“WHEN Steven Hopp envisioned his restaurant, the Harvest Table, he drew up a list of strict rules. Local farmers would provide the produce, meats and cheeses. Lemons would be banned: after all, why ship something that is mostly water when homegrown lemon thyme might suffice? Coffee and tea would be allowed because they are dried, but they should be organic, fair trade or both.
That philosophy grew out of his own experience. From 2005 to 2006, Mr. Hopp and his wife, the author Barbara Kingsolver, decided to see if their family could rely on the food they grew here in the hills of southwest Virginia. Their 2007 best seller, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,” a memoir about their experiment, helped introduce Americans to the locavore creed.
With the Harvest Table, Mr. Hopp is trying to determine whether those same principles can sustain a business beyond the big city.
“My motive is not that I love the restaurant business or that I want to create a fine-dining restaurant with local ingredients,” he said. “We want to design a business that maximizes the benefit to the most local people that it possibly can.”
Mr. Hopp’s goal was to create an egalitarian restaurant, one that is built by and caters to the community. Four years later, his dream is still a work in progress. The restaurant has breathed some life into the central square of this deflated old railroad town in dire need of economic development. It employs 18 people, significant in a community with a population of about 2,200. Its chefs buy from dozens of local farms, pay foragers for ramps and morels that proliferate in the Appalachian woods, and get all the wine from Virginia.
But in the heart of Appalachia, where there isn’t a critical mass of suppliers or customers for whom the term “locavore” rolls naturally off the tongue, the restaurant remains something of a curiosity. Mr. Hopp is, once again, a pioneer. The 50-seat Harvest Table has not yet turned a profit. Over the past several years, it has struggled to build a fan base among the area’s predominantly blue-collar residents for whom the average annual income is $15,750, and many of whom view local and organic food as out of reach.
“I’ve heard it’s expensive, so I’ve never been in,” said Bobbie Cornett, the site manager at the town medical clinic next door. “Well, that’s not true, I got a can of pop there once.”
Initially, Mr. Hopp, who teaches environmental studies at the nearby Emory & Henry College, wanted to build a year-round farmers’ market. But he soon decided that a restaurant was more viable.
He renovated two century-old buildings, using salvaged wood and old bricks, then painted them pastel blue and rose with neat, white trim. The Harvest Table and the Meadowview Farmers’ Guild, the general store next door that sells local grits, microbrews and a collection of Ms. Kingsolver’s books, opened in October 2007.
The warm, friendly restaurant has a low-key vibe that would help make it an instant hit in a progressive, urban enclave like Brooklyn or Berkeley, Calif. There is an open kitchen, and colorful paintings of barns adorn the walls….”