By Meghan Scalea
Producing a weekly lunch menu focused on locally sourced food is a challenging feat, yet it is exactly what Paul and Sarah Diegl, owners of Real Food in Orange, have been committed to doing every Wednesday since 2008. Their journey to simple, seasonal food started, as all good food journeys do, with degrees in philosophy and psychology and a resume of greasy spoons in Charlottesville.
The husband and wife team spent 15 years working in restaurants and inns, teaching themselves about food and restaurant management. When Paul left the Inn at Meander Plantation near Orange to become a personal chef, the couple got their first taste of the community’s appetite for seasonal, locally sourced meals.
“All of a sudden, people were really wanting him to cater their dinner parties,” says Sarah. “He was working out of the back of the Subaru. It was limited the number of people we could serve.
We started looking for a physical location so we could have refrigerators.”
That was seven years ago. Today, Real Food resides in an unassuming, signless building off Old Gordonsville Road that was formerly home to a hamburger stand, another reminder of their humble beginnings “on the line.” The Diegls took over the building intending to use it just for Paul’s catering. Those catering requests that launched his independent cooking career now make up roughly half of Real Food’s business, complemented by a steady flow of weekday lunch customers.
It was Sarah, a native of Orange, who recognized the need for a local lunch place. The only option in town was a little ice cream parlor that made deli sandwiches. When they closed shop for a long holiday weekend and never returned, the Diegls seized the opportunity to support a lunch crowd and show off the best of central Virginia agriculture.
At the time they opened their doors, very few other places were sourcing locally.
“I started to feel like food was becoming this overwhelming number of customizations,” says Sarah. “I said, let’s just do what we do in a really focused way.”
The mission of Real Food has always been to keep it simple, right down to the sparse interior of the restaurant and the minimalistic web site. This way the focus remains on the food.
Each Wednesday, Paul and Sarah stand in front of the lunch counter and contemplate what to do for the next week’s menu. They talk about what their local farms have available based on emails Paul gets from his farmer friends. But email can get trumped by visits from farmers who show up at Real Food’s back door with fresh produce or livestock. Last summer a grower showed up with fresh turmeric and another one with fresh ginger. The Diegls were giddy.
These impromptu visits from farmers help the Diegls stay nimble in their weekly expressions with food. But changing the menu every seven days poses a challenge in their partnerships with many local farmers, admits Sarah.
“We are a tough client for some farmers. Our needs are so different because we only need ingredients for a week at a time. Sometimes we just need a pound of chutney, which isn’t worth bothering with for a large supplier. But then we might need 40 pounds of asparagus for a week of asparagus sandwiches, which is tough for a small farmer.”
But customers love knowing they can try new foods every week. It’s a business model that keeps both the owners and the patrons coming back for more. “People will plan their week with us,” says Sarah. “They say, ‘I’ll have the salad on Monday, then I’ll come back for the sandwich on Wednesday.’”
The Diegls agree that they have built a trust with their regular customers. People who would otherwise be hesitant to try a hard-boiled egg sandwich with olives, for example, will give it a try because they’ve enjoyed other menu items and trust Paul and Sarah to only serve food that tastes great.
Part of the reason it tastes so good is because at least part of each menu item always contains ingredients that are local and in season. Sarah references a hail storm that occurred the night before this interview. “If one of our farmers walked in, I would ask him, ‘how did you fare in the hail storm?’ We hear that the chefs in [Washington] DC don’t understand when their orders are delayed or altered because they aren’t living among their suppliers. It is so helpful to live where our food comes from.”
Sourcing locally can be costly, and Real Food aims to make good food accessible to everyone. Recipes are often tailored to cut ingredients that put them over a certain price point, trading pine nuts for house made focaccia croutons, for example. The Diegls work to protect the integrity of the food while still keeping it budget-friendly for a casual lunch crowd.
Real Food is currently open for lunch only from Monday through Friday, despite popular demand for a Saturday option. The Diegls currently plan to keep Saturdays for catering only, so perhaps a “sick day” is the way to go to get a taste of some real food.