As the restaurant industry grapples with fragmented supply chains, an ongoing labor crisis, and dramatic price increases for everyday ingredients, one family-owned eatery is enjoying its well-earned reputation as a sustainable culinary oasis in Texas.
Owned and operated by husband-wife team, Brian and Amanda Light, Ronin is located in Bryan, about halfway between Austin and Houston.
“Ronin began on a whim, a wing and a prayer after we catered our midwife’s wedding in July 2011,” says executive chef and owner, Brian Light. “Our goal was to preserve the gastronomic and cultural traditions of Texas by sharing sustainable foods and genuine experiences with the community.”
The farm property was previously owned by the late Don Ganter of Dixie Chicken fame. With help from family and friends, an old barn was converted into a commercial kitchen to provide offsite catering. They gradually started cultivating gardens and raising chickens, pigs, guineas, turkeys and other farm animals, learning how to live life in the country along the way. Slowly but surely, the Lights began hosting weddings and special events because the farm was too lovely not to share.
Now, the Lights have grown Ronin into a destination farm-to-table experience showcasing fresh meat and produce from their family farm of the same name. Guests travel from all over the U.S. to attend Ronin’s signature full moon dinners, tour the farm, and dine in the forest by moonlight.
“Our Full Moon Dinners have become a major draw,” says Amanda Light, who functions as operations lead. “They’ve really taken on a life of their own and are consistently sold out. The whole staff and local community looks forward to them each month and we’re constantly thinking of new ways to keep them fresh and lively.”
Brian Light will also be one of the featured host chefs for Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion Potluck 2023, which will kickoff in Luck, Texas on March 15.
After working at the Luck Reunion in 2022 alongside four-time James Beard Award winning chef Michel Nischan, Light welcomed him as their first ever guest chef last December. With over 40 years of leadership and advocacy for sustainability in the hospitality industry, Nischan is better known for his work at Wholesome Wave, a national non-profit that works to ensure that low-income Americans have affordable access to healthy fruits and vegetables. He is also recognized for co-founding the James Beard Foundation’s Chef Boot Camps for Policy and Change.
“It was validating and gratifying for me to work with the Ronin team and to witness their living example of local sustainability in action,” said Nischan. “Brian and Amanda have created such a unique and compelling environment, and are clearly operating by a set of core values that resonates with their talented team members. It all shows up in how they interact with each other and with their guests — and it shows up in their food, which tastes amazing! It’s clear that everyone on the Ronin team sees themselves as family members rather than co-workers.”
The farm and restaurant are not only agriculturally sustainable, but also interpersonally sustainable. That means that the working environment the Lights worked carefully to foster keeps staff around for years, and leaves them with fond memories when they do move on, something that’s become increasingly rare after the “Great Resignation”.
A company culture like Ronin’s is a rare find in the hospitality industry, and the Lights attribute the restaurant’s success to it directly.
Lilly Cross grows all of Ronin’s produce on the family farm. She’s been in charge of the gardens for the last several years and has stayed this long because of the culture instilled throughout the organization.
“I have stayed at Ronin for the past few years because of the personal relationships I have with my bosses and co-workers,” says Cross. “Brian and Amanda are warm-hearted people who care deeply for their employees, their community, and the environment. Being in a college town, many of their employees are young and untrained. Ronin is the perfect place for such people because they have a rare culture of patience and thorough training, coupled with a high standard of excellence. Working at Ronin is enjoyable, and an honor.”
Tristan Noeldner raises the animals, including all heritage pigs and chickens, that are used in the kitchen. He worked at Ronin for almost 5 years when he was a student at Texas A&M, but left after graduation. He returned to Bryan when the Lights offered him the role.
“When the Lights approached me about coming back I was thrilled to return and help rework the livestock program at the farm, and rejoin the team I had so much fun working for in college,” say Noeldner. “From my first day to now years later, working at Ronin has always been an amazing experience that leaves me excited to go work every morning and raise the best pigs and chickens I can to provide for the restaurant.”
“We’ve had a lot of staff members who were servers or cooks with us and when we talk to them years later, they say that their job at Ronin was one of the most defining moments of their life, ” says Brian Light. “It’s not about being a restaurant. It’s about being a good human.”