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From harvest to dinner | Restaurants don't look far to serve freshest fare

Stephen Stroman went fishing on a recent morning, but he was without a rod, boat and bait.

He had no need of those things because he had the necessities required for his trip to Murrells Inlet - his Ford Explorer, his discerning blue eyes, a giant cooler and a company checkbook.

When he arrived at Kenyon Seafood, he examined the fresh catch the shop's owner, Wayne Mershon, fetched from local fishermen minutes earlier. Stroman looked over the bounty, chitchatted and walked away with nearly 100 pounds of fish after writing Mershon a check for $561.50.

"What we do supports our local economy," said Stroman, general manager at Croissants Bakery & Bistro in Myrtle Beach. "When we do so, the food travels the least amount of miles to get to the restaurant."

Everything you consume at area eateries isn't bought locally, but less and less of what you eat at restaurants comes from places you never heard of or can't pronounce. Restaurateurs are buying locally as much as possible because they know doing so has advantages that benefit them and you.

"When we support local businesses, it leaves less of a carbon footprint," said Tina Spaltro, pastry chef at Waterscapes in Myrtle Beach. "You should cook with what grows around you. Why should you get something from California? Why not use strawberries grown 30 minutes from here? They are not on a truck for days, and they will taste better."

The food is often served the same day it is bought. The wahoo Stroman bought was featured on Croissants' menu later that night.

Sometimes buying the freshest food can also be the costliest, a fact Mershon acknowledges on the side of a Kenyon Seafood truck. "Good fish aren't cheap," the sign reads. "Cheap fish aren't good."

Still, restaurant folks said the price is worth the rewards.

"It means you spend less on transportation costs, and buying locally is better for the environment all the way around," said Jared Merryman, general manager of Carolina Wings & Rib House in Pawleys Island. "The trend of buying local is growing rapidly."

Carolina Wings & Rib House, the Mayor's House Restaurant in Pawleys Island and Divine Fish House in Murrells Inlet are among more than 200 eateries participating in the Fresh on the Menu program.

Implemented by the S.C. Department of Agriculture, it allows restaurants to partner with the state by agreeing that chefs will include at least 25 percent of certified S.C. grown seasonal foods and products on their menus.

There are numerous Grand Strand chefs and other restaurant employees who get a variety of food for their businesses from places right around the corner or a few minutes down the highway.

Benjamin's Bakery in Surfside Beach makes fresh bread daily for about 100 restaurants.

Prince Creek Diner in Murrells Inlet gets challah cinnamon swirl bread from Benjamin's for its french toast.

The Mellow Mushroom gets hoagie rolls from the bakery founded in 1994 by the late Milton Markowitz and his son, Lee Zulanch.

Bi-Lo, Kansas City Prime, Rioz Brazilian Steakhouse, the House of Blues and Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville are also served by the bakery.

"We do have bread available through our corporate purveyor, but we also had a storage issue and I wanted to use fresh bread because I feel like it is a better quality product and it's easier to keep," said Ben Wyman, kitchen manager at Mellow Mushroom in Myrtle Beach, explaining why he prefers a local bakery.

Mellow Mushroom also buys fresh produce from A&A Produce Co., a family-owned company in Myrtle Beach.

"We work closely with them," Wyman said. "Nobody can touch their service. They will come deliver me fresh produce whenever I need it."

Other chefs don't mind going to get their own goods.

Last week, Spaltro took a trip to Myrtle's Market to get strawberries and rhubarb she needed to make her from-scratch desserts served at Waterscapes.

"We made strawberry rhubarb tarts with black pepper mascarpone ice cream," Spaltro said.

At Mayor's House Restaurant, its owners, Chet and Karen Herman, are sticklers for buying S.C. goods whenever possible.

"Buying at home represents everything that is good in life," Karen Sherman said. "We live here, and we want to promote whatever comes from South Carolina, including our fish and produce."

The Shermans, for example, purchase their seafood from Harrelson's Seafood Market in Murrells Inlet and Lowcountry Shellfish in Charleston.

Industry insiders said consumer concern about food products, the commitment to local economies and the desire to secure the freshest food available will help continue to strengthen the trend for years come.

The number of restaurants partnering with the state for its Fresh on the Menu goes up every day, said Ansley Rast, marketing specialist with the S.C. Department of Agriculture.

In July, the S.C. Hospitality Association will launch a green hotel and restaurant program for businesses that meet criteria for environmental friendliness, including involvement in recycling programs, energy consumption and buying local.

"You have a lot of concerns out there," said Tom Sponseller, president of the state's hospitality association. "Consumers want to know where their food comes from."