The Austin Chronicle


By Virginia B. Wood, July 27, 2007, Food

Mark and Melanie McAfee have owned the historic Barr Mansion (10463 Sprinkle Rd., 926-6907; and operated it as a wedding-and-event facility since 1981. Over the years, the couple has worked diligently to improve the facility by landscaping the lovely grounds around the house and relocating an equally historic thatched-roof artisan barn to the property, thereby increasing their indoor entertainment space. Melanie often shopped for fresh produce at area organic markets and eventually decided she wanted to offer her clients all-organic menus by creating Austin's (and possibly the nation's) first certified organic event venue. The two-year process to achieve this feat has been arduous. "The Texas Department of Agriculture certifies organic farms in Texas based on guidelines established by the USDA, but they had never certified a restaurant or an event venue, so I had to do some research about where to go to actually get certified," Melanie reports. She recalled reading that renowned Washington, D.C., chef Nora Pouillon had managed to have her restaurants certified organic and put in a call to gather information about how that certification had been accomplished. "She was very helpful, and she told me about several different organizations that offer certification according to guidelines established by the government. We chose to go with a West Coast company called Oregon Tilth," Melanie explains. Once McAfee chose a certifier, the real work began in earnest. It was necessary to establish via a paper trail that each ingredient in every menu item was purchased from a certified organic source and provide documentation of every vendor's organic certification. There were organic protocols to follow for every aspect of the venue's operation: cleaning procedures and materials, pest control measures, the handling of garbage and recycling, lawn and garden maintenance, etc. "We had to increase our refrigeration in the kitchen and the barn because items that cannot be certified as organic, such as seafood, which we do purchase, and liquors, most beers, wines, and sodas, which are brought in by clients, have to be stored separately from things that are organic," Melanie says. The McAfees are convinced there's a market for a certified organic venue in Austin and want potential customers to know choosing to go organic won't necessarily increase their costs. "Because I'm shopping for quality organic ingredients and the freshest local organic produce I can find, and only buying exactly what I need for any specific event, I've been able to simplify our menus and reduce waste. Our food costs haven't increased," a relieved Melanie says. Mark and Melanie McAfee, their hard-working staff, invited guests, and area organic vendors such as Boggy Creek Farm, Whole Foods Markets, Angel Valley Organic Farm, Greenling, Gundermann's Peachland Farm, and Hairston Creek Farm celebrated the new organic certification on July 20 in the Mansion's Artisan Ballroom. City officials were there to cut a green ribbon, there was delightful live music from the Djembabes and Mundi, and delicious organic food. We've learned a lot from observing all the hard work that went into establishing the organic certification for the Barr Mansion. From this point on, any time a business or an individual promotes themselves to us by discussing such things as their recycling procedures, their organic purchasing, or their fair-trade chocolate or coffee, we'll be much better equipped to ask the right questions.

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