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Where food tells a story and farmers are rock stars

Driftless Café aims to build community, strengthen connection to local food cycle

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June 24, 2024

VIROQUA – The City of Viroqua has a population of about 4,500.

Yet somehow, the city also has a restaurant with five times that many social media followers.

“It kind of blew up,” Driftless Café Co-owner Luke Zahm said.

Zahm said the restaurant’s farm-to-table ethos has fostered tight connections within Vernon County since he and his wife Ruthie bought it in 2013.

Almost instantly, he said, word spread about the West Central Wisconsin restaurant that focuses heavily on locally sourced ingredients.

“People were hearing about it through the rumblings of social media,” he said. “Once the project got momentum, it started to gain its own steam, and that momentum continued to swell. People came out and said this is the type of food they want to support – and from the day we opened our doors in 2013, it’s been wild.”

Zahm said the Driftless Café (118 West Court St.) is his opportunity to offer diners “a world-class meal with a truly local perspective” – while giving credit where it’s due.

“Our whole purpose – our mission for existing – is to put a spotlight on the farmers and food producers of this area and to tell their stories through food and education,” he said. “Bringing people into the storyline – it’s my favorite.”

Zahm said it’s common for the people who supply the restaurant’s ingredients to also dine there – a chance to see other patrons enjoy the fruits – as well as vegetables, meats and fungi – of their labor.

“They come in frequently, and we treat them like celebrities,” he said. “You can bet your bottom dollar that if one of our farmers comes in, we’re going to feed them until they’re not ready to be fed for a little while afterward. They’re rock stars – and it’s awesome.”

Catching the drift

Zahm said the café even garnered the interest of PBS Wisconsin and its program “Wisconsin Foodie” – which he said has only helped raise the Driftless Café’s profile.

Still, Zahm said he largely credits his restaurant’s success to the Driftless Area of Wisconsin where it’s located and to the values of its farmers, food producers and overall population.

The menu at the café, Luke Zahm said, is ever-changing – dependent on the local ingredients available. Courtesy of Driftless Café

Though he grew up in the region, he said he wasn’t always able to grasp what made it special.

“I didn’t feel like I belonged there,” he said. “I had a hard time appreciating the uniqueness and the beauty that is here in the driftless region. I decided to venture out into the world as far as I could, which ended up being Chicago.”

If he’d experienced alienation living in La Farge, Wisconsin, Zahm said, he would only trade that feeling for loneliness and homesickness in Chicago.

There, he said, an unexpected revelation awaited him in a Whole Foods grocery store – in the form of a block of pepper jack cheese.

“I picked it up, and I flipped it over (to read the back),” he said. “I read it and had a bit of an emotional moment – it said, ‘La Farge, Wisconsin.’”

Zahm said pride washed over him.

“I was excited because I knew those farmers, I knew the producers, I knew the people making that cheese, and I knew the people who wrapped that cheese,” he said. “That opportunity in Whole Foods allowed me to open my eyes – to look backward and observe some of the beautiful things I had grown up with and taken for granted.”

After relocating to Madison for school and work, Zahm said he continued to experience such breakthroughs.

“I started to go to the Dane County Farmers Market – which is geographically the largest farmers market in the United States,” he said. “I would go there and see people I knew from high school working in the farm stands. That gave me a tremendous sense that in this (Driftless Area) community, they already know me as Luke, and I don’t have to try and re-identify myself as yada-yada-yada – they know who I am and where I grew up.”

Zahm said, for him, that was “captivating.”

“It opened my eyes to the idea that if I can make food, and I know the (food producers) to be good people putting their whole lives into it – how can this not be better than the food you can get off the back of a semi?” he said. “There was more to it for me.”

As he continued to hone his philosophy on food, Zahm said he and his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Ruthie, began to dream of opening their own restaurant back in the driftless region.

Zahm said it took one more eye-opening moment to convince him to pursue that dream. 

At the time, he said he was working for a large Madison company’s culinary program and was on a trip to New York as part of recruiting chefs from The Culinary Institute of America.

“We went to the restaurant American Bounty – which is in the actual Culinary Institute of America – and they had the entire menu listed out with ingredients that came out of the driftless region in Wisconsin,” he said. “I thought, ‘this is wild – these chefs coming in don’t even know the magic of where this food comes from and the people who grow it.’ I was completely floored and felt so much pride. I walked away from that trip with my eyes wide open, thinking, ‘man – we’ve got to get on with the process of opening this restaurant because the day in the sun is coming.’”

Organic growth

Zahm said they moved back to the La Farge-Viroqua area shortly thereafter and attempted to fulfill his passion for natural, more connected food production at regional restaurants and a food co-op – all while taking steps to open his own restaurant.

“It was a situation where I was going to banks and trying to approach them with a business plan that focused on putting a spotlight on local farmers and food producers in Vernon County – and they all thought it was a cool idea, but nobody wanted to finance it,” he said. “I was hitting my head up against a wall trying to figure out how I could make my dream a reality.”

About 70% of the ingredients used at Driftless Café, Owner Luke Zahm said, are sourced from local producers. Photo Courtesy of Driftless Café

The Driftless Café in Viroqua, he said, had been owned by two separate parties at that point, and they offered Zahm the potential to re-imagine its menu and realize his passion.

It was one of the café’s original owners, he said, who would help him finance his purchase of the business.

“He made a couple of phone calls and, lo and behold, a dairy farmer who has the most righteous food ethic – his whole philosophy is farming gracefully – reached out and said he would be willing to loan me the money for the restaurant at 5% (interest),” Zahm said. “It was the most generous and community-spirited idea.”

With the location secured, Ruthie handling finances and managing employees, and Zahm serving as executive chef, Driftless Café was ready for its next task – securing ingredients.

“(Ruthie) has created a viable and healthy place to work,” he said. “(My responsibility) always comes back to the farmers and the local food. I want to know what percentage of my total food cost is coming from local sources.”

Zahm said he can keep that number “in the 70% range” thanks to the relationships he’s grown with producers from the area, whom he said continue to contact him regarding what they can supply.

“I try and keep the ingredients and the purveyors open because I want them to feel like they’re part of this, too,” he said. “Sometimes it’s more or less convenient than others, but I’m always gracious to meet the people who are spending their lives raising food for others – that’s beautiful.”

Zahm said he prefers this approach rather than making specific requests from local producers.

“That’s not how we like to work,” he said. “We want you to grow what’s good for your soil, your farm and your family. If it’s intensive, I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s misery – there’s no good karma in that.”

Between the driftless region’s large Amish population and the prevalent culture of its independent producers, Zahm said Vernon County has the second-highest percentage of organic farmers of all U.S. counties.

“I don’t run only organic food at the café, but I prefer to – and if it’s not USDA-certified organic, I’m running it because I know those farmers and I trust them,” he said. “And I can’t think of a better way to do what I do than with that mission and mantra of, ‘a restaurant is fine and great – but how do you grow a community?’”

Serving inspiration 

The Driftless Café serves lunch and dinner Thursday to Saturday every week.

The menu, however, Zahm said is ever-changing – based on available local ingredients, harvested and prepared at their peak.

“When you capture some of these flavors at the precise time in their lifecycle, it changes the way you look at those vegetables, cheeses and fruits,” he said. “It revolutionizes the way you eat, so we change that every day.”

Zahm said the practice of developing the menu anew each day helps to keep the chefs engaged while fostering the connective farm-to-table ethos the restaurant purveys.

“Rarely in American culture do we take a moment to pause and wonder where this food comes from – how did it get here? Was it heavily manipulated? Was it processed beyond all recognition?’” he said. “We don’t do that as a society. Farm-to-table ethos, for me, is an invitation to try and understand some of those connective pieces between the things we actively use to grow ourselves and generate ourselves, and be connected in the world.” 

Some Driftless Café customers, Zahm said, were initially confused by the fluidity of the menu. He said he understands the restaurant’s approach can baffle customers expecting a traditional menu or hoping to order a meal they’d enjoyed during a prior visit. 

The term Zahm embraces for this method, he said, is “intentional inefficiency.” 

Owner Luke Zahm said Driftless Café’s farm-to-table ethos strengthens the community’s connection to the local food cycle. Photo Courtesy of Driftless Café

“There are a lot of efficiencies to be gained with a set menu – it’s financially more efficient, it’s certainly more labor efficient – but it’s not necessarily creatively efficient,” he said. “The metric for success for me in the restaurant was, ‘how long can we sustain this creativity?’ We put ourselves into it and try to react to the ingredients daily.”

The resulting nuance and depth of the food, Zahm said, are what continue to attract adventurous, appreciative customers to the café from across the country. 

“We had a group in from New York City once, and they were sitting and enjoying their meal – it was the middle of summer, and we had these delicious cantaloupes a local farmer had grown,” he said. “This girl was losing her mind about how delicious it was, wrapped it in a house-cured prosciutto.”

Zahm said as a chef, when you catch those foods at exactly the right time, “they can be transcendent – they’ll change your life through the complexity of sunshine and soil nutrients and all that stuff.”

“She was gushing about how much she loved it, and this old man was sitting right behind her,” he said. “I tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘you know, this is truly flattering – but I would feel much more comfortable if you told the farmer himself. She turned around and had an interaction with the human responsible for growing her food. All of her emotions – oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin going off in her brain – and she got to tell him how much she appreciated his work and his labor. It feels like it brings communities together.”

Whether it’s creating new memories like these, sharing other restaurants’ stories on “Wisconsin Foodie” or looking back on his career path and the investment that helped him buy the Driftless Café, Zahm said, “food has allowed me to redefine what community means.” 

“I want that energy to move forward throughout all the diners and hopefully resonate with the farmers,” he said. “We are always paying that ‘forward’ – which happens to be the state motto.”

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