The first taste of a Southern biscuit is a revelation.
Biscuits here dwarf their Northern counterparts, which uncannily approximate the contours -- and sometimes the consistency -- of hockey pucks. Gilt with a toasted patina, a warm sea of creamy buttermilk lies just below the cratered surface of a Southern biscuit. Connoisseurs will tell you a good specimen is moist and fluffy, never dry and crumbly. Served piping hot, it breaks apart in textured masses of wholesome comfort. With the right accoutrements, this pastry of the people makes the perfect vehicle for a breakfast sandwich.
Getting biscuits right is a demanding craft that doesn’t come in store-bought packages and can’t be reduced to simple formulas. It takes an artisan’s skill to distinguish the good from the great. You navigate the baking process by feeling, working with the behavior of each batch. Inevitably, some product won’t make the cut. Such is the nature of this art.
Few understand this process as intimately as the proprietors of the farmcart, Mike and Iwalani Farfour. The story of how their passion for craft biscuits propelled them into their current space illuminates both the contours of Athens foodways and the challenges of building a business in the competitive restaurant scene of a Southern college town.
They couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. Mike grew up in South Carolina, studied history in college. He worked in real estate for years before changing careers. Iwalani (she goes by Iwa, pronounced “Eva”) was born in Hawaii to an Italian mother and a Hawaiian-Chinese father. They met in South Carolina at a plant nursery, then relocated to California so Iwa could study organic farming in Santa Cruz before settling in the Classic City. Mike’s sister was teaching environmental engineering at the university, and Athens seemed like a good place to explore new opportunities.
As with any regional delicacy, fashioning the right biscuit begins with farm-fresh ingredients. It’s fitting, then, that Mike and Iwa started at Farm 255. It was the supply side of the restaurant, a beloved institution that served Athens until 2013. As part of the vanguard of farm-to-table operations that have revolutionized American gastronomy over the past decade, Farm 255 gave Mike and Iwa valuable experience in everything from food sourcing to the food business.
When the partners shuttered the restaurant, Mike and Iwa saw their opportunity: Iwa took over the farm, and Mike took over the cart.
The farm was a small operation on leased land in Winterville. No longer tied to sourcing the restaurant, Iwa would need to find new outlets for the fields’ produce. That quest for new markets led her and Mike to form Collective Harvest with other ag producers. By pooling their resources, they could lower costs and improve produce availability for their customers.
Since its founding in 2015, this venture has grown by leaps and bounds. More farms have joined the ranks of collaborating producers. This year, over 400 customers have subscribed to their CSA (Community-Sponsored Agriculture) service. Restaurants all over town source from them. The Daily Groceries Co-Op stocks their produce on its shelves. Along with spaces like the Athens Farmers Market, Collective Harvest has helped change the relationship Athenians have with the farmers who feed them.
The “cart” was a mobile food truck that Farm 255 set up at the Farmers Market. As a son of the South, Mike knew he had what it took to elevate this offering to the next level. All he had to do was build its reputation by selling the best biscuit in town. Fortunately, Mike’s passion for good food fuels a tireless devotion to craft.
Word spread quickly. Everyone raved about the artisan biscuits you could get at the Farmers Market. The ingredients were fresh, the fare was creative, and the results were hard to argue with. Demand took off.
So when The Sultan closed its doors, Mike and Iwa saw an opening to expand their offerings to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Situated along a thriving hub of Baxter Street next to Mimi Maumus’s home.made, the farmcart welcomed its first customers in May. It’s an intimate space where the ingredients are locally-sourced, the menu options carefully developed, and everything is made from scratch. You’ll find cane sugar sodas from craft makers, not the syrupy fountain drinks you see at other places.
Surviving in Athens’s competitive restaurant scene has brought challenges, but if the lines of customers snaking around the corner on game days are any indication, the farmcart has carved out a niche for itself. The couple still sells at the Farmer’s Market, but Iwa recently stopped leasing farmland in Winterville to help build the restaurant. She plans to take up farming their own land on a smaller scale soon. If they can sustain their restaurant’s success, they’ll consider expanding into new markets. All in its due time.
For now, there remains enough to keep Mike and Iwa busy. Farming, supporting the vision of Collective Harvest, maintaining a presence at the Farmers Market, and raising a young son together consumes their waking hours.
That, of course, and continuing to make the best biscuits in town will keep them busy -- from farm to table.