Farm-focused, fast-casual eatery Acre ready to open

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Think fast food and images of healthy, fresh dishes prepared with seasonal and local ingredients don't typically come to mind. Acre, a farm-to-table, fast-casual restaurant opening on Friday in Old North (2700 N. High St.) is looking to change that stereotype. It's also designed to be just as accessible as these chains with no dishes more than $10, and a drive-thru expected to open in the next month or so.

"It's health conscious food in a convenient setting," says owner Todd Mills, adding Acre's target audience is busy diners who care about what they are eating. "Wholesome whole foods," is the message Mills continued to relay during a tour of the eatery, which most recently housed Mexican eatery Talita's, and before that Graffiti Burger. The rehabbed space is clean and modern with seating at blond wood tables for about 40 (including a big community table), white walls and touches of blue and orange.

Step up to order at the counter and you'll have a choice of bowls, wraps, salads, tacos, snacks (like kale chips and edamame hummus) and smoothies. Ingredients are heavy on whole grains, fresh produce and smartly-sourced proteins. In sauces, they've pulled back on commonly added salt and sugar, looking for natural sweeteners from dried fruit. For example, the BBQ Bowl is topped with stone fruit barbecue sauce.

"This is the stuff that I love to cook," says Mills, a D.C.-area native, who moved to Columbus from Northern California. "This is the way that I eat at home. My wife and I batch different grains and proteins, and then play with it [to see what we can create]."

Staple ingredients will be sourced year-round from Ohio producers. Mills is looking to partner with organic farm collective Great River Farms, among other area farms, in order to change the menu with the seasons. Also expect meats from Bluescreek Farm Meats, coffee from Cafe Brioso and baked goods from Lucky Cat Bakery.

Don't expect to find big box fountain sodas here, either. Mills says they will be mixing their own sodas and shrubs for drinks like seasonal fruit shrub soda and Pom-Ginger, a mix of pomegranate juice and ginger syrup in soda water. Flavors will change with the season (expect more tropical fruit during winter months). "Even though it's not a healthy choice because there's sugar in them, I love the idea of having a soda option where you know exactly what's in it," he says.

The project reflects Mills' work in marketing and development with nonprofit Local Matters. While working with area chefs and farmers, he saw potential to fill a missing piece within the local food system-to bring healthy, fresh prepared dishes to underserved communities. This first location of Acre, Mills hopes, will be one of many.

"We are aiming for the impossible sweet spot of high quality food, well paid employees and a customer-friendly price point," says Mills, who left Local Matters to earn his MBA from Fischer College of Business. He knows he may not hit all goals to his standards right out of the gate, but these are the three main tenants he was Acre to be known for. "That's going be the challenge, but I think we have the right balance."

The kitchen will be led by chef Chris Billingsley, most recently of Northstar Cafe. Manager is Colleen Yuhn, who comes from the Greener Grocer and Slow Food Columbus. Acre will be open daily for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Photos courtesyCatherine Murray of Photo Kitchen