There's no denying it. Burgers made from grass-fed beef just taste better.
Kristy Fox's customers picked up on the difference without being tipped off.
Fox owns Freshies restaurant, a local hangout, with her husband, Scott. She has noticed measurable response to the Rockin J Cattle ground beef her kitchen is using to make hamburgers.
"It's been overwhelming," Fox said. "We put it out there for a trial without announcing it. People noticed it right away. I'd say I'm easily going through 50 to 75 pounds a week. It's crazy."
Despite being geographically disadvantaged, people in Steamboat Springs are quietly and enthusiastically embracing the philosophy of eating organic foods and produce and meats that are grown and raised close to home.
At least one expert is strongly suggesting that healthy eating is the key to a renaissance of Steamboat's downtown commercial district.
Research economist Carl Steidtmann, who is based in Steamboat Springs and travels the world on business, believes Fox's instincts are right on the mark. He says the same baby boomers who are buying homes in mountain resorts are increasingly motivated to spend freely for high-quality foods and restaurant meals.
"That's the No. 1 topic on the minds of people in the food industry this year," Steidtmann said.
Could downtown Steamboat become a Mecca for affluent sixty-somethings who want more organic and natural foods in their lives?
The change already seems to be under way.
Steamboat hamburger lovers are grabbing 1-pound packages of River Ranch grass-fed-beef from the Yampa Valley at Healthy Solutions, and Rockin J Cattle beef from Moffat County's Little Snake River Valley at Bamboo Market.
Jonathon Hieb, owner of Sweet Pea Produce on Yampa Street, said he notices the changes in Steamboat's population every time he goes out for a bicycle ride.
"I can't believe all these bikers in their 50s and 60s," Hieb said. "The increase is amazing. Our customers are very educated and aware of what is health food. They moved here for a lifestyle."
Hieb, who grew up on a small ranch in Texas, makes twice-weekly trips to Palisade near Grand Junction and goes to Denver weekly to load his trailer with hand-selected produce grown in Colorado.
In Palisade he finds German heirloom tomatoes, potatoes and peaches grown by small-scale farmers who tend 5- and 15-acre patches of land.
"Once we pick up our produce, we know it will be eaten in three days," Hieb said. "The food is way more nutritious when it's picked at the peak of ripeness. That's where the flavor comes from."
On Colorado's Front Range, Hieb visits a small farm in Dacono where he's the only wholesale customer. He buys buffalo meat, eggs and free-range chickens - the kind that are free to run around in the grass, not the kind that spend their lives in the warehouses described in Michael Pollard's landmark book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Pollard tells how chickens are creatures of habit and industrial-scale, free-range chicken producers know how to manipulate them. Wait until they are several weeks old before you open the doors on a couple of small patches of grass, and the chickens will prefer to remain indoors.
On his return trip from Denver, Hieb visits Morales Farms, two miles outside Granby.
Joe Morales' family has been growing lettuce there since 1943. They and their employees still weed rows of crops with hand hoes.
Hieb's partner, Katherine Zambrana, says her Steamboat customers snap up flavorful Morales spinach within three days after it hits the shelves on Friday night.
"He produces amazing spinach," Zambrana said. "It's very fresh, and you can tell it's locally grown."
What does it take to successfully grow lettuce and root vegetables at 8,500 feet in Middle Park?
Joe Morales' wife, Carol, said her family business succeeds by predicting what customers (primarily restaurants around Granby, Grand Lake and Winter Park) will order.
"It takes a farmer willing to give a fresh product," Carol Morales said. "You never get anything here that's more than two days old. I spotted a box of lettuce this morning that was two days old, and I threw it out. We're not a warehouse. Our lettuce and spinach are cut to order."
At the west end of Yampa Street, Anne Halloran of Bamboo Market employs five people in the health food deli contained within the small grocery, and they can't keep up with the demand. At the other end of downtown, the staff at Healthy Solutions grocery is doing a brisk business in organic vegetarian sushi.
Future residents of the high-end loft condominiums in Steamboat's half-dozen redevelopment projects currently under way won't have to walk much more than two blocks to pick up an organic snack and ingredients for a healthy dinner at home.
Keeping organic, organic
Halloran, who has a masters degree in clinical nutrition, tries to be very discerning about the source of organic food products she keeps on her shelves. She's aware that the demand for organic foods in national chain stores has led to the industrialization of many types of organic food brands that were created by idealistic entrepreneurs, but have been swallowed up by some of the nation's largest corporate food producers. Bamboo Market recently dropped a popular brand of potato chip bec ause its standards had changed and it was no longer using organic potatoes, Halloran said.
"We try to look for small producers who have been organic for as long as 50 years," she said.
Phil Howard at the Center for Agro-ecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California-Santa Cruz have created a flow chart that illustrates the interrelationships, which most consumers are oblivious to, among giant food companies and boutique brands.
Kellogg owns the Kashi cereal brand, for example. Dean (dairies) acquired 100 percent equity in Horizon dairies in 2004, and with it acquired The Organic Cow of Vermont. Horizon declares its corporate pride in working with small dairy farmers, but also operates large factory farms, including one in Aurora.
Organic watchdog organizations like the Cornucopia Institute are keeping an eye on large-scale organic producers. That organization's "Organic Integrity Project" is devoted to assuring that giant organic food producers don't compromise organic farming methods and that regulatory rollbacks of standards don't erode consumer confidence in organic food labels.
People in Steamboat are demanding certified organic foods because of a growing awareness that avoiding the pesticides and petro-chemical based fertilizers used in mass-scale agriculture leads to improved general health and simply feeling better every day, Halloran said.
"My biggest demographic in this store is mothers with young children," she said.
Halloran thinks it's only a matter of time until a full-service healthy food restaurant opens in downtown Steamboat.
"If someone opened one, it would do great," she said.
Meanwhile, you can order a grass-fed burger at Freshies, or grill it yourself. Fox recommends grilling at moderate heat.
Meanwhile, Keith and Wendi Lankister of Rockin J Cattle are raising their cattle in sync with the natural rhythms of Northwest Colorado. They calve later in the season than most ranchers, at a time when elk calves are being born. That allows the grass to peak at a time when the cattle are experiencing their highest nutritional requirements. Keith Lankister likes to say he and his family are harvesting solar energy in the form of grass and turning it into a healthy, high-protein product.
The Lankisters take their product directly to consumers whenever they can and they get a rewarding response.
"Some customers had parents or grandparents living on a ranch and they say the beef tastes like they remember it," Wendi Lankister said.
- Tom Ross