Dan Gibson spent the last years of his NYC career developing the W brand for Starwood Hotels. In the early 2000s, though, Gibson, who lived in Westchester, decided to buy a farm in the Hudson Valley. For years, he rented out the land, visiting the property when he could. He’d talk about it with family, friends, and business associates. Then, one day, one of his clients asked to see the plot. Eager to leave work early on a Friday, Gibson gladly brought him up. That weekend trip put him on the path to becoming a farmer and owner of Hudson, New York’s Grazin’ Diner, the first Animal Welfare Approved restaurant. (More on exactly what that means in a minute.) With the small goal of changing the world, Gibson launched his second outpost, opening Grazin’ TriBeCa (56 Reade Street; 646-217-4085) on Monday, March 9.
The change from corporate hotel guy to farmer wasn’t so simple. It followed a number of events: the destruction of his daughter’s financial-district apartment on 9-11, his son’s subsequently leaving Pace University for the military, reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and more. But that one trip, with that one colleague (who has since become a close friend), started the Gibsons along the path of truly sustainable farming. As the two men sat watching the grazing cattle, the client told Gibson about the strict diet he and his family maintain. Gibson’s friend has two children suffering from autism, and he believed food allergies either caused or exacerbated the disorder, so he was constantly seeking naturally raised meat. The friend then pointed to a calf and said, “If you raise that cow on nothing but grass, I’ll buy it from you.” Gibson did, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Gibson runs Grazin’ Angus Acres with his wife, Susan, and it has evolved over time. The Gibsons were free-range from the start, but in 2006, they made the improvements necessary to become Animal Welfare Approved (AWA).
AWA has the most rigorous animal husbandry standards in the United States; they oversee the creatures under their program from birth to death. Only family farms are eligible for the free certification, and all animals must be pasture-raised. The rules differ from species to species, but the designation covers a wide range of issues. For example, piglets must be castrated within a week of birth (conventional standards have no time limit). Pregnant sows must be kept in groups. Chickens must not come from cloned or genetically engineered breeds, such as the big-breasted broiler chickens that can barely support their own weight. Unlike conventional farms, which pull calves from their mothers at birth, AWA farms cannot wean the babies until they’ve reached at least twelve weeks of age. The goal is to ensure that farmers have the tools and knowledge to provide their stock with happy, healthy lives, from start to finish. Every year, auditors are sent out to the approved farms to ensure they’re following the outlined principles. If a problem is found, AWA staff does what it can to get the farm back on track.
Grazin’ Angus Acres goes even further than AWA requirements in many ways. For example, Gibson allows his calves to stay with heifers until they are nine to ten months old — and their milk production is about half of what it could be because of that. But it’s humane practices such as these that have earned the farm applause from restaurants and farmers’-market customers in NYC. At its Union Square and Brooklyn Greenmarket stands, the farm sells grass-fed and finished black angus beef, grass-fed Jersey dairy, pastured chicken and eggs, and pastured pork.
In 2009, the Gibsons saw another big change. Gibson’s daughter Christine, her husband, Andrew “Chip” Chiappinelli, and their growing family relocated from Brooklyn to the upstate farm. At first, the young couple helped with the family business. Chiappinelli, however, had other ideas. As part of a restaurant family, he always dreamed of going into the industry. He saw an opportunity for growth by bringing the farm’s sustainably reared products to consumers by way of an AWA restaurant. Together, Chiappinelli and the family took over a vintage rail-car-style diner in downtown Hudson for Grazin’ Diner. The aim was to showcase direct farm-to-table fare with products sourced from the farm. While some items are sourced from other local purveyors, absolutely everything on the menu (down to the house-made mayo) is Animal Welfare Approved.
You’ll find sandwiches like pasture-raised pork sausage and peppers ($11) and grilled cheese ($11). Burgers are house specialties; each one is made solely from Grazin’ grass-fed beef and served with a side of hand-cut fries from local potatoes. The simple Grazin’ ($11) is a lightly seasoned six-ounce patty with field greens, onion, and tomato (when in season). For $16.50, the Uncle Dude is topped with house-made chipotle mayo, Hudson Valley cheddar, Grazin’ Angus Acres bacon, jalapeño relish, and fresh greens. A lamb burger ($19) comes with tzatziki yogurt. Specialty burgers are also a highlight; just last week, the diner served a beef burger on a fried mac ‘n’ cheese bun with barbecue pulled pork. “People come here for a burger and say it’s the first time they’ve had meat in fifteen years,” says Chiappinelli. “One vegan woman came in twice a week to eat burgers while she was pregnant. She came back once to say hi with the baby, and we haven’t really seen her since.”
In keeping with the local ethos, New York State craft beer and wine are available. Milkshakes and sodas are made in-house.
The new Tribeca location is very similar to the original, though it comes with city price points. The Grazin’ is $14, without the fries; the Uncle Dude is $21; the lamb burger $24. And the old diner feel has been replaced with an industrial farmhouse ambiance; the space is filled with reclaimed wood and photos of the animals on Grazin’ Angus Farms. The aim was to make sure it was a replicable atmosphere, as the plan is to expand the concept across the U.S. “We’re not done,” says Gibson. “I was sure that this would work not only here in the Hudson Valley, but pretty much anywhere there’s a W Hotel, places with a sophisticated audience. You can’t launch anywhere else without being a success in Manhattan.”
Gibson and Chiappinelli’s goal is to replicate the local, humane, and sustainable model throughout the country. When they go to Philly, they plan to buy products from local Pennsylvania farms. In Chicago, the aim is to source from within Illinois. In the process, they hope to convert more farmers to AWA, illustrate responsible farming, and change the world of food production.
Grazin’ TriBeCa is open daily for lunch and dinner.