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National Restaurant Association - Cultivating your connection to local growers

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Cultivating your connection to local growers

There’s no question that today’s consumers crave locally grown produce. It’s been one of the top culinary trends for the past five years, according to the National Restaurant Association’s annual chef survey, and 54 percent of adults say they look for limited-service restaurants that serve locally-sourced food in the NRA's 2015 Restaurant Industry Forecast. But dealing with the variability of local or regional produce and coordinating with farmers can be challenging. Here are some ways to ease the path from farm to table:

  • Go local when you can. Buying local produce isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. At Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen in Crystal Lake, Illinois, local heirloom tomatoes top the burgers in August, and locally grown beets are featured when in season. During the rest of the year, the restaurant sources those items elsewhere. Duke’s features other seasonal items, like asparagus and strawberries, only when available locally.
  • Check with your produce supplier. Local and regional suppliers often work with area farmers, making the ordering process seamless, says Dawn Vileno, vice president of operations for Farmers Restaurant Group, which operates Founding Farmers and Farmers Fishers Bakers restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area. Those purveyors can provide local produce when seasonally available and shift to other sources as needed.
  • Make sure they can deliver. If you’re working directly with local or regional farmers, always be sure to verify that they can schedule convenient deliveries when they’re needed in the restaurant. When they can’t deliver, it’s a deal-breaker for Farmers Restaurant Group.  
  • Communication is key. A cold spring can mean a late strawberry season, while a drought can devastate a broccoli crop. With so much variability, frequent updates are important. “If it’s two months out, and a crop isn’t looking good, we’ll let a restaurant know, so they can make adjustments,” says Clay Smith, co-owner of Sleeping Frog Farms in Benson, Arizona. Each week, the farm also emails a crop availability sheet.
  • Have a Plan B. Since a crop might not harvest on schedule — or be as plentiful as expected — you’ll need a backup plan. It could necessitate delaying your strawberry specials for a couple weeks or scrambling to get the berries from another source. “We might need 100 pounds of strawberries and hear from a farm that they only have 80 pounds,” Vileno says. “We’ve got to contact our local supplier and see if they can get us the other 20— and usually in a pretty quick timeframe.” 
  • Leave wiggle room on your menu. Identifying local produce — perhaps mentioning the farm of origin — signals that your food is fresh and bursting with flavor. But leave room to swap items based on availability. For example, list “seasonal roasted vegetables” rather than specifying beets or carrots.
  • Be prepared to commit. To assure that a farm can supply your needs come harvest time, you might need to commit to the purchase months in advance, Vileno says. “If the product doesn’t come through, though, we don’t have to pay.”
  • Consider whether to supply “seed money.” Sleeping Frog Farms runs a Community Supported Agriculture program for restaurants. Local restaurants provide seed money at the beginning of the season, which is applied as a credit toward produce. Participating restaurants select what to plant, providing more predictability come harvest time. They also receive priority ordering and discounted pricing. Sleeping Frog Farms switched to this model after trying a traditional CSA arrangement where restaurants received a random basket with the farm’s bounty. “Most chefs didn’t have the notice they needed to work with the items,” says Smith. As always, proceed cautiously when prepaying, making sure you are working with a reputable supplier.
  • Ask about special requests. Once you develop a rapport with a farm, the owners might try a new crop on your suggestion. Sleeping Frog Farms planted boutique hot peppers for Tucson’s Primo restaurant and nasturtium and English peas for Zona 78, a casual eatery with two locations in Tucson. Kevin Fink, Zona 78’s executive chef, says that Sleeping Frog Farms also turned him on to new items, like sweet potato greens and purple lamb’s-quarters.
  • Partner on products. If Sleeping Frog Farms reaps more Asian pears than it can sell, staff bring the extras to Zona 78. The restaurant pickles and poaches the pears, keeping a share as payment for the work. Sleeping Frog Farms jars the remainder. Its labels identify the restaurant, as well as Sleeping Frog Farms.
  • Be prepared for the extra work — and charge accordingly. Buying locally requires extra coordination with purveyors, more menu adjustments and additional kitchen prep time. “It’s a lot of work,” says Chef Zak Dolezal of Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen. “But if you’re passionate about using local ingredients, it doesn’t feel like work.” Plus, customers will pay for quality, local produce, he says. “The demand is there. It’s very marketable today.”

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