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River Valley Brings Year-Round Farmers Market Experience to Storefront

By Patty Wetli | February 11, 2014 6:39am
 River Valley Ranch & Kitchens has created a year-round farmers market with its new storefront operation.
River Valley Farmers Market
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RAVENSWOOD — Remember street fests, sidewalk cafes, outdoor concerts and heat?

Yeah, those are still a good four months off. For a little slice of summer now, head to Ravenswood, where River Valley Ranch & Kitchens — the largest mushroom farm in the Midwest — mimics the farmers market experience in its new storefront.

Operating out of the address formerly occupied by City Provisions, the River Valley Farmer's Table is one part market, one part restaurant, understandably heavy on the 'shrooms but with plenty of other tricks up its sleeve.

"Mushrooms built the farm, that's what we do. But we also grow a lot of other stuff," said Jordan Rose, 31, whose grandfather founded River Valley Ranch in southeastern Wisconsin nearly 40 years ago. "I have six tons of onions at the farm."

 The Rose family has been growing mushrooms since 1976, when River Valley Ranch was founded.
The Rose family has been growing mushrooms since 1976, when River Valley Ranch was founded.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

Customers perusing the retail side of the store, 1820 W. Wilson Ave., will find shelves stacked with River Valley's pickled and canned goods, including the farm's signature portabella salsa, alongside fresh eggs and house-made apple butter and yogurt. Croissants, bagels — "We boil them in malt syrup, like you're supposed to" — and "gluten-free bread that doesn't suck" are also made in-house.

The deli case features 20 artisan cheeses, and meats are smoked on the premises. Brad Knaub, Rose's best friend who's followed his pal from one gig to another, oversees the day-to-day kitchen operations, including the chopping up of old whiskey barrel staves to feed to the smoker.

"Hardwood is not a joke," Knaub said.

What River Valley doesn't make itself, it stocks from "companies near and dear" to its heart, like Autumn Berry Inspired, which cooks up jams made from the fruit of an invasive species of tree.

If all this sounds similar to City Provisions, which closed in January 2013, Rose draws an important distinction — price.

The big-ticket item on the Farmer's Table menu is the $10 eight-ounce Farmer's Burger; all other sandwiches cost $6 to $8, with hearty sides like mac 'n' cheese and home fries available for an additional dollar.

Once his liquor license comes through, Rose plans on selling 40 to 50 varieties of wine, all under $25.

"The perception that it was expensive was spot on," Rose said of his predecessor. "I felt like Cleetus [Friedman] had a really good concept but he missed the mark."

In selling many of its own products, River Valley is able to bypass the fees associated with a distributor.

"Forty years of relationships" with other purveyors — like the neighboring farm that supplies River Valley's bratwurst — have also helped control costs, Rose said. 

Another notable change is the decor, which Rose describes as a "riot of color."

The brightly painted walls and murals — including a caricature of Rose's father Eric — amp up the market's energy.

"I need a space to be busy," said Rose, a study in perpetual motion who admits to being "loud and kind of spastic."

Having kicked around Chicago's restaurant scene for a dozen years, including stints at Browntrout, Bin 36 and Moto, Rose, who currently calls Ukrainian Village home, returned to the farm two years ago to work on recipe development.

The results were initially rolled out at a handful of the 30 farmers markets River Valley participates in and eventually found their way onto the Farmer's Table menu.

"There's a lot of overlap between the menu here and the farmers markets," Rose said. "This will act as the production space."

In many ways, the Farmer's Table brings the Rose family full circle back to its restaurant roots, even as each generation places its own stamp on the business.

In the 1970s, patriarch Bill Rose, now deceased, owned a fine dining spot in Chicago and wanted to include a mushroom dish among his offerings.

"He couldn't find good mushrooms," said Jordan, and out of that frustration River Valley Ranch was born.

Eric Rose introduced sauces, dips, salsas and pickled vegetables — fermented naturally, sans vinegar — to the River Valley brand in the 1990s, prompting the addition of the "& Kitchens" to the name.

"It a good use for surplus mushrooms," Jordan said of the canned products, which are all made by hand back at the River Valley Ranch.

Farmer's Table now provides further diversity to a business that has survived thanks to constant innovation.

"Small organic farming is not exactly a huge profit generator," Rose noted. "For me, it's really about watching people enjoy the food. People keep telling me how much they like spending time here."

If the concept takes off, Rose envisions opening River Valley outposts in two or three other neighborhoods around the city, but that's a long-term goal.

He's already passed on an offer by one landlord interested in seeing Farmer's Table as a tenant.

"I can't," Rose said. "I haven't slept in so long."