Photos by Richard Adams
When Cynthia Chippindale’s Arlington restaurant Potager opened one year ago, its launch was anything but ordinary. The restaurateur didn’t need to rely on advertising or even much word of mouth to get her venture started and successful. It simply took off once the greater public heard about its “pay as you go” concept.
Chippindale’s business model was revolutionary on a local scale: customers at her restaurant were asked to pay as much as they thought the food deserved, or as much as they believed they had consumed. Potager offered suggested prices for its fare, but clearly, the greater public had a hard time getting its collective mind around the idea.
“I wasn’t altruistic about it,” Chippindale recalls recently, adding she had some diners who simply didn’t get what she was attempting, and took advantage of the situation.
But the firm businesswoman wasn’t deterred: “I asked them not to come back.”
Just a year later, Potager’s owner and customers have reached a mutual understanding. The latter has accepted what she is trying to do, and Chippindale continues to reach out in order to communicate her environmental activism with a vengeance.
“It’s not just a restaurant,” she says, “It’s a movement.”
Sure, you can still pay as much as you like for Potager’s uniquely seasonal and for the most part locally grown food, but day-by-day, the owner’s mission is resonating louder among her devoted clientele. She doesn’t want people to take more food than they will eat. It’s a disturbing notion to the owner, she asserts, that 38 million people in the U.S. go to bed hungry, and that a large majority of others subsist on what she calls garbage food in restaurants.
Chippindale’s worldview came into focus growing up in Ontario, Canada, where her family grew much of its food in their own garden. In fact, she says, it wasn’t until she arrived in Texas in the mid-1990s that she realized the rest of the world didn’t. For many years, she was content to build a growing profile as a recognized master gardener, joining Arlington’s Organic Garden Club and a chapter of the local Slow Food Movement. However, a desire to improve upon her life’s mission as it related to food prompted her to open Potager in 2009. Thanks to her network of gardening friends and others in the know, Chippindale realized she was especially poised to parlay them into key components of her restaurant.
She approached acquaintances with her idea about a seasonal foods restaurant and they soon became vendors for the business. Among them now are Burgundy Pasture Beef out of Grandview, Gnismer Farms in Arlington and Denison’s Dominion Farms. While it’s near impossible to feature all locally grown foods at the restaurant—especially during winter—Chippindale’s daily rotating menu is nonetheless impressive. Recent offerings included a broccoli quiche and braised Swiss chard. At the restaurant’s one-year anniversary dinner party, chicken liver mousse, prime rib with Yorkshire Pudding and Cynthia’s Braided Herb bread made it on the menu.
Chippendale also seeks to clarify another aspect to the Slow Food/ locavore movement, which is that the food does not have to be expensive or high-end. For instance, the suggested price of a large cappuccino at the restaurant runs $4, while a large serving of dessert is $2.50. “Organic doesn’t have to equal expensive,” she says. “I try to make the food affordable for everybody. We make everything from scratch; it won’t break the bank.”
To that end, the restaurateur aims to keep her business expenses and overhead at a modest level. In fact, recently she parted ways with the Potager’s chef, Nick Amorielo (previously of Nobu Dallas) because he was “more than I could afford.” The split was amicable, and now Chippindale works with Mike Shaw, former chef/owner of Dallas’ York Street and Fort Worth’s Green Lantern restaurants. The new staff believes in what Chippindale is doing and she and her restaurant are making a connection with area diners. She is a passionate advocate of eating locally and its inherent tie to healthy living.
“Start eating properly,” she says, “And you will be happier.”
ANNA CAPLAN lives in Fort Worth with her husband Jeff, a sportswriter, and her son Gabe and daughter Maya. She is a part-time PR professional at the Amon Carter Museum and also covers the Fort Worth art scene for A + C (Arts and Culture magazine).