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It's Easy Eating Green: Growing Local at Buffalo's Merge

Buffalo is well-known as a place to eat meat. With renowned staples like eponymous chicken wings and beef-on-weck, dining out on an alternative diet could get tricky — but no more. Locally-sourced produce and specialty appetites are increasingly popular across the country. According to a December 2012 article from Food Business News, “More than 7 out of 10 consumers said they would be more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally-produced menu items.” Buffalonians have embraced the concept, and an exemplary model is the restaurant Merge. In January 2009, Sarah and Eliza Schneider opened Merge on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo’s downtown. The Schneider sisters had never worked in the food business before, but they saw an opening for a vegetarian- and vegan- friendly kitchen in the Buffalo restaurant scene. At the outset it was difficult to acquire purveyors and suppliers, but the sisters spent much of the restaurant’s first year of operations making phone calls and working on local farms to make connections. Their hard work paid off, and business is growing, as are Buffalo’s vegetarian and vegan communities. The Schneider sisters have offered the community great information on alternative diets through The Buffalo Vegan Meetup Group at MERGE, a community club the Schneider sisters co-founded. The same demographic also can find resources at The Buffalo Vegetarian Society, which offers how-to’s for successfully making the transition to a strictly-veggie diet.

Merge uses local, sustainable resources for their entire menu, revamped  four times a year to accommodate the changing produce in each season. Some of the local farms that supply Merge’s produce and dairy ingredients include Oles Farm (20 miles east of Buffalo), Arden Farm (20 miles southwest of Buffalo) and Thunder Mountain (100 miles southwest of Buffalo). Merge serves fresh juice, wheatgrass and e-3 live (a fresh-frozen algae known as a “super-food”), as well as micro-brewed draft beer, wine and cocktails. On Tuesday evenings, Merge serves as the pickup site for the local Community Shared Agriculture (CSA).

Reusing and recycling waste permeate all of Merge’s operations. Empty wine bottles are reused as water jugs, and compost is collected for gardening for a small fee by Farmer Pirates, an urban farming cooperative on Buffalo’s East side. In fact, the Schneider sisters became very active in talking with the city about reuse options. When Merge first opened, Buffalo was still developing their recycling program. Sarah worked with the Community Foundation to schedule meetings at City Hall, where she presented information about a composting program. As a result, businesses in Buffalo now are required to recycle. “It’s always been something I’ve been driven to do,” Sarah told us about Merge’s sustainability practices. “People in Buffalo are interested in seeing these things happen.”

Last spring the Schneider sisters expanded their Green reach. They started their own half-acre garden on family land in Lake View, a hamlet 20 minutes south of the city. On this property, named Shore Wood Farm, they planted small seedlings in 12 eight-by-six-feet plant beds last year. They since have harvested a bounty that includes tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beets, corn and carrots. The two women do everything by hand, from planting to composting to maintaining. “We’re experimenting with it personally. For how small it is,” Sarah commented, “it’s incredibly productive.” She’s especially excited about their latest addition: three new, adorable chickens referred to as “the ladies.”

Eliza has another aim: to teach people how to live in good health through raw-food cleanses and gluten-free diets. These regimens work by removing everything that adds toxins and chemicals to the body. Eliza has taken courses on health cleansing and  shared information with customers through workshops held at Merge. Workshop information can be found on the website and also by newsletter (signup is located in “contact” on the website). A relaxing and stimulating atmosphere can be found upon entering Merge: regional artists’ works decorate the walls; local musicians fill the space with sound. The Schneider’s host a number of events that inspire creative individuals in the community, such as open mic nights. “We’ve always grown up around Buffalo artists,” Sarah told us. “It’s one of the elements we really love. We want to encourage people to use our space, to help them and us grow.” Merge’s is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., with late night music and cocktail hours Thursday through Saturday from 10:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. Additionally brunch is served on Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

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