“I don’t really like to get preachy,” says David Starkey in the dining room of his latest opening, quick-service Grass Roots Kitchen in Tarrytown. On one wall, a menu lists options like celeriac pastrami and a vegan jackfruit melt alongside grass-fed beef burgers and a fried-chicken biscuit. Across the room, a mural shows beets, carrots, tomatoes, and other vegetables, their roots snaking toward the floor as the vines and leaves shoot toward the ceiling.
It’s a fitting image for Starkey’s clean-eating restaurant group, ERL Hospitality (an initialism of Eats Roots Leaves), which includes Grass Roots and eclectic American eatery Sweet Grass Grill in Tarrytown, as well as Tomatillo in Dobbs Ferry. “I’m not vegan, but I believe in eating more vegetables and in eating a lot less meat, for the planet’s sake. I think all the menus reflect that,” he says.
In 2019, that’s not a particularly novel idea. Toss a quinoa-carrot burger out the window, and you’re likely to hit a restaurant that serves local, sustainable, farm-sourced food. But in 2004, when Starkey opened Mexican-influenced, farm-to-taco Tomatillo, Westchester’s farm-to-table movement was only starting its trajectory toward full cultural saturation.
“I believe in eating more vegetables and a lot less meat, for the planet’s sake.”
“I might have found myself a little frustrated. People were looking for salt, lard, everything that’s traditionally in American Mexican food,” recalls Starkey. “We try to present food in healthy and affordable ways.”
Another core value for ERL — building relationships with farmers — was also a struggle in 2004. “There wasn’t the infrastructure that’s in place now,” he says. Today, ERL works with more than a dozen local farms and producers, including Blooming Hill, Hilltop Hanover, Let It Bee, and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Orders can still be challenging (“Some of the farms [we work with] are single-farmer farms and don’t have an office or email,” says Starkey), but apps, including Farms2Tables, and companies like Baldor, facilitate mindful sourcing.
Another factor that’s galvanized ERL’s success has been the shift in customer mentality. “I think a lot of people feel the same way I do,” says Starkey, who sees a future for additional Grass Roots Kitchen locations. “They can eat everything, but they should eat it in moderation, and they should eat things that have been properly raised.”