BRIGANTINE — Jon Weinrott scooped some littleneck clams from a bucket and examined them in his hands. The briny critters would be dressed up for one of his events and showcased as the first course.
The dish would be called the Clamdaddy’s casino, named after the Brigantine business that Weinrott was visiting this month with other employees of One Atlantic, the multimillion-dollar special-events center at the top of The Pier at Caesars in Atlantic City.
Weinrott is a modern forager, searching through the region’s producers and suppliers for local foods increasingly in demand.
Local sourcing is a concept that has been gaining ground as a tougher economy strains restaurants’ budgets and consumers put more emphasis on environmental issues.
One Atlantic hosted its first corporate event a week ago, and has booked about 45 weddings already. And if any party is interested, they can even have a specially designed “locavore-conscious” menu, Weinrott said. In other words, all the food is grown and shipped within 100 miles.
In a recent survey of more than 1,800 professional chefs, the National Restaurant Association said that the No. 1 biggest trend for this year is obtaining locally grown produce. Buying locally grown meats and seafood and the idea behind sustainability — when restaurants employ “green” practices such as using energy-efficient lighting or biodiesel to fuel delivery trucks — also were at the top of the list.
“Many restaurants are sourcing some of their ingredients locally, and you often see chefs shopping at farmer’s markets to create a host of better-for-you options that today’s diners want,” Dawn Sweeney, the association’s president, said in a statement.
For food foragers such as Weinrott, who is in charge of catering and event services at One Atlantic, the benefits of going local are worth it: “It enables us to support local farmers,” he said.
Before going to Clamdaddy’s, located on the north end of Brigantine on East Shore Drive, Weinrott and his team visited a farm in Pennsylvania that specializes in organic baby greens, another one in Somerset County that sells organic eggs and organic chickens, and one in Mercer County that has lamb shanks and organic cheeses.
Clamdaddy’s littlenecks are farm-raised and grow in bay waters. Next month starts the breeding stage, owner Bill Mayer said.
Those millions of clams, which feed on a diet of algae, can mature in four to five years. By then, they are ready to be harvested, Mayer said, and are collected fresh when a customer calls in an order.
“We’re planting and harvesting, planting and harvesting,” Mayer told Weinrott. “It never stops.”
The summer season is when the restaurants in Atlantic and Cape May counties are especially busy and keep Clamdaddy’s hopping. About five workers are needed to collect the clams and package them. Mayer said he serves about a dozen restaurants at that time.
He declined to talk specifically about his finances, but said sales were “a little bit slower” last year because of the economy.
Rick Moretti, owner of Rick’s Seafood House in North Wildwood, said he gets much of his product shipped from local growers, including Clamdaddy’s. While it would be cheaper to buy from producers in North Carolina or other states, he said, getting his clams, flounder and scallops closer to home is worth it.
“It’s the quality and taste, but also, you don’t know what waters they’re coming out of from someplace else,” Moretti said.
The idea of using locally grown clams appealed to Weinrott for another reason.
“I think that in a social event such as a wedding, people want to have a connection with what is served,” he said. “Having clams from here is part of that.”
In turn, he added, he wants guests — or consumers — to become familiar with and seek out lesser-known products that can be bought from local farmers instead.
“We can be an agent between the farmer and the consumer,” he said.
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