Since its founding in 2012 with the opening of Ouzo Bay Mediterranean Kouzina, Atlas Restaurant Group has grown to include over two dozen properties across Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Washington, D.C., Florida and Texas. In January 2019, the group began work on its biggest project yet: building a farm to supply organic, local produce to Atlas restaurants in a direct farm-to-table system.
Atlas Farms is located about 25 miles outside of Baltimore in Carroll County. The five-acre land was previously used for wheat, corn and soy production. Weinstein spent months mending the soil to become viable for multi-crop farming before planting the first seeds in early March 2020. Despite the obvious wrench of the pandemic, Atlas Farms is thriving, with three and a half acres in full production and plenty of room to grow.
“We focus on specialty vegetables that the restaurants either go through a ton of or [are] so specialty that our chefs have trouble finding it consistently, and certainly have trouble finding it locally,” Weinstein says. The farm produces a rotating crop of vegetables, greens and herbs nearly year-round.
With spring comes salad and bunching green like head lettuce, spring mix, kale and chard as well as sugar snap peas and carrots. In the summer, the farm focuses on lots of tomatoes, garlic and peppers. The farm returns to root vegetables and greens in the fall in addition to winter squash like butternut and spaghetti squash and pumpkins. Over the winter, Weinstein works with the restaurants’ chefs to develop menus and improve farm operations for the next year.
The system has been a massive success. The farm’s five acres are designed for maximum efficiency with a regularly changing list of crops to keep the soil healthy and nutrient rich. “I was very adamant about using regenerative systems that would allow us to grow very intensely,” Weinstein explains. “After our initial tillage, we don’t till our soil at all. It’s a permanent bed system where each of our beds is getting planted two or three times a year.” By switching the crop that is grown in each bed, the microbial life in the soil not only stays fed, but it gets better every season.
This method of farming allows Atlas to grow about 15 acres worth of crops on a fraction of the land, and the produce is always moving. “I send all our chefs an availability list each Tuesday; by Wednesday I have all of their orders, and Thursday and Friday the deliveries happen,” Weinstein explains. “Everything that we’re sending [restaurants] from the farm was harvested just a day or two before and is a much more nutrient-dense product.”
The farm’s first harvest, however, could not have hit at a more inconvenient time. Just as the first crop came in, all of Atlas’ restaurants began closing with no clear timeline of reopening due to Covid 19. With a sudden influx of food and nowhere to send it, the group decided to do an industry-wide giveaway in the city. For every week restaurants remained closed during the first months of the pandemic, any service worker in Baltimore could visit an Atlas property and receive a box of fresh vegetables from the farm.
Weinstein says the farm took advantage of that time of limbo to hone the farm’s systems and build up its infrastructure. After a very unconventional and trying two years of operations, the farm has more than proven its worth. “It has proven to be such an asset to be able to have full control over our supply chain when it comes to these specialty vegetables,” Weinstein says.
Atlas’ restaurant staff and customers have welcomed the opportunity to enjoy local produce. About half of the seasonal vegetables served at an Atlas restaurant are currently sourced from the farm, and Weinstein expects that number to hit 100 percent within five years.
Most of the chefs visit the farm at least once a month to learn more about the operations or even get their hands dirty and help harvest crops themselves. Through social media, restaurants can advertise when produce is arriving and what dishes will feature it, so customers have transparency in the quality and freshness of their food.
For Weinstein, Atlas Farms represents change not just for the group’s restaurants, but for the future of farming. “I think I represent a huge swath of the farming community under the age of 35 where most of us are first generation farmers whose main barrier to being able to farm is land access…Most of us can’t afford to start a farm,” he explains.
Access to land, equipment, loans and insurance are all barriers for beginning farmers. The average age of farmers in America is 57.5, and the average age of beginning farmers is 46.3, according to the USDA. Additionally, farmers’ success completely relies on how much of and how often a viable crop gets sold. Just one day of bad weather at a farmers’ market can make a huge impact on an individual farmer.
Companies like Atlas that have the capital to invest in land and equipment and hire farmers on salary with company benefits is a game changer for farming practices. “It takes so much stress out of the business and allows [farmers] to focus all that energy into building the farm,” Weinstein says. “I think Atlas has provided a really viable path forward to employ a whole generation of farmers that we’re going to lose if there isn’t some change to the system.”
The future of the young Atlas Farms is bright. In two years, the farm has doubled its number of raised beds from 45 to 90. Last year saw the addition of 75 egg-laying birds to the property, which produce 40 to 50 dozen eggs each week for the restaurants. Weinstein’s focus now is to maximize the farm’s efficiency on its current land, but notes that there is room to expand down the road. The farm eventually hopes to bring in pasture-raised chicken and pig.
Most importantly, Weinstein and the chefs at Atlas’ many restaurants hope to share a new dining standard with Baltimore, one that prioritizes sustainability and freshness. “I think moving towards a world where farm to table is not a genre of cuisine, but rather the norm, is what Atlas is doing and leading by example.” I95