Smokey D's: Putting Iowa BBQ on the Map

By Joseph L. Murphy

Any way you slice it, American barbecue is one of the most debated food topics. Some will claim Kansas City or Memphis barbecue is the best. And states like Alabama, Texas and South Carolina always find their way on top 10 lists. But more people are adding Iowa to those lists. Or at least they will if Darren Warth gets his way.

Sherry and Darren Earth are the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, King of the Smoker and the Houston Livestock World Championship.

Sherry and Darren Earth are the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, King of the Smoker and the Houston Livestock World Championship.

Warth, owner of Smokey D's BBQ in Des Moines, is familiar with all the arguments and best-of lists. But he says the best BBQ in the country is in Central Iowa, and he has the hardware to back it up.

"I walk in every morning, and I just love barbecue. Barbecue is 100 percent of our life," Warth said. "I go barbecue to get away from barbecue. My relaxation time is sitting over a pit on a Saturday during a barbecue competition."

That passion is paying off for Warth and his wife, Sherry. The duo is the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, the King of the Smoker and, most recently, the Houston Livestock World Championship. Add to that 82 state championships and 800 individual category awards, and you start to build an impressive resume that simply can't be touched by anyone else.

"It’s a balance," Warth said while explaining why his barbecue is so highly rated by judges. "It’s meat, it’s smoke, it’s spice and it’s sauce. It’s not one of those things overpowering the other."

In 2007, the former vice president of transportation for Ruan Trucking in Des Moines, walked away from a lucrative career to focus his full-time attention on championship barbecue competitions and a catering and takeout business.

"It went crazy," Warth said of a catering and takeout business that started in his driveway in 2005. "I was on the road 60 percent of the time. I was traveling everywhere."

That led the couple to open a location in the old Polk County Sheriff's building and eventually in the skywalk in downtown Des Moines. Today the Warths own three locations in the metro while still competing across the country in barbecue competitions.

"When I look at a restaurant and see how it runs I don’t think like a normal restauranteur," he said thinking about his start in the trucking industry. "I think about how efficiently I can get food to the customer and how I can have better customer service. If I can make a customer happy, the rest are just details. Everything is a process to me.”

Those details paid off on the tournament circuit and for his restaurants. He is quick to say the quality of pork, beef and other meats are just as important in a barbecue contest as they are in his restaurants.

"We use one word around here, and it’s 'consistency,'" Warth said. "It’s the consistency that really keeps bringing people back. We bring the consistency and quality that we have in competition barbecue to the restaurant business.”

To do that they use meat suppliers like Smithfield when purchasing their meats.

"We look for a heavy meat cover on ribs with as much marbling as possible," he said. "That ensures it will be a juicy product at the end, whether you are cooking for judges or customers."

Smokey D's business received a boost when famous food "judge" and traveling customer Guy Fieri, host of “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” featured Warth's wings on his television show. Warth said even though Fieri featured his wings, most customers know Smokey D's for their ribs and burnt ends.

"If you think about Smokey D’s, you're thinking about ribs and burnt ends," he said. "People come here for ribs and burnt ends. There’s not much profit in them, but it is what brings people through the door.”

Any given day, Smokey D's will serve up barbecue to thousands of people. They’ll typically sell about 1,200 racks of ribs per week and serve 125,000 pounds of pork and beef per year.

"We have a weird demographic," Warth admitted. "You have grandma and grandpa sitting here and next to them is a Harley rider with tattoos down his arm and a screaming kid across the way. And it doesn’t seem to bother anybody because it is Smokey D's."

Over the past decade, Warth has built a business and championship pedigree that is tough to beat. Those endeavors paired with other fantastic barbecue restaurants across the state have put Iowa barbecue on the map.

Is it the best? It might be a solid claim for one of the most-debated food topics. One way to find out is to try Smoky D’s for yourself. For locations and other information, go to www.smokeydsbbq.com.

Originally published for the Iowa Food & Family Project

Global labor issues present a big problem

The pace of this year’s harvest in Iowa combined with the record-setting yields can stress the labor of any farming operation. Making sure that help is available to run equipment and haul grain is important in keeping the wheels of harvest moving.

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Recently farmers from around the world met in Des Moines to discuss important issues they face with their farming operations. All agreed that labor issues are a major concern.

Fourteen farmers gathered to take part in the Global Farmers Roundtable and World Food Prize Symposium last week. The farmers from countries spanning five of the seven continents said that farm labor supply, farm labor costs, and labor work ethic can be a limiting factor in the future for their operations.

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Levi Wood, a grain farmer from western Saskatchewan, Canada, has difficulties in finding labor due to the pressures that other industries place on the labor force.

“We’re competing against other industries. In Canada, those industries are mining, oil, and gas. It’s a barrier because even people that grew up on a farm or work on a farm can make $80,000 to $100,000 U.S. dollars a year at 18 with no skills,” he said.

In India, low wages have forced laborers to find other jobs to sustain a living. That puts farmers in the difficult position of choosing expensive machinery to do the work or limiting the size of the farm because of the labor shortage.

“We cannot pay wages that are deserved by farmers,” Balwinder Singh Kang, a farmer from India said. “Expenses have increased so it limits how much can be paid. I don’t think $500 a year is enough for a worker to live and feed a family. But even if we are willing to pay more we can’t get the people to come.”

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Farmers in Argentina and Australia are facing a pull of labor from small rural towns to the larger cities according to Maria Beatriz Giraudo Gaviglio of Argentina and Sarah Sammon of Australia.

“We lose a lot of our youth to the big city which is four hours away. So we start with a lack of availability for helpers,“ Sammon told the group.

The story is the same in Argentina according to Gaviglio.

“Everybody wants to live in the cities these days,” she said. “We need people living on the farm, but they prefer to live on less money in the city. The government also gives subsidies for people that don’t want to work.”

To help with the problem, she has been proactive in working with other farm groups in Argentina to create training centers in small cities to help train workers that might not have the opportunity to go to universities in the city.

“The problem is limiting our production, and it is a very big problem in my country,” Gaviglio said.

Kees Huizinga, originally from the Netherlands, has farmed in Ukraine for the past 12 years. He raises soybeans, winter wheat, and other row crops along with 850 dairy cows and 750 sows, farrow to finish. He currently employees 350 people. For his operation, he sees a large labor pool to draw from but he feels the workforce is not motivated to work because of government incentives.

“In Ukraine there is enough labor but there is a shortage of jobs,” he said. “There is an enormous workforce, so it comes down to management. We have to stimulate people to work. We have to spend time teaching people the jobs and then retaining them.”

Kang sees the issue of labor as a crisis in his native country of India with ramifications around the world. He believes that it goes beyond a labor shortage to the willingness of farmers to keep farming.

“In 10 to 15 years no one will be willing to farm if things continue,” he said. “All of these things are problems we are facing. Labor is not there; technology is not there it is all combined together.”

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean 

 

Overcoming “flatlander” syndrome

By Joseph L. Murphy

How do you overcome flatlanders? Those people who shrug-off science and embrace misinformation. The people who thought you would sail off the edge of the world until explorers armed with science proved the earth was round.

Wade Cowan, President of the American Soybean Association, and Sonia Tomassone,a trade consultant for the Paraguayan Grains and Oilseed Exporters Association, discuss biotechnology issues last week at an ISGA meeting in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Wade Cowan, President of the American Soybean Association, and Sonia Tomassone,a trade consultant for the Paraguayan Grains and Oilseed Exporters Association, discuss biotechnology issues last week at an ISGA meeting in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

That was a question Wade Cowan asked a group of farmers and industry leaders at the end of a three-day International Soy Growers Alliance (ISGA) meeting in China.

It was one of many questions asked during the three-day visit in China as leaders from Brazil, Argentina, United States and Paraguay talked with high level Chinese government and business agencies in hopes of them accepting new biotechnology seeds and farming practices.

Finding an answer to that questions and others seemed simple. Use communications from a unified group of countries to promote the understanding of biotech crops and food safety. But as many representatives of ISGA found, China is setting the pace, and in some cases, making the rules on approving biotech events. That pace and the undefined rules for biotech approvals are causing financial and social shockwaves around the globe according to a White Paper that was released in conjunction with the ISGA visit.

“It matters to all of us that we have freedom to operate and that we have the ability to use the tools in the toolbox,” Cowan said. “When they say it could take seven years to get a trait we can use in our fields, they have effectively taken away 25 percent of your productive life as a farmer. You couldn’t tell a wage worker in town that you would take away seven years of their productivity and knock them down. Science is science and once it is approved it needs to be approved everywhere.”

Through meetings with high-ranking industry, education and government leaders in China, members of ISGA presented information in a unified front to try and streamline the approval process. But to do that they found they have to overcome the fears of genetically modified crops when it comes to the Chinese people.

Wu Kongming, the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, meets with ISGA members last week in Beijing, China. The ISGA promoted GM technology as a key component in addressing global food security issues during the meeting. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Wu Kongming, the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, meets with ISGA members last week in Beijing, China. The ISGA promoted GM technology as a key component in addressing global food security issues during the meeting. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

 

“I understand the conflict lies in the fast pace of research and development of GM events and the delay in approvals in consumer countries like China,” Chen Xuecong, the vice general manager of Sino Grain, said through an English translator. “From the perspective of the importers they have their own process and their consideration is more focused on food safety and the safety of biology. I believe that communications to the public is very important and it is also important for you to provide massive proof to show biotechnology is safe and that it will provide safe food for consuming country.”

That answer, in one form or another, was repeated to each group of ISGA international farmers as they met with the Chinese organizations. Organizations like the Department of American and Oceanian Affairs Ministry of Commerce, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Supervision on Animal and Plant Quarantine.

“It would be a significant improvement if all the ISGA countries together with Chinese industry could work together to create a pilot program for soybeans,” Jim Sutter told Chen Xuecong and others gathered at a meeting.

Chen Xuecong discusses biotechnology issues with members of the ISGA during a recent visit to Sino Grain in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Chen Xuecong discusses biotechnology issues with members of the ISGA during a recent visit to Sino Grain in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

 

The ISGA, formed 10 years ago from countries representing 95 percent of the world’s soybean production, has been working together in a united front to prod European and Asian countries to approve biotechnology events in an efficient manner. The ISGA representatives that participated in the mission to China know their message is being received, but the actions of the Chinese government are still undefined.

“This week everyone was talking the same language and for me it was impressive,” Sonia Tomassone, a trade consultant for the Paraguayan Grains and Oilseed Exporters Association, said. “We need to present a single paper to everyone we met with to show we have one voice on this issue.”

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association. Find more great stories at: www.iasoybeans.com/news

Comfort food is gourmet at the Coffee Cup Cafe

By Joseph L. Murphy

Tucked on the town square of Sully in an unassuming storefront is one of Iowa’s food gems. A short drive off of Interstate 80 leads to a warm cafe experience that offers a utopia of acclaimed dishes.

Robin Morvant holds a slice of pie at the Coffee Cup Cafe in Sully, Iowa. Morvant and her husband own the cafe has been named one of the best places for pie in the U.S. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Robin Morvant holds a slice of pie at the Coffee Cup Cafe in Sully, Iowa. Morvant and her husband own the cafe has been named one of the best places for pie in the U.S. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

 

The Coffee Cup Cafe, established in 1970, offers tasty food that has some hefty accolades. Their banana cream pie was named as one of the 10 best in the United States and their stacks of buttermilk pancakes have kept discerning patrons coming back for many years.

Robin and Darin Morvant have owned the cafe for the last 10 years, building a menu of tasty food that can be sampled six days a week from breakfast to dinner.

“I have people ask what coffee is our specialty because of the restaurant name,” Robin Morvant says with a grin. “I tell them regular and decaf. We’re not a gourmet food shop, we’re a comfort food shop, that’s what we do.”

They’re also known for customer service that comes with a smile and a warm welcome regardless if you are from Sully, a neighboring town, or even out of state.

The name of the cafe and the town itself is rooted in the farms that have been growing food for generations. Farmers and community members visiting the cafe in the early days left their favorite mugs on a shelf  so they wouldn’t have to bring them back day after day. According to Robin, the numerous coffee cups on the shelf led to the cafe’s name.

The sense of community has grown over the years. On any given morning you can walk into the cafe and see about 25 people visiting about crop conditions, Sully civic news and even some of the hot town gossip.

“It is the highlight of their day to come here and to talk with their fellow farmers and neighbors,” she said.  “And I’m glad they have a place to do that. It seems like when the restaurant is closed the (town) square is dead.”

Most days you can find Robin and her mother, Dee Vander Wilt, in the kitchen preparing their famous pies. They make about 10 daily from scratch using only the best ingredients. Most of the recipes are secret but Robin did let me in on a tip that is sure to help your pie crusts at home.

 

“People ask how we get our crust so flaky and I tell them we still use real lard,” Robin said without apologies.

That lard is bought from Dayton Meat Products, a local locker in Malcom, along with some of the other ingredients they use in their foods.

Beyond sharing her tip about flaky crusts, Robin was tight lipped about the other recipes they use to make the acclaimed food at the cafe. But from my observations I think that the food and the experience at the Coffee Cup Cafe comes from more than a single ingredient. It comes from the warmth of the staff and patrons.

“I love coming out here and talking to people,” Robin said.  “I like to think that this is an extension of my living room.”

Next time you are thinking about taking a road trip or are driving by the Sully exit on Interstate 80 take a detour and visit the Coffee Cup Cafe. As their slogan states; “Sit back and relax you’re home at the Coffee Cup Cafe.”

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association. Find more great stories at: www.iasoybeans.com/news