Founding Farmers offers restaurant-goers a taste of sustainability

Founding Farmers offers restaurant-goers a taste of sustainability


DC’s first LEED Gold restaurant honors the farm-to-table concept with a design that is both natural and sophisticated.

By Aline Althen


The fried green tomatoes at Founding Farmers in Washington, D.C., are simply scrumptious. Each one is a perfect combination of cornmeal crunch on the outside with a soft, warm, bright center that leaves you wishing you’d ordered dozens more. What makes them most delectable, however, isn’t the southern goodness they represent, or the interesting selection of dips served on the side, it’s the fact that they are responsibly sourced and served in a restaurant designed to elevate your every bite to a new level of appreciation for farm-to-table dining.

After nearly 10 years on the scene, Founding Farmers is a staple of the D.C. restaurant community. It is operated by the Farmers Restaurant Group (FRG), which holds the popular Farmers Fishers Bakers and Farmers & Distillers restaurant brands as well. FRG was formed as a partnership between the North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU) and two successful D.C.-area restaurateurs, Dan Simons and Michael Vucerivich, in 2005. Through this collaboration, the restaurants are actually owned by 47,000 members of the NDFU and directly serve the goal of reconnecting restaurant-goers with the products of American family farms.

FoundingFarmers-CORE-Christopher Peli

Christopher Peli, Senior Job Captain for hospitality projects with CORE architecture + design

When Founding Farmers opened in 2008, it was the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold restaurant in the nation’s capital, a significant feat given the restaurant’s potential for energy and water use and waste production. CORE architecture + design was hired to envision spaces for guests and employees that would enhance the experience of enjoying and creating farm fresh food.

“[FRG] challenged CORE to design the project to meet LEED Gold standards. At the time, there were very few precedents or roadmaps for achieving a sustainably designed restaurant on even a national level—or even defining what that should mean,” says Christopher Peli, senior job captain for hospitality projects, multi-family, and commercial projects with CORE.

By staying true to the vision and values of the Founding Farmers concept and using LEED as a tool to inform their decision making, CORE and FRG ultimately created a restaurant where the food and the physical space support each other, providing each guest with a holistic experience.

“We wanted the guests to feel immediately comfortable, and at home, upon entering the restaurant, and throughout their visit,” says Simons. “Nature was our guide to find the balance of a comfortable space, with elements of nostalgia, while ensuring we didn’t feel themed or trendy.”

Straddling the desire to pay homage to farmers while steering clear of anything trite was a fine line to walk. Peli notes that going beyond the ubiquitous salvaged barn wood and rustic touches that are used in most interior design to impart a rural look required a boost in creativity and a commitment to authenticity.

“In many ways, we wanted the design to reflect the values of authentic, rural farming without being literal,” he says. “We also thought it was important to feel up-scale, modern and a bit whimsical. Reflecting sustainability in design has to reach beyond just the surface level and material aesthetic.”


Allison Cooke, Partner and Director of Hospitality Design for CORE architecture + design

Colleague Allison Cooke, partner and director of hospitality design with CORE agrees. “The design ethos is really about small moments and hidden gems; little discoveries, rather than one large gesture, she explains. From the digitally printed farm imagery to the bird flock lighting, the concept is reinforced when you turn every corner, at every guest interaction point.”

Though waitstaff circulate among guests wearing flannel shirts and jeans, it never feels cliché. The contrast of farm imagery with urban touches creates a sense of balance. It is somehow instinctively understood that, as a guest, you are in for a treat—a taste of America’s farmland in the midst of a city existence.

To create a genuinely natural, healthy and delightful guest experience, the project team leveraged LEED’s stringent standards. “Our selection of materials with low- and no-volatile organic compounds, along with ensuring that we flush the air inside our space before anyone works in the space, contributes to air that’s as delicious and safe as our food,” says Simons.

This practice of interacting with the building daily to guarantee its quality performance is a key factor in the continued success of the restaurant as a model of sustainability. “We are very pleased that [FRG is] committed to maintaining sustainable practices in their operations, to complement our efforts with the architecture, by achieving a Green Restaurant Certification,” says Peli.

Simons understands the importance of certifications to encourage transparency and ensure accountability. “The credibility of a third-party verification is immensely valuable. I’ve always known that it’s far more important to actually do things than to talk about them,” he says.

As the first Founding Farmers (there are now four locations in the mid-Atlantic region) came to life, LEED provided a framework for FRG to express its values and to remain competitive in the process. “We didn’t want just an initiative or two, or a drop in the bucket, we wanted leadership,” says Simons. “We wanted to not only be taught, shown, and validated, we wanted to be part of a movement to prove that capitalism and environmental awareness can harmonize in an outcome where employees, investors, and guests all benefit from a business’s commitments.”

Patrons enjoy the lively atmosphere and sustainable food ethic of Founding Farmers DC.

Sustainable Design and Practices at Founding Farmers

HVAC System

Higher efficiency HVAC system—heat pumps exceed the Advanced Buildings Energy Benchmark, and ASHRAE 90.1. Heat pump efficiencies exceed ASHRAE by between 5-30 percent.

CO2 sensors are located throughout the restaurant to constantly monitor indoor air quality. Ventilation rates (fresh outside air) are at least 30 percent above code requirements.

Green Power

Purchase of green power credits for 100 percent of electricity consumption.

Materials and Finishes

Reclaimed heart-of-pine flooring from an old textile mill in Hickory, North Carolina—originally sourced from Wiggins and Company, and manufactured by ecofinishes in Maury, North Carolina. The flooring was made from reclaimed support beams salvaged from the textile mills. The salvaged beams were de-nailed, cut into blank pieces of lumber, kiln dried then molded into tongue and groove flooring.

Reclaimed barn door from a barn in West Virginia—sourced from Elmwood.

Reclaimed brick from Vintage Brick Salvage.

Over 15 percent of all construction materials were reclaimed.

Wood furniture (walnut tables, custom bar stools and side chairs) harvested from forests in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and manufactured by Dunbar Furniture in Greensboro and High Point, North Carolina.

Metal disks are sourced from Follansbee Steel, which manufactures steel in Follansbee, West Virginia.

PaperStone countertops in restrooms are made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled content paper. PaperStone is made from cellulose fiber (paper) and non-petroleum based phenolic resin derived in part from natural phenolic oil in the shells of cashews.

45 percent of all materials manufactured within 500 miles.

90 percent of construction waste was recycled or diverted from landfills.

Plumbing Fixtures and Water

Waterless urinals and low-flow lavs in restrooms

Water efficient Energy Star dishwasher and spray valve

In 2009, Founding Farmers saved 193,168 gallons of water compared to a conventional restaurant design (not including water efficient dishwasher and spray valve).

In 2009, Founding Farmers offset 70 tons of CO2 emissions with the purchase of credits through

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