Tiny Restaurant, Big Potential: Building Lasting Relations between Farmers and Citizens

The project was comissioned by Stichting MIEP with the goal to evaluate if their initiative, the Tiny Restaurant is successful in creating lasting connections between citizens and local producers. The Tiny Restaurant is a pop-up restaurant deployed at various places (such as schools, sports clubs, village squares) which prepares food using sustainable, artisanal, seasonal, regional and Fairtrade products. The goal of the Tiny Restaurant is to establish relations between local food producers and citizens through meetings, tastings and (in)formal knowledge exchange.

A pilot project of the Tiny Restaurant run in 2019-2020 in four towns in the Laarbeek municipality. During this time, an educational program was developed, and the Tiny Restaurant also served as a safe meeting space during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Science Shop project, carried out in 2021-2022, aimed to understand the contribution of the Tiny Restaurant to building lasting relations between farmers and citizens. Students helped Stichting MIEP identify its priorities for the upcoming period, and formulate a clear strategy to communicate its message to potential partners, policy makers and funders. They also investigated the relationship between citizens and farmers in Laarbeek, and the potential the Tiny Restaurant could play in strengthening their bonds.

First, an ACT group carried out an initial evaluation of the Tiny Restaurant and its cooperation with the farmers. The students concluded that while the initiative has a good understanding of the difficulties farmers are facing, the solutions it proposes is not fully aligned with farmers’ priorities and expectations.

This research was further expanded during an assignment of the course Settings for Health Promotion. Here, the student team talked to local farmers who were interested in connecting more with the public, in order to understand their motivations and the bottlenecks they face.

At the same time, a second ACT team looked into local perceptions of farmers. Students talked to Laarbeek inhabitants and carried out an analysis of local media to check whether the public image of farmers is indeed problematic. Surprisingly, they encountered mostly positive reactions, although their research also showed that these were based on personal relationships and not on knowledge about farming practices.

Lastly, an MSc thesis investigated how the Tiny Restaurant could be used to connect local inhabitants and farmers. Based on close observations of the functioning of the initiatives, and conversations with different actors, this research highlighted the importance of shared ownership, clear communication and careful expectation management. The students’ valuable contributions served us to formulate practical recommendations which Stichting MIEP can take further.