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Dan Simons of Founding Farmers on Building a Sustainable Restaurant and Conscious Capitalism

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About this episode

In Episode 7 of The meez Podcast, host Josh Sharkey interviews Dan Simons, founder and co-owner of Farmers Restaurant Group, about his inspiring journey of building a sustainable restaurant group that supports independent farmers.

Dan goes into detail about the unique aspects of Founding Farmers, their mission, and their commitment to making everything from scratch. With seven restaurants in DC, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, Dan is trying to create an experience for customers that smells like a bakery, feels like a restaurant, and is sustainable on every level.

During the interview, Dan shares his philosophy of "through the eyes of the farmer" which guides Founding Farmers decision-making process. He emphasizes the importance of sustainable practices, telling the truth, and acknowledging the destruction caused by capitalism. Dan talks about the challenges of balancing the big picture of climate change and sustainability with the day-to-day operations of a business. He believes that every person can make a difference and help in saving the planet, and he encourages conscious and mindful capitalism.

Dan also shares how the company not only focuses on nurturing the earth and the land but also on mental health resources, coaching classes, and more for their teams. Josh and Dan discuss how promoting and supporting mental health and wellbeing for the team is not only good for the team, but also good for a business's bottom line.

Overall, this episode is a great conversation about the importance of sustainability, supporting farmers, and promoting mental health in the workplace. Dan's insights and experiences are both inspiring and thought-provoking, and it is an episode that listeners interested in conscious capitalism should not miss.

Where to find Dan Simons:

Where to find host Josh Sharkey:

What We Cover

(3:52) What is Founding Farmers?

(6:14) Founding Farmers Partnerships

(8:33) What does farm-to-table mean?

(11:14) Sustainability through the eyes of a farmer

(16:00) Building horizontal growth

(20:50) On coaching, leadership and empowerment

(26:36) Why you should be a mental health advocate

(32:32) De-stigmatizing mental health challenges in the workplace

(38:31) How Dan is helping other business prioritize mental health

(41:09) How to live a life of no regrets

(48:02) Who inspires Dan today?


Josh Sharkey [00:00:00]:

Welcome to The meez Podcast. I'm your host, Josh Sharkey, the founder and CEO of meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. On the show, I'll be interviewing world-class entrepreneurs in the food space that are shifting the paradigm of how we innovate and operate in our industry. Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show.


My guest today is the very inspiring Dan Simons co-founder of Farmers Restauant Group. If you don't know the group well, you definitely should. It's rare to come across a business so deeply rooted in sustainability, built directly into the DNA of how the company operates.


This is levels and levels and levels above farm to table. The farmers in this group are actually owners of the business. Dan and his co-founder Mike Vucurevich, partnered with the North Dakota Farmers Union from the outset of starting the business. This means they have 18 wheelers of produce and fresh milled grain for their bread and honey from the apiaries coming right from the farms directly to the restaurants with the profits going right back to the farmers.


And they represent sustainability on really every level. Not just how they think about nurturing the earth and the land, but how they sustain and grow an incredibly profitable business with over a hundred million in top line, the way they build their restaurants with sustainable material, to what I learned most about today, the inspiring way in which they support their teams with mental health resources, coaching classes, and more.


They have seven restaurants as well as a distillery, a bakery, and a non-profit organization devoted to banning plastic straws called Our Last Straw. Dan and I have gotten to know each other over the last couple years, but today's conversation was pretty therapeutic for me. We're shedding a lot of light on why the onus is on us as leaders to help promote and support mental health and wellbeing for our team.


This sounds obvious, and yes, of course this helps the team and it makes people better, makes people happier, and it makes them more productive. But from Dan's perspective, it also just generally helps the bottom line. We had an incredible conversation and we ended up actually talking for another 30 minutes after the call was up. I learned a lot and I think you will as well. So I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I do.


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Dan, welcome to the pod.

Dan Simons [00:03:11]:

Josh. I'm glad to be here, man.

Josh Sharkey [00:03:13]:

I'm so excited to have you on. I first learned about Founding Farmers through your partner Mike V maybe like 15 years ago. I don't know if you knew this. We did a project together for an Indian restaurant. I think it was about 10, 15 years ago, because you guys also have a consulting firm.

Dan Simons [00:03:27]:

Yeah, that's right.

Josh Sharkey [00:03:27]:

I'm so excited to have you on because I think you're living proof that to have a successful business, it's not just one thing, it's many things and you do many things, and I'm excited to dig into all the ways in which you run your business and think about, you know, how to fire up your team, things like that. So for those of us that don't know about you and Founding Farmers, do you mind just giving us a little background about you and how founding farmers came to be?

Dan Simons [00:03:52]:

So at this point, Mike and I, so Mike's my business partner. We have several restaurants based in the DC area, but Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania. What makes the company unique is that our business partners who own more of the company than we do are American family farmers, both individuals and organizations of which American family farmers are members. And so the North Dakota Farmers Union is our dominant partner, both strategically and for capital.


And what that means is people talk about farm to table. We're so much just different and deeper than that. This is about where the profit goes, why the company exists, advocacy market making. It takes us down a lot of roads of what matters too. What I think of as the backbone of America, independent family farmers, you know, farmers are a national security issue.


Farmers are a feed-the-people issue. There's a lot. And so supporting independent family farmers is why our restaurants exist. We have about 1,553 employees right now. We probably will do a hundred million in sales this year, or at least get on a run rate for a hundred million in sales. So these are pretty big restaurants.


Around 250 to 300 seats. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 365 days a year, 10,000 square feet, 13,000 square feet. The kitchens are 3,400 square feet, 3,800 square feet and add on the bar. So when you know we've got our own bakery, we have our own distillery. And so when you walk into one of our restaurants, it really should smell like a bakery, feel like a restaurant, and create this experience.


We're really going for it. And so that's our mission and we're not trying to make it easy. And so while some folks are trying to simplify, have less employees, get the robots to do it. Stop cooking, outsource it, buy it from someone else who produced it. We're making our own pasta and making our own vodka, and if I could sew, I'd be making our own aprons.

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