CHATHAM - "Farm fresh," "fair trade" and "grass fed" might be buzz-phrases for the local food movement, but local cuisine that features all the above are found in a tiny restaurant in Chatham, of all places.
Pat Freeman Nesberg is owner of the Rock River Cafe, located at N52998 Rock River St. in the heart of this rural burg. Open for almost three years, the "farm-to-fork" eatery, which specializes in sustainability, is almost sustainable itself, business-wise.
"Since we've been here the last three years, the local food movement has gained a lot of traction," Nesberg said.
Dishes at the Rock River Cafe come from local food sources allowing owner Pat Freeman Nesberg to offer fresh, local cuisine. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)
What's helped, Nesberg said, is the U.P. Food Exchange, which connects local food activity across the Upper Peninsula.
Nesberg, who also operates the Rock River Lunch Bag in Munising (not a sit-down place like the Rock River Cafe, but a spot to grab lunch), has a master's degree in business administration with an emphasis on sustainability. Her husband, John Filus, helps with menu design and other parts of the operation, she said.
The food offered at the western Alger County restaurant, she said, follows the "slow food mantra" and gives patrons dishes made from simple recipes.
"So, we don't bring in packaged foods," Nesberg said.
At the Rock River Cafe, a diner is more likely to find eggs from Trenary Ducks & More, which nurtures "pastured chickens" that are allowed to roam freely in the field laid.
Some of those neighbors are Rock River Farm in Chatham, Shelter Bay Tomatoes, Bahrman's Potato Farm in Rumely, the Munising Community Hoop House, the Trenary Home Bakery and Dancing Crane Farm in Skandia.
That means the best ingredients, including, for example, rain forest-certified bananas.
"I don't really want to categorize us as a health food store," Nesberg stressed. "I don't want people to think we're all nuts and twigs."
After all, the Rock River Cafe menu includes the bacon blue burger and maple pecan whitefish.
There also are soups, salads, a coffee bar and a menu for the kids that includes pan-fried whitefish.
Current hours at the Rock River Cafe are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The restaurant, Nesberg said, closes during April.
"It's a commitment we're making that's not an easy one," Nesberg said.
However, there's a greater purpose to the Rock River Cafe.
"Sourcing locally is king, OK?" Nesberg said. "But also in creating our menu items, what we want to do is present those local ingredients in the best way as possible so that there is a demand for them."
That's why her slogan for her restaurant is "A Fresh Expression of Local Cuisine."
"It's reflective of the fact it's supposed to be a taste of this location," Nesberg said.