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Newfound Ground Round

In South Burlington, "local chain" is not an oxymoron

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It's pretty safe to judge a restaurant by its menu cover. Cream-colored, heavyweight paper usually denotes a multiple-fork experience. A single sheet of printer paper might mean that "Pop" is making the meatloaf while "Mom" prepares the pie. But what if you're holding a pleather-bound volume with the header, "Tex-Mex Fiesta: The mania returns," alongside photos of flourescent-colored drinks? You're at the Ground Round. Welcome to the world of "casual" dining.

Restaurants in the casual-dining category offer table service in a relaxed atmosphere and almost always welcome tots: Think Friendly's and The Olive Garden. They're known for speedy service and inexpensive food that's often frozen and pre-packaged. Maybe that's why Meghan Sheridan, executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network, was incredulous when General Manager Bob Scott approached her. He wanted South Burlington's Ground Round to be considered for membership among Fresh Net's mostly upscale eateries that seek out Vermont vendors of meat, cheese and produce. Was the management of the independently owned franchise trying to cash in on a designation it didn't deserve?

The short answer is "no." "We had a face-to-face meeting," explains Sheridan, "and they are absolutely working with local farmers and featuring local farmers on their menu." Scott won Sheridan over, and the Ground Round got its Fresh Net certification.

The proof is in the product: Right now, the menu features local breads in sandwiches such as the sautéed vegetarian reuben on Klinger's Jewish Rye and a French dip on Red Hen's organic seeded baguette. The "loaded mashed potato" side is drowned in Cabot cheddar.

Other native nosh options: salsas from New World Enterprises of Winooski, Jed's maple products and Island Ice Cream. Come summer, Lewis Creek Farm will begin supplying the Ground Round's veggies, and the restaurant will get cheddar from Shelburne Farms. Local corn chips are on the horizon, too. In an even more drastic shift, for a chain named after an economical cut of meat, the Ground Round is planning to switch over to Vermont ground beef in July.

All of these changes came about because Bob Scott had an epiphany. The 14-year veteran of the TGI Friday corporation came to Vermont in 2002 and scored a management job at the Ground Round. Though he enjoyed the work and respected franchise owner Robert C. Smith, Scott says the high cost of living drove him to Florida. It wasn't long before he began to miss the quality of life he'd enjoyed in the Green Mountain State.

"When I moved back, I had a much fonder relationship with Vermont and what it stood for," says Scott, who came back to work at the Ground Round. "One of the personal missions that I have is to help Vermont stay unique." After a time, he realized he might be able to do that through the restaurant. Approaching Smith was the next step.

Luckily, Smith is married to a native Vermonter with "many of the same visions and beliefs that I have," according to Scott. The franchise owner was enthusiastic. The duo planned for a gradual transition, one that wouldn't result in sticker shock or a jolt to customers' palates. Scott began combing the Web to locate local suppliers who could provide tasty products in large enough quantities and at affordable price points.

But, though the restaurant is independent and locally owned, it's still a link in a 60-restaurant chain. A single manager only has so much control over selecting suppliers. "There are core items like the steaks and chicken where the corporation wants us to use their products for the sake of consistency and quality," concedes Scott. Still, he says, "We felt strong enough that it was worth pushing the envelope."

Is the eponymous "ground round" on the list of untouchable core items? You bet. "But we feel that the quality of the Vermont burger is superior to any burger we have found elsewhere," Scott opines. He won't settle for anything less.

Another perk of the new system is the pleasure of working with local vendors. "They're so willing to help you and more willing to work with you than vendors outside of Vermont," Scott says.

As a rule, restaurant "franchises" don't encourage independent thinking. Because the "brand" relies on the consistency of the experience, owners have to accept multiple constraints. The Ground Round has more wiggle room for local variation than, say, a McDonald's, because its parent company is not a global megacorp, but the relatively small-scale Independent Owners Cooperative, LLC, of Freeport, Maine.

Nonetheless, Scott has to deal with regular Ground Round inspectors who come to check the South Burlington operation for compliance. Their reaction? Luckily, the most recent corporate inspector "saw that the quality was better," Scott assures. "While she can't say, 'That is OK,' she didn't take a position that our franchise agreement is in jeopardy." He believes the corporate-powers-that-be "accept it because they realize that it's great and that it's working. They clearly see what we're doing is not hurting the brand at all." He hopes the laissez-faire approach will apply to the upcoming ground beef upgrade, too.

Even with the tacit approval - for now - of the Ground Round bigwigs, none of this would matter if the audacious dishes didn't taste good. As it happens, the local items are the yummiest things on the menu. A vegetarian patron called the nachos with local salsa "delicious." And what deli aficionado would turn down a juicy, grilled turkey sandwich with Cabot cheddar on Klinger's cranberry pecan bread?

Of the bigger-ticket items, fresh sea scallops with a creamy maple Dijon sauce were plump, sweet and tender. Hey, the maple's local. The same sauce also works well on a pecan-crusted chicken breast. And of course, the French vanilla Island Ice Cream topped with Jed's maple peanut-butter "Mudd" is a taste of Vermont heaven. Hardcore localvores may want to hold off until the the fresh veggies roll in and the better burger arrives.

Regular Ground Round customers are already showing their approval. "Business is better than ever," boasts Scott. "We clearly are making more money than we have in years in this building." He attributes the increased revenue to recognition of the better food quality, and to a dose of Green Mountain pride. "One of the things that we have found is that Vermonters appreciate the fact that we're supporting the community, and tourists appreciate that they can come into a restaurant and try some Vermont products," Scott enthuses. Slowly, folks are trickling in who "appreciate the independence of Vermont, but who wouldn't normally think of us because we're affiliated with a chain."

The staff is down with the new fare, too. After all, Scott encourages them to sample the daily specials, which are often built around local products. "That's one of the ways we test the waters before they hit the menus," he says of the entrées. "It's pretty easy for the staff to get fired up because the products are great."

Once the burgers and veggies are squared away, the next step will be expanding to serve brunch. Scott is already beginning the search for suppliers of bacon and sausage. Being a Vermont Fresh Net member will help him get his hands on the good stuff, because, he points out, "they have strong criteria for who can be a part of their network."

So far, the Ground Round is the only franchise to meet those "strong criteria." Says Sheridan, "We certainly have diners, but the idea of a franchise is really different . . . they have to be really cost-conscious."

The experiment is still in progress, but it's clearly working. The Ground Round staff and its customers are eating up the changes. At the Fresh Net headquarters, Sheridan is pleased to know that "this kind of dedication to local foods, agriculture and the economy speaks beyond the white-tablecloth restaurants," she says.

For his part, Scott hopes the Ground Round's example gives a little nudge to other casual restaurants. "We're a locally owned chain supporting the efforts of Vermont. That message is very important. On a personal level, I want other chains in town to realize what we're doing, and basically give them a challenge," he suggests. "Can you be that rebel and push that envelope a little?"

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Local Food Items at the Ground Round

(some items available for retail sale)

Baked Goods:

Klinger's breads, many varieties

Klinger's desserts

Red Hen organic baguettes

Beer:

Long Trail

Otter Creek

Shed

Switchback

Dairy:

Cabot cheddar

Island Homemade Ice Cream

Monument Farms Dairy milk 
and cream

Shelburne Farms cheddar*

Maple:

Jed's Maple Mudd

Jed's maple syrup

Meat:

Local hamburgers (supplier not yet set)*

Other:

Lewis Creek vegetables*

New World Enterprises Salsa

Tortilla chips (supplier not yet set)*

Westminster Crackers

*coming soon

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