Reno – The number of restaurants in Reno that serve organic, ethnic, locally sourced food prepared from scratch at an affordable price is tiny, and most of them are under one roof in the West Street Market in downtown Reno.
What is now the West Street Market was a Hudson automobile dealership in the 1920s and ‘30s. Renovated in 2008, the building takes up maybe 50 feet on West Street, but the space is deep and adjacent to a shared courtyard where tables are arrayed for customers during clement weather.
Inside, the ceiling is high. The spacious rectangular area between it’s painted brick walls is dusky and somehow reflects its near 100 years of various and diverse habitation just a block from the Truckee River.
A handful of food and beverage businesses occupy and share the big room with a live performance space in the back. Walls, counters and bars segment kitchens and sculleries from the main seating area, which has an open, collective feel.
Maya’s South Indian Cuisine co-operates with Thali. Esoteric is a wine bar, and The Deluxe, opened in June of 2017, stands alone in a corner and is marked by a bunny skull and crossed carrots logo made of metal.
The combination of food smells was excellent.
I bellied up to The Deluxe sit-down counter and chatted with owner Rich Selden.
Listen to an interview with Rich Selden.
“Food’s been a big part of my life for the past eight years, from a health standpoint,” Selden said. ”It’s been quite a big journey for me. Food’s always been a big part of my life. I’m from New York and I grew up in a rich and diverse food culture. I moved out to Reno in 2004 and I noticed a different food scene out here. Not much cultural food. It took some adjusting for me. It kind of sparked something in my psyche where I actually wanted to get into food, but I didn’t have a strong background. I came out here mostly to ski and finish college.
“I was here in Reno a few years and then I moved to Tahoe, and then I had a son. Basically, he had some food allergies, so I decided I was going to change my diet, and we decided to cut out dairy from our diets, and meat at the same time. We just wanted to live a kind of vegan lifestyle. Still not having gotten into food, I decided to open a vegan food truck out of Incline Village, so we tried the food truck lifestyle for a while in Incline. Pretty tough to sell food up there year around, so eventually my ex-partner and I moved our food truck down to Reno and got our start in the Reno food truck scene selling organic vegan food.
“Did that for about a year and a half. Going on our second winter we realized it’s really hard to make it in the winter in Reno selling food out of a food truck.
“And then by chance, the old owner of the Cafe Deluxe approached me. She was looking to sell her restaurant. She really liked the food on my food truck and thought I would be an ideal candidate to take over her restaurant, so I just kind of went for it. The price was right, and I knew that something had to change. It wasn’t really going to be sustainable for us to have a seasonal business, so I bought Cafe Deluxe in 2014. That was a sit-down breakfast restaurant on Wells Avenue, and we ran that restaurant for about two years and made some changes but generally kept the food the same, incorporated some Real Food Truck food in there while running the food truck, so we had both going at the same time.
“Then, basically, because of the real estate situation, we ended up losing our restaurant. Our building was sold, and the new owner wanted to make our restaurant into two condos, residential units, so he kicked us out, and we were basically back in the food truck for about eight months.
“And then some of my friends moved into this building. Thali was an organic, vegetarian Indian restaurant, and they actually got their start in our old restaurant. They were popping up in the evening times because we didn’t serve food at night, so they started their business in our old restaurant, and they moved into the front unit of the West Street Market, so that’s how I kind of knew what was going on more at the West Street Market. I’ve been coming here for years, and there has always been really good restaurants in this building, and then I saw this spot in the back was coming vacant and decided to take it up again and give it another try in a restaurant.”
There are many models of commercial food service, and Selden, a seasoned food truck operator, found the economical space in the market attractive.
“This was small and looked like it would be easy to manage for us. The price was right, and we just kind of went for it and got into the restaurant again, and there’s an opportunity to kind of change things up, make it more mine and serve the food I really want to serve, and I love Asian food, so we wanted to have more Asian dishes, and it’s near impossible to find Asian food with quality ingredients, organic Asian food, so we decided to keep the menu small and focus on the quality of ingredients here,” Selden said.
“I’m a firm believer in serving people food that I would serve to my family, so we don’t cut any corners on the quality of sourcing our ingredients, so I’m a big proponent of, we’ve kind of moved away from focusing on vegan food. We still have a vegan base of our menu. It’s very vegetarian and vegan friendly, and basically starts out as a vegan menu, but we also serve really high quality meat. We make sure our meat is locally sourced from our general area or food-shed or it’s organic to say the least. Because of that, we serve limited types of meat. We get free-range chicken from Sacramento. We work with a few local ranchers here. Hogs that basically come from small, bio-dynamic farms. We keep it limited and really want to make sure we know where it’s coming from.”
“And we serve 100 percent organic produce here, so we have a supply from the Bay Area. Typically we buy whatever we can that’s grown in the Reno area. There are a few farms that we work with. Some of them are mostly seasonal. A couple have greenhouses where they’re producing all year.
“Bee Here Now Farms, Dayton Valley Aquaponics, Lattin Farms, First Fruits Sustainable Farms. The number of local producers kind of fluctuates depending on the season, but we’re real prideful about serving Reno grown produce. There’s so much of it coming up right now.”
Most restaurants in the region buy their essential ingredients from a small number of large-scale purveyors or massive franchise networks of distribution. Sysco and Coremark provide a wide and deep variety of food products delivered, but to run a restaurant with an honest allegiance to local or nearest organic sourcing of ingredients requires a business model that is part bottom line and part ideology.
“You have to be extremely committed from an ideological standpoint,” Selden said with a smile. “What we would call green-washing, would be like saying you’re serving local food, organic food, and there’s really not a lot of regulation when it comes to restaurants. There are very few certified organic restaurants in the nation. We’re working on that but we’re not there yet. It takes a really strong commitment from the proprietor to serve what they say they’re serving.
“I will gladly walk anyone through our ordering procedures or even through our kitchen to show them how committed we are to locally grown organic food.”
Artfully prepared, locally sourced organic food puts upward pressure on product prices, but Selden is committed to keeping his products affordable, and that requires a conscious and attendant deviation from the traditional business model goal of maximizing profit.
“I’m not going to lie. It’s not cost effective here in the fast, casual kind of sector, middle of the road. Our prices are reasonable considering the high quality of food we’re serving.
“”When you’re serving high-end food and you have a strong drink program, it’s really easy to make up those food costs when you’re really shelling out for those high-cost ingredients, but when you’re trying to sell an approachable product. It’s more the casual sector available to anyone, it is expensive.”
Selden will not sell food he won’t serve to his family.
“I have no interest in serving food at all to people, if I’m going to serving commodity food to them. I’d much rather take a 9 to 5 job and not stress out, if I have to go and do that, so we’re extremely committed. We’re very prideful about the high quality products we do serve, and we also have amazing relationships with our producers. They are friends of ours. We like to support them.
“What they are doing is truly the noble act because they are literally committing their entire lives to working these small plots outside of Reno. A lot of them are practicing no-till farming. They are all about their soil. They are very conservative with their water usage. They’re the real deal, and that’s what we really aim to support.”
Using just a few commercial food purveyors is attractive for lowest price and the convenience of one-stop-shopping, but a groundbreaking new model of food service with a integral connection to the local food-shed requires the extra work needed to create and maintain a network where one did not exist before, adaptive, entrepreneurial bushwhacking.
“What these producers are doing is a special thing,” Selden said. “It’s so hard for them to get their product out there. Besides the Great Basin Community co-op, there’s not a lot of stores that can sell their food. It’s really important that they reach their consumers directly through farmers markets and CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) type programs, and also that they have restaurants that support them as well.
“I will say, more and more restaurants in this area are working with our small producers, which is awesome, and we just hope to growing right there with them and trying to get the message out. That’s truly the most important thing to us.
“It’s the right thing to do from a moral standpoint and an ecological standpoint, and the food is so much better when you’re using fresh local products. When the spinach comes on in the springtime, you really notice it. It’s not even the same product you can buy from a larger organic farmer. The flavor, texture. It’s a whole other ballgame, and it’s like that across the board, pretty much everything that’s being produced in the area.”
The Deluxe kitchen does not cut corners.
“We’re fully a scratch kitchen. Ninety percent of the food we serve is made from a scratch recipe. Our sauces are huge component of what we’re doing here. We make our own soy sauce blend. We basically do all of our in-house mayos. We do try to feature local herbs in those sauces as well, which truly amplifies the flavor.
“We’re preparing every single item to order in a pan where it should be prepared. We don’t keep anything in hot holding. We’re making it all fresh to order, so using some techniques you definitely find in a high-end kitchen with amazing ingredients at affordable price points. To me, it’s a win-win across the board for the customer.
“One of the biggest struggles is getting that message out trying to sound repetitive or barking up the wrong tree kind of deal, so we really just try to lead by example, and true results happen in the finished product. Our food is extremely flavorful. It’s beautiful in color. Textures are spot-on, and we don’t have a single thing on our menu that isn’t incredible, so that’s why we limit it to nine things that we serve.”
The menu is simple and connected to the seasons.
“We basically serve a Tempura. We have Korean style street tacos. Then we have three to five different Vietnamese style sandwiches we do depending on the season. Then we have ramen, and then we have what we call a hand-salad. It’s basically a giant spring roll the size of a burrito, so those items that we serve, they don’t change, but what goes inside of them will change depending on the season.”