March 13, 2012
Walking into Saus was like going to Roberta’s in Brooklyn or Myers & Change in the South End (Boston). There was an immediate realization of the artsy, upfront, yet relaxed vibe of comfortable fusion. X cuisine and American cuisine, fast with fresh, nostalgic yet progressive, global and local. Framed Tin Tin comics are art for one long wall of this rectangular restaurant, courtesy of Amazon.com. A local photographer displays his work on the wall opposite. Professionally hand drawn chalk board menus give confidence that the owners took serious consideration to their offerings.
The late-night stop offers french fries and waffles. Thanks to the Belgian standard of multiple dipping sauces, Americans at Saus can happily choose from over 10 varieties, all made in-house. The menu is rounded out with cafe fair and draught beer.
I’m feeling friendly this very early Saturday morning in very early March and one of the cooks is sporting a cubs hat. Porteshawver official policy to talk to cubbies. All of the staff was friendly and laid back. You could tell they took their jobs seriously and wanted to be there. One employee talks with me as she prepares pommes frites–a true test. Only the best can work efficiently while chatting. At this point a serious line has formed and I’m soon to step off my anthropology box to leave the cook staff to it. The young woman salts some just fried, frenched potatoes in a funnel-shaped pan and pours them into a white paper cone, stamped in blue with the Saus logo–a nice touch. She’s explaining the struggle between buying power and the desire to source food locally.
Somehow, Saus gives off the foodie imagery without approaching disingenuous, even without a local food purchasing plan. I think it’s the attention to detail in presentation, the highlighting of fresh ingredients, and the on-site preparation of everything. Employee honesty certainly helped. The woman, most likely a foodie herself, tilted her head apologetically as she told me they use a distributor. There are some local connections. Pastry chef from Sofra/Flour bakery provides the waffle recipe, for instance. The place was started by three food-daydreaming friends who found themselves jobless and ready to promote a culture (Belgian grub) they loved.
I wrote about symbolic expression in my previous two posts. It’s the notion of using images, vocabulary, and histories to show support of a community, while not necessarily promoting it in practice. The sort of unapologetic symbolic expression practiced by Saus has the potential to be constructive. The restaurant offers process-focused food with good customer service. They have vegetables and herbs (parsley vinaigrette!) They promote some of the ideals of local food, but don’t serve it. Before people buy fresh and local they must think fresh and local. Places like Saus can help this consciousness shift.
However, symbolic expression can only go so far. What are the real access barriers to local food for Saus? As they become more popular and ramp up the oft-cited excuse of buying power, will they have the know-how and infrastructure to redirect their purchasing? What local farms deliver to the North End?
Let’s take another example of symbolic expression that is less constructive. Egg Cetera in Framingham is a breakfast joint with the slogan “A farm stand in a pan”. Rather than mobilizing the fresh aesthetic of local food like Saus, Egg Cetera re-appropriates foodie terms to get people in the room. With that slogan, though, how could I not give Egg Cetera a try. Idyllic photos of cows, farms, and chickens are mounted on the walls. They look like they came from a sample brochure made by a farm advertising firm. The food from Egg Cetera certainly didn’t come from those farms–it was sub-fresh, very (pre-?) chopped out-of-season vegetables, meats and cheeses sitting in a salad bar-like set up. You fill up little paper cups with what you want and the boys will fry you up an omelet. Checkered picnic print, stuffed animal chickens, and for-show teflon pans top it all off. The whole experience was tacky, and down right upsetting: after ordering I saw a teeny tiny sign that read “Cage Free Eggs $0.54 Extra”. The “Employees Only” plaques in the back pretend there is a farm behind the doors. I highly doubt even the buyer knows from which farm the eggs come. They too, use a distributor.
Both these restaurants mobilize symbolic expression of foodiedom, but in very different ways and to different ends. Not to say that all distributors are created equal, but essentially, the food comes from the same place: the innumerable farms of the global economy.
However, this stark contrast between the “party of the local community” vs. the “party of the global economy” doesn’t hold up to fusion, at least in the case of Saus. No doubt sharing the momentum of Carrotmob, Scoutmob is an advertising and mobile deal company focused on independent businesses. They’re posted in over 20 major U.S. cities, where they encourage folks to patron locally owned spots by administering sweet deals. Actually, I went to Saus because of one of them. My environmental economist friend excitedly took out her iPhone at mention of late night munchies. We spoke about this type of economic persuasion as a social movement. The advertising firm has the power to push people into stores that support their philosophies, business ethics, environmental standards, you name it. Indeed, participating in Scoutmob is symbolic expression in and of itself.