Few of the players in Indiana's burgeoning culinary scene can lay claim to as extraordinary a story as Pete Eshelman. Eshelman, along with his wife Alice and brother Tim, runs Joseph Decuis, a farm to fork culinary enterprise located in Roanoke, a few miles outside Ft. Wayne.
Started as a private restaurant to serve Eshelman's clients, when he ran a successful business insuring professional sports and entertainment organizations, the Joseph Decuis brand now includes a fine dining restaurant, café, inn and farm, where a large portion of the restaurant's ingredients are raised, most notably Japanese-style Wagyu beef, as well as free range hens, mangalitsa pigs, goats, sheep, and turkeys. The farming operation prides itself on its all-natural, drug-free, humane, stress-free sustainable farming practices.
In the process, Joseph Decuis has saved little Roanoke from virtual extinction, turning it into a rural destination.
In January, Eshelman was in Indianapolis to lend his support to House Bill 1039, legislation being proposed by Rep. Matt Lehman (R-Berne), aimed at securing funding to support Indiana Grown, a program intended to better promote local produce and meat.
NUVO reached Eshelman by phone to talk about how the eat local movement can benefit the state's economy and, in particular, its rural communities.
NUVO: What made you decide to get into food?
Eshelman: I'm from New Orleans, where you live for your next meal. The name of our restaurant, Joseph Decuis, was actually an ancestor from Louisiana. We credit him for instilling our love of dining together and eating great food. It's embedded in our family's DNA, if you will. We would always entertain business people around the diningroom table. If you think about it, that's the way you build relationships.
NUVO: What made you take the leap from serving to raising food?
Eshelman: Great food requires great ingredients, any chef will tell you that. And the best ingredients you raise yourself, or source from local farms. We started with vegetables and then we went to eggs. The big thing we got into was the Japanese, or Wagyu, beef.
NUVO: What does your experience tell you about what's possible in Indiana?
Eshelman: We started a fine dining restaurant in a small Indiana town. A lot of people told us we were crazy. But Roanoke actually became an advantage because we're not in a strip mall, we're not in a big city. We're located in a small, historic town with a lot of character and charm. We became a kind of economic catalyst because people would come from all over. We went from having guys in pickup trucks with shotguns in the back to limousines.
NUVO: What's at stake?
Eshelman: As I got into this, I started sourcing foods from other farms and I met niche farmers and learned about what they were doing and the issues they were having. Then I met Ken Meter, who works for a company called Crossroads Research. They had been commissioned by the Indiana Department of Health to study what's happening to food in Indiana.
The one thing in this study (Hoosier Farmer: Emergent Food Systems in Indiana: PDF) that hit me like a lightning bolt was that Indiana families spend $15 billion a year on food. Think about that: $15 billion. And 90 percent of those dollars go out of state. So we don't pay ourselves in Indiana. We are basically dependent on others.
As a business guy, I see this as terrible, but I also see a huge opportunity to put a billion or two billion dollars back into the state. If we can create a billion dollar-plus food economy in Indiana, it can be an economic driver for rural Indiana: for our small towns, quality of life, our health.
We could become an international culinary destination, like New Orleans or Napa. People from around the world come to visit our farm in Roanoke. They come from Japan, China, Korea, Europe. They enjoy seeing how we raise our food and experiencing it in the restaurant, staying at the inn.
NUVO: What can the state do in terms of policy?
Eshelman: I was in the insurance business for 30 years, and I thought that was highly regulated. Now that I'm in the food business, I can't believe how regulated it is. There are a lot of laws that just don't make sense. They get in the way of entrepreneurs.
The second thing is what Rep. Lehman's doing. The state can basically identify foods that are grown in Indiana and create an Indiana brand - Indiana Grown.
If you look at North Carolina or Kentucky, they have programs that have been extraordinarily successful. In North Carolina, for example, they have their locally-raised brand. They have, like 1,500 farms signed up. Do you know how many farms are signed up for Indiana Grown? Eighteen.
The state came up with this idea, which was super, but there's no mechanism in place to really push it. You've got to put some resources in this.
NUVO: It's always amazed me, for instance, that when people talk about tomatoes, they rarely mention Indiana.
Eshelman: I had a meeting about a year and a half ago at the restaurant. I invited about 30 people, including a representative from Sen. Coats, Congressman Stutzman and his righthand person, as well as state senators and representatives and farmers. I told them, we're not asking for your blessing. We want you to know this is happening so you can understand it and get behind it.
That morning I went to a grocery store and I got a platter of food. In the meeting, I held up a cucumber and said, "I want a show of hands. How many of you think we can raise cucumbers in the state of Indiana?" Everybody raised their hand. And I said, "If you look at the small print, this cucumber was raised in Guatamala. When you shop next, look where we're buying our food. We're not buying it here."
There are some super farms, chefs and restaurants in Indiana. It's time to blow this wide open.