to allow us to retire a little debt," he says. "It's no secret that I bought out my business partner. I have nothing bad to say about her, but it was an untenable business relationship. Basically, buying her out liquidated us, and took me down to nothing. ... We're profitable, but it took everything I had. This will allow us to get back to a comfortable operating level."
Given the restaurant's communal vibe, great food and good service, it's not unreasonable to assume that the gift baskets, blog, newsletter and multicourse dinner will reflect Bailey's passion and attention to detail. That doesn't necessarily mean that you should expect to get exactly what you pay for in terms of goods and services. Typically, Kickstarter campaigns are as much about supporting the dreams of artists or craftspeople you admire as they are about getting stuff.
Still, Bailey says pledgers will be getting a reasonable deal: "For instance, $50 gets the newsletter, blog access and T-shirt. Our T-shirts alone sell for $20, so it's a pretty fair value. And some Kickstarter campaigns are set up where people don't get anything in return."
So why should people contribute money, if they're not getting exactly what they pay for? "The $2,500 reward might not be exactly $2,500 worth of stuff," Bailey says, "but it's contributing to this community and this cooperative." If all goes well, he plans to continue the co-op after fulfilling rewards over the next 12 months, and he says people who commit to the first round will get a discount. He also hopes to create several new jobs over the next year.
Robert Propst, proprietor of a personal training business in Memphis and a friend of Bailey's family, has already donated at the $1,000 level. "To be honest," Propst says, "the two visits we went to the Goose, we were so blown away by what he's doing over there, and how hard he's working, and the community he's built with his employees, the synergy. And the food was so great that we jumped on in. We like to support our local restaurants here in Memphis, and there are some great ones. But there's nowhere like Silly Goose."
For more information about the Silly Goose Co-op, search for Silly Goose at kickstarter.com.