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WATERLOO, Iowa --- Efforts to take the buffet at the Isle Casino Hotel Waterloo in a "fresh" direction were unveiled Monday.

The gathering marked the debut of Farmer's Pick Buffet, which showcases fresh, local ingredients.

"Before, 70 to 80 percent of our food came to us frozen," said Thomas Roberts, senior director of hospitality operations. "Now, 95 to 97 percent is fresh, cooked onsite."

The revamped buffet opened to the public today.

Special guests and dignitaries, along with Greater Cedar Valley Alliance and Chamber ambassadors in their purple jackets, gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday afternoon. Cameras flashed, speeches were given, and Chef Henry Rodriguez cut the ribbon with a carving knife.

Roberts and members of his staff traveled across the state to find vendors, visiting farms and businesses.

Roberts said it was important to visit the sites personally.

"If you don't know where the product is coming from, if you don't see the care the farmers are putting in, it is difficult to stand behind it," he said.

Roberts didn't have to travel far to find Chad Thomas of A Family Market Place, located just down East Shaulis Road from the casino.

Thomas supplies the restaurant with fresh fruits and vegetables, some from his own five acres and some from a network of 15 to 20 other local farmers.

"Today, I grabbed tomatoes and brought them straight here, literally from the field to the restaurant," he said.

Thomas likes the idea of the casino investing in the community.

"It's not just my farm but all the other farmers and their families that are benefitting. It's a huge ripple effect," he said.

Representatives from Jumpy Monkey Premium Coffee also were on hand Monday. Their products are used in some of the restaurant's recipes and are on sale in the casino gift shop.

Jumpy Monkey employs disabled people and is an offshoot of Opportunities Unlimited, a nonprofit organization in Sioux City that serves individuals who have sustained a traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury or other physical disability.

"It is really a lovely relationship," Opportunities Unlimited President and CEO Stephanie Brown said of the partnership with the casino. "The fact The Isle could have partnered with so many other companies and chose to partner with us really means something."

The restaurant's most high-profile vendor is Carl Blake of Rustik Rooster Farms, who has become well known for his Iowa Swabian Hill pork. He has made appearances on cable television programs "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern" and "The Colbert Report" and is currently working on a new television project.

Blake's pulled pork is a highlight of the new buffet.

"There is a big demand for local, natural food," Blake said. "People want to get away from processed food. Confinement pigs are not acceptable. We are taking that to a new level."

Other featured vendors include Engelbrecht Family Winery in Fredericksburg, Hansen's Dairy in Hudson, La Vida Loca Winery in Indianola, K&W Sausage Co. in Evansdale, Cookie's BBQ in Wall Lake and the Jelly Lady from Madison County.

Chef Rodriguez couldn't be happier with the changes and credits his sous chef, Peter Shaner, and banquet chef, Patrick Stamatelos, for their efforts.

"This is very motivating for a chef to be able to use these kinds of ingredients and products," Rodriguez said. "We smoke a whole pig a week out back. We get 50 birds in every week, free-range chickens.

"Normally, when you work for a corporation, the emphasis is on profits. Here it is on quality," he said.

Farmer's Pick also has found a special way to deal with its leftovers. They are boxed up each day and donated to Cedar Valley Hospitality House, a Waterloo homeless shelter.

"We are thrilled," said Joni Hansen, the facility's director. "It gives our people a great, balanced meal. It helps us tremendously."

For more information, go to www.isleofcapricasinos.com.

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