This year, one of the top 10 finalists for Iowa’s Best Burger Contest has cooked up a special partnership with a local farm family.
Jefferson County Farm Bureau President Sara Adrian and her husband, Tony, raise all the beef that’s served in Fairfield’s new Cider House restaurant, which opened in December 2014.
Customers can drive by the Adrians’ farm, a couple miles north of the restaurant, to see the cows grazing on the pasture.
On the restaurant’s tables, there are family photos of the Adrians and their three children: Tanner, 9; Ashlynn, 4; and Owen, 2.
"One of my old high school teachers was there. She took two (of the photos) off the table, and she was like, ‘I want it signed,’" Sara recalls with a laugh.
"It’s still kind of surreal, because I was looking around at all the people, just kind of observing, and everybody was having the burger. And it was just like, ‘That’s mine.’ "
The southeast Iowa town of Fairfield, where the Cider House opened for business, is also home to Maharashi University, a college where students practice Transcendental Meditation and vegetarianism.
The Cider House serves a house-made black bean "burger" for its vegetarian guests. But it’s the all-beef burgers that keep customers lining up at the door, waiting for an open table in the tiny restaurant that seats only about 50 customers at a time.
Beef a vegan would love
"We had a comment on Facebook from one of our customers. He said this beef is good enough for even a vegan to love," said Hopi James, one of the four friends who co-own the Cider House. "We have some customers who have been long-time vegetarians and didn’t eat meat for years, but now they come in a couple times a week to get the burger.
"So that speaks a lot, I think. People know it’s local and know that it’s good quality. And a lot of people know the Adrians, and they are a wonderful family. We are so excited to get to serve their meat. We really get to tell people where it comes from, and I think it shines through in the flavor and the quality of it," she adds.
It’s the first time that the Adrians have direct-marketed their beef to a restaurant. Tony says his family has enjoyed getting to know their customers better and supporting a locally-owned restaurant.
"There is a big learning curve," Tony said. "I know how to raise a cow. I know how to take care of it. But I didn’t know how many loads and how many hamburgers they were going to need in a day. Hopefully through this, it will be a good experience to learn the diversification on different levels."
Both Tony and Sara grew up in the Fairfield area. Tony started raising cattle in high school for 4-H and FFA. Over the years, he grew his herd to about 50 cows today, mostly black Angus and a few crossbreeds. The family also raises hogs and grows corn and soybeans.
The Adrians have always sold some of their beef to family and friends, including to Clint Stephenson, one of Tony’s grade-school classmates.
Cookouts spark plan
Stephenson moved back to Iowa after working as a tennis instructor in California. He bought an orchard near Fairfield and often hosts outdoor barbecues for friends, serving hard cider made from his own apples and the Adrians’ beef burgers.
The grill-outs were such a hit that Stephenson and three of his friends — James, Annalisa Thompson and Cole Fishback — decided to open their own "burger shack" in downtown Fairfield. Stephenson asked the Adrians if they could supply the beef for the new restaurant.
The Adrians send their cattle to Bud’s Custom Meats in Riverside for processing. The burgers are an 85 percent lean mix. All the beef — including the prime steak and roast cuts — are ground up into the burger patties, which boosts the flavor and quality.
"(The butcher) always gets all wound up because he says, ‘You’re going to throw out these steaks? You want me to grind them up?" Tony says with a laugh.
"The other day, I was over (at Bud’s), and another restaurant had purchased some Kobe beef, which is supposed to be the big thing right now because of the marbling and tenderness," he adds. "Well, the guy cutting the meat showed me that (Kobe) ribeye versus our ribeye, and he said there is virtually no difference. That made me feel good."
With the current high prices for calves, Tony says he tries to keep the price for his beef fair "for both the restaurant and us," because the family wants to help out a local business just starting out.
"There is a little more involvement, I will say, for the local cattleman," Tony says. "You’ve got to sit and figure what are your (delivery) dates, when you are going to have the cattle ready, getting them to and from, transporting the meat. So there is a little bit more than just loading the herd up and taking it to the sale barn and saying see you later.
"But that’s all pretty interesting, and I enjoy it. And as a family, we enjoy providing a quality product to as many people as we can."
A best burger finalist
The Adrians and the Cider House owners say they were excited, and a little surprised, when learning they were finalists for the Iowa Best Burger contest, especially since the restaurant had only been open for six months. The top 10 nominees are chosen based on the most customer votes. The contest winner will be announced this week in recognition of May Beef Month.
"People rave about (the burgers), but we don’t know any different because we are normally used to eating our own beef," Tony says.
"The other night when I went (to the Cider House) and had supper, I thought, this is so strange, paying for my meal, eating the burger I could be eating at home," adds Sara. "But someone else made it, so it’s way better, I guess, because I didn’t have to cook."