More Restaurants Adding “Locally-Sourced” to the Menu

January 22, 2019

The nexus of all things trending in the restaurant industry seems to be consumer preference for fresh, healthy, local ingredients.

As restaurants endeavor to offer locally sourced and organic, farm-to-table — even farm-to-cocktail — those buzzwords come with business challenges.

“Locally sourced” food broadly refers to products consumed close to where they’re grown or produced. The U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry says it’s local when the total distance the product is transported is “less than 400 miles“.

Who’s Feeding the Trend?

According to the 2016 Restaurant Industry Forecast from the National Restaurant Association, 57 percent of adults say they look for “restaurants that serve locally sourced food” and another 45 percent report that the availability of organic or environmentally friendly food is “an important factor” to them.

The National Restaurant Association also believes this new demand is growing, with more than half of its Top 10 Concept Trends of 2018 related to local and seasonal food. Trends like hyper-local (#1), natural ingredients (#3), environmental sustainability (#6), locally sourced meat and seafood (#7), locally sourced produce (#8), and farm/estate-branded items (#10) all make the list.

According to Nielsen, a data analytics company, “41 percent of Generation Z and 32 percent of Millennial respondents are very willing to pay a premium for sustainably sourced ingredients, compared with 21 percent of Baby Boomer and 16 percent of Silent Generation respondents.” If younger consumers value “environmentally friendly” ingredients even more than their parents, the movement may continue to grow.

Suppliers and Customers Are On Board

For restaurants accustomed to dealing with large purveyors or national suppliers, sourcing locally can feel like uncharted territory. But with customer demands trending toward local and seasonal food, many restaurants are able to shift some sourcing to regional suppliers.

Mohonk Mountain House, a historic resort in uptown New York, has grown its local sourcing in recent years, but not without early challenges.

Mohonk’s executive chef, Jim Palmeri, encountered some hurdles to incorporating local food into a large resort that serves more than 500,000 meals a year. But the chef is finding that working with purveyors today is easier than it used to be.

“New purveyors brought new opportunities to showcase Hudson Valley products…the most significant change has been the profusion of New York State products from suppliers,” says Palmeri. “We can get all these things [local produce and poultry] now easily.”

Palmeri adds that this helped his business because customers “want to know what you buy locally. They want to know how far the farm is from the hotel.”

Showcase Your Local Fare

When local items are on the menu, it just makes sense to highlight them, even build a marketing effort around them.

“Maybe the chef will have one night shaped around a specific farm’s products, which can drive restaurant traffic and also give the farm massive exposure in the community,” says Michael Kilpatrick, a sustainable farming and sourcing consultant at In the Field Consultants. That “creates buzz” for both the chef and the farmer, he adds.

Customer interest can also help restaurants absorb the (generally) higher cost of local food. Harvard professor John Quelch recently spoke with The Harvard Business Review about how many customers already accept paying more for environmentally-friendly products.

“Fortunately for suppliers and retailers, interested consumers expect to pay higher prices for the locally sourced, farm-to-table product,” Quelch says. Because consumers are willing to put their food dollars into local and seasonal sourcing, restaurants can alter their prices to offset higher food costs.

Operational Adjustments

However, buying locally may require some adjustments, particularly in kitchen operations and communication methods with suppliers.

Even if customers expect to pay a slightly higher price for local ingredients, chefs still want to control their food costs. Chef Tara Duggan advises restaurants to learn how to use the entire vegetable or animal to keep rising food costs in check.

She also adds that cooking “root-to-stalk” or “nose-to-tail” is “not just about economics. It’s about discovering new flavors and new textures.”

Duggan touches on a creativity requirement for using local food in a kitchen. Smaller purveyors may sell limited quantities of product or experience some delays in production or transportation. In response, the restaurant team may need to be flexible and creative with the menu and service.

Kitchens may also need to plan ahead early in the season for their ordering. Kilpatrick stresses that most farms are not like the large food purveyor Sysco, for example, “where [chefs] call and the product shows up 24 hours or less later, and that’s the ultimate convenience for them”.

Instead, some farmers may need a few day’s notice, or even season’s notice, to grow and harvest specialized product for a restaurant. “Work with your farmers and let them know what you’d like to buy and in what quantities,” Kilpatrick advises.

Chefs can let farmers know if they need something custom-grown, or if they are happy to take unattractive “seconds” produce to use in sauces or stocks. This advance collaboration can benefit chefs and farmers, allowing both to plan ahead and negotiate production and price points.

Local Food Cautions

Sourcing local food can pose some particular challenges. Above all else, restaurants prioritize food safety. Professor Quelch cautions that “working with smaller local producers can bring its own set of challenges, particularly when it comes to food safety testing and preparation.”

While shorter supply chains can help ensure fresh product, some small producers may not have industrialized food safety systems in place. Restaurant owners should thoroughly vet their suppliers, especially if they are dealing with large amounts of product.

Restaurant owners may also need to manage customer expectations, as some may still ask for certain ingredients that are out of season.

The National Restaurant Association recommends that restaurants “know what to say when customers complain if a favorite dish is out of season and no longer on the menu.” Restaurateurs can respond to customers by emphasizing their commitment to seasonality and freshness.

Start Local, Start Small

Restaurants can incorporate local and seasonal sourcing slowly at first.

Zak Dolezal, chef and owner of Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen in Illinois, recommends first going to farmers markets and talking to small growers or producers. See what they are producing, he says, and “if the vendors don’t have the ingredients you want, they will tell you who does.”

It can be helpful to talk to these farmers in their “off-season,” before they start planning what they are growing, explains Kilpatrick. Chefs can negotiate for the kinds of crops they specifically need.

For most restaurant owners starting out with local sourcing, the best strategy may be a blend of global and local suppliers. Chefs can buy in-season produce locally while sourcing other produce from other regions. The exact blend of local to non-local product will depend on the kitchen, customer base and business model.

Ultimately, chefs find that offering local ingredients boosts their food quality and customer experience. Ryan Sulikowski, executive chef at Lotus Farm to Table in Pennsylvania, reflects on the high quality of the food he is able to make with local ingredients.

“Working seasonally, products are at the peak of their flavor and ripeness, and therefore create the best dishes,” Sulikowski says.

Perhaps, when it comes to taste, the local and seasonal trend isn’t just about the buzzwords after all.

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