Restaurant Owners: Tips for Working With Local FarmsExcite customers with a menu of ultra-fresh proteins and produce from your community.
The farm-to-table movement has taken over. In the “What’s Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast,” locally sourced meats and seafood topped the list, and locally grown produce scored third place.
You don’t have to turn into a farm-to-table restaurant to take advantage. You can jump on the bandwagon by adding a few local products to your menu.
Sourcing products directly from the farm ensures the ultimate in freshness. The flavor of corn that was plucked that morning or tomatoes picked from the vine at their peak just can’t be beat. But Anthony DiBenedetto, manager of food purchasing at The Culinary Institute of America, who works with 60 local farms, said there other reasons to source ingredients from your community.
“Buzzwords, like farm-to-table or farm-to-fork, are good for business,” he said. “It’s been going on a long time, but now everybody’s more conscious of what they put in their bodies. Using buzzwords will only help drive sales.”
Furthermore, said DiBenedetto, “it supports your local economy and builds relationships within your neighborhood.” When the economy in your community is stimulated, people near your restaurant will have extra room in their budget for dining out.
Connecting with farms
So how do you connect with local farms? Start by asking your current distributors if they have access to local produce. “Tell them you want to start using farms local to the area and see what they’re currently able to get for you,” advised DiBenedetto.
He said restaurant owners can also seek out a co-packer, a hub that collects and distributes products from small farms. These companies are great for farmers who don’t have great distribution but do have high-quality products to sell.
Finally, look at where other local restaurants are sourcing their foods. DiBenedetto said chefs who support the local food movement will happily share that information.
Develop flexible menus
Seasonality is so much more important when you’re sourcing produce from local farms. You’ll need to adapt your menu based on what produce is available and ripe every week.
“You’re going to be using more leafy greens in summer, spring and fall,” said DiBenedetto. “In the winter you’ll be using more root vegetables.”
Ask your producer what’s in season now or in the near future, then design your menu with dishes that highlight those flavors. Fresh tomato salad could star on summer menus, while local potato soup could be perfect in the winter.
Dairy and agriculture are usually available from local farmers throughout the year in much of the United States. Restaurant owners can use these meats and cheeses to create gourmet meals that stay on the menu all year long.
Expect to pay more
Small farmers don’t have the economies of scale that let industrial farms set low prices. But DiBenedetto said that the higher cost for local goods is money well spent.
“There is a cost increase in doing local business. It can range from 20 to 50 percent more in the price of the product, but in 90 percent of the cases you’re getting a better quality product,” he said. “That 20 to 50 percent increase may be a better value to you depending on what you’re trying to promote in your business.”
Your increased spend may pay off in the form of more customers — and customers who are willing to pay more for the farm-to-table fare.
You also might be able to downsize your portions if they were previously too big.
Do your research
Vet the farmers and their products before settling on a supplier. “Just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s better,” said DiBenedetto. He recommended asking local farms for a list of restaurants they work with. Call those chefs to see if they are satisfied with the quality.
You should also get familiar with how the vegetables are grown.
“Chefs should be in very heavy conversations with the farmers regarding their growing practices. Take a trip to the farm to see the processes,” said DiBenedetto.
Use common sense when working with larger distributors, some of whom have been caught rebranding produce grown far away as local products.
“You need to mindful of the seasons. If the guy is selling you local asparagus in January, it’s probably from Peru or Mexico.”
Know the role of non-local products
If you’re not converting to a full-fledged farm-to-table operation, you’ll need to strike a balance between using locally sourced ingredients and other ingredients. An Italian restaurant, for example, probably needs tomatoes all year long, but local farms may provide them only in late summer.
DiBenedetto said sourcing locally when possible is often enough to satisfy customers. The key, he said, is to be up-front about what you’re offering. “Don’t false advertise. If you’re selling something and you have the farm’s name on it, make sure it’s from that farm.”