Day 7: Bartertown


Bartertown - Image courtesy of Bartertown

Do you love food? If you are like the vast majority of Americans, the answer would most likely be a resounding “yes.” On nearly every corner of urban and suburban America, a number of restaurants and other purveyors of edible delights can be found. Restaurants representing numerous cultures and lifestyle needs provide options for any hungry American. However, have you ever wondered where your food comes from? Aside from the normal, sarcastic answers of “the store,” many people are unsure of the precise origins of the food that they put in their mouths. There has been, though, a trend of social and environmental consciousness, as movies such as “Food Inc.” have shown the questionable way the nation produces meat, cheese, and even vegetables. This has opened the doors for many Americans to take control of this facet of life, buying food from local sources or turning to alternative diets such as veganism or gluten free diets.

It is because of this culture that Bartertown Diner is opening at 6 Jefferson Street in downtown Grand Rapids. This 35 seat restaurant is strictly vegetarian, focusing on vegan (no animals or their byproducts) and raw food. They will provide an ever changing menu to their customers because they rely heavily on local ingredients. “We want to focus on using as many local foods as possible because we think it’s important to have a connection to the food you’re eating,” said Onya Jackson, the front of the house manager at Bartertown. Utilizing a service called Farmlink allows Bartertown Diner to order produce and cheeses from twenty different farms and pick them all up in one place. It also allows the diner to meet face to face with their farmers, some of who are willing to grow foods specifically for the restaurant.

Raw Tacos - Image courtesy of Bartertown

Bartertown also is passionate about serving seasonal produce. “We just really don’t see the point in eating summer vegetables all year round,” said Jackson, who acknowledges the difficulty of relying on seasonal produce during Michigan winters. However, Jackson believes that “using seasonal and local food is a way to get the best tasting, healthiest fruits and veggies we can, support our local economy and people, and really get to the roots of our cooking.”

There is more that sets Bartertown apart from other restaurants than just its vegetarian persuasion. The business model used by them is also unique, as it relies on a collaborative effort between the eight individuals who are working together to run the restaurant. Each of the eight people involved have worked in the restaurant industry for years and found that employees are not treated fairly. “Restaurant work is the new slave labor,” said Jackson. “People are getting worked to death. We wanted a place where we could work together to have fun.” As a veteran of the food industry, having worked as a server for six years, she is most excited about providing a positive example to other businesses. “Hopefully people will come in here and see how this runs and see that maybe they can do the same thing,” said Jackson. “We are only a group of eight people…anyone can do this.”

Opening Bartertown has not been without its fair share of difficulties, however. As a fairly small restaurant, Jackson has noticed that it is harder to acquire all the necessary equipment because they cannot afford to pay the prices that larger restaurants can. Though all of the members of the Bartertown team have worked in restaurants before, none of them have participated in the opening of one. “None of us have done anything like this before…it has been a long process. Whenever we think we are done with something, we find twenty more things to do.”

To help with finances, the Bartertown Diner has sought donations through a website called Kickstarter. On the website, Bartertown was able to set a goal and a time limit and allow people to donate money, giving gifts to the donors based on their donation level. (For a $10 donation, you receive a personalized postcard and a Bartertown Diner magnet, and for a donation of $750 or more, you receive an event catered by the diner.) If the goal is reached, all of the money goes to Bartertown, but if the goal is not reached, the money goes back to the donors. “It’s a cool way for a lot of small organizations like us to raise money without having to go to a big bank” said Jackson, “and a way for people to help us out and help their community.” As of June 7th, Bartertown had reached their $10,000 goal on Kickstarter with even several days remaining.

With the dining room and kitchen completed and stocked –the bar and counter are made completely of materials that have been found and recycled– the folks at Bartertown are just waiting for the final round of inspections. With a tentative opening date scheduled for early next week, Bartertown is anxious to show the community how, in their minds, a restaurant should be run. With free cooking classes hosted once a month in Bartertown’s building, and food updates posted on their blog, the diner seems anxious to get the community involved and to show them, not only where their food comes from, but how to make vegetarian food delicious. ~ Chad Cramblet, Regional Director


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The Awesome Mitten was born when I moved back to Michigan from Nashville, TN in September 2010. Almost immediately, I became frustrated. I couldn’t figure out why there weren’t more Michigan residents singing our states praises! I was so irritated, I wrote a Letter to the Editor. Three weeks later, I had started a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a landing page for the website, determined to do something to make Michigan residents aware of all the cool things going on in their own state. Email me: