Standing Stone: Straight from the ranch

Standing Stone: Straight from the ranch

Before local, grass-fed beef made the menu at Standing Stone Brewing Co., it was a treat for guests of Ashland cattle rancher Dave Westerberg.

"People would just always say how much they like the flavor," says Westerberg, who sold the meat locally for several years by word of mouth before forming a farming agreement with Standing Stone owner Alex Amarotico.

The black Angus flavor has been paying off at Standing Stone, which started purchasing whole steers from Westerberg in May, butchering them and grinding the beef for all its burgers. Between July and November, the Ashland restaurant increased its burger sales by 17 percent compared with the same period in 2009, says Amarotico.

The trend reflects not only customers' preference for local foods but also employees' enthusiasm for the change. Servers visit Westerberg's property so they can describe for diners its location, the cattle's living conditions, even the lushness of pasture. Several kitchen staffers are in charge of handling the whole, 750-pound carcasses, returned from a Roseburg slaughtering facility, and they occasionally help at the ranch.

"Having our hands in the whole process, we know exactly what it is we're serving," says Amarotico. "They're just energized."

There's plenty more to energize and inspire the restaurants' staff and customers. Standing Stone custom-fitted new, 24-speed Kona bicycles in August 2009 for 17 employees who promised to ride them to work at least 45 days a year.

"Since we started the bike program, we have just opened up so many more doors," says Amarotico.

Less than a year later, the restaurant instituted free yoga classes Sunday mornings at an Ashland studio for its 60 workers. Healthier, more active employees are more productive and use fewer sick days, says Amarotico.

Standing Stone also promotes environmental health with a host of "green" initiatives. Over the past decade, it's moved from recycling, composting and using energy-efficient appliances to transforming almost all deep-fryer oil into biodiesel, offsetting nearly 20 percent of its carbon emissions with energy credits and generating a small amount of solar power. The brew pub, founded in 1997 at the former site of Pioneer Glass and Cabinet Shop, continues to work toward zero net energy use.

"It's given us invigoration to do more," says Amarotico.

The restaurant earned recognition in 2009 among Oregon Business Magazine's "100 Best Green Businesses" and "100 Best Green Companies to Work For." That year, Standing Stone implemented by-the-glass sales of Wooldridge Creek wine dispensed from refillable, stainless-steel tanks. The process eliminates the expense and resources associated with packaging wine in bottles and ensures a better beverage that's never oxidized and also costs less, says Amarotico.

Most recently, Amarotico installed equipment for recovering heat energy lost through restaurant refrigeration. A water exchanger retrofit to existing cooling systems stores energy as hot water that's used to wash dishes and for cleaning. By reducing the use of its water heater, Standing Stone should save about $10,000 annually in natural gas, says Amarotico.

Gasoline used to transport food is just one concern behind Standing Stone's embrace of the "eat local" movement. Donating about $15,000 annually in goods and services to community causes, Standing Stone wants to keep its business close to home, says Amarotico. To that end, the restaurant earned approval from Ashland City Council in August to lease 265 acres of city-owned ranch land just a mile away to grow produce and raise livestock.

"It keeps our dollar in the community," says Amarotico.

While building infrastructure for the restaurant-run farm, Amarotico, 41, is establishing Standing Stone's flock of chickens at Westerberg's property. Using "managed, intensive grazing" methods described in Michael Pollen's best-selling "Omnivore's Dilemma," Amarotico moves the chicken coop weekly on a trailer around the pastures. The free-range birds scatter cattle droppings while searching for bugs. Their waste, in turn, fertilizes the grass. The chickens also eat barley spent in Standing Stone's brewing operation and its kitchen vegetable scraps.

"We want to do a Joel Salatin model," says Westerberg of the Virginia farmer Pollen profiled.

The flock of about 100 can't begin to meet Standing Stone's need for chicken meat, but the birds lay about three-dozen eggs a day in spring and summer, about a dozen in colder months, says Amarotico. Standing Stone doesn't prepare many eggs dishes but features its own in quiches and hard-boiled on salads, he adds.

"If we get our (egg) numbers up, then we can look at things like mayonnaise."

Tending the birds furnishes other rewards for Amarotico, his 35-year-old wife, Danielle, and their three children: Taylor, 11, Ella, 8, and 2 1/2-year-old Hailey. Donning rubber boots, the kids help Amarotico feed the birds, move their coop and have bestowed names on the three roosters — Bob, Joe and Junior — whose lives, for now, are spared. Turkeys, lambs and pigs will eventually join the menagerie, says Amarotico of plans to continue farming in the name of wholesome restaurant fare.

"It's been really good for my health and the kids' health."

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