There is a rising trend and appreciation for locally produced, farm-to-table food. Restaurants that are jumping on the bandwagon are finding both a high demand for fresh, high-quality, local ingredients as well as a challenge in safely procuring it.
Food Supply Chain
One would think that a small local organic farmer who delivers directly to the restaurant would definitely trump a food giant that transports their product nationwide in terms of healthy and safe food. The problem seems to arise in the fact that these global giants have standard operating procedures and quality control guidelines that have been in place for years if not decades. In addition, one recall at a plant can cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. They test their product at every junction, have critical control points in place and often have a USDA inspector onsite.
Compare this to the local farmer who does not have that type of experience, know-how, ability or margins to test their products at every juncture. Their food may rarely undergo individual inspections.
Your local organic farm cannot compete with the conglomerates in terms of pricing. Fortunately, most consumers understand this and are willing to pay a premium for local food, particularly if it is labeled as organic or natural. Customers, however, expect to receive what they pay for. The promise of a farm-to-table meal is one of fresh herbs, bright green vegetables and rich red tomatoes topped with organic, free-range chicken that was raised in a humane environment—and that promise, if lived up to, is one that people are willing to pay for.
Consistency is yet another issue that needs to be addressed when dealing with local farmers. As demand rises, there is an increasing pressure on farmers who are already producing at their peak capacity. When they “sell out” of a specific product, restaurants must look elsewhere to fulfill that need and, as growing methods differ from farm to farm, so too does the produce and protein product. It’s important to have at least two suppliers for every one ingredient locally sourced. In this way, the food quality and safety protocol has already been established.
And don’t forget about the weather. If committed to a predominantly locally sourced, farm-to-table menu, this will require changing the items and providing seasonal dishes that coincide with the availability of products.
Sustainability and Environmental Concerns
All local food is not created equal. It can be easy to define local food as fresh, healthy food that was created in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and unscrupulous growers may take advantage of the fact that not everyone is aware of the difference. A local harvest of greens could be awash in DCPA or one of the other 55 pesticides used on greens.
For these reasons, it’s important to get to know your local farmers. Cutting out the middlemen involved in storing, transporting, and sometimes processing can provide much fresher, healthier products when chosen correctly, and it can reduce the carbon foot-print substantially. Check in your area for farmers that deliver directly to restaurants or work in partnerships by growing requested items. Make sure they have a traceability program in place as well as a SOP and safety practices. Write up a Supplier Code of Conduct and expect them to abide by its requests.
As a solution to the distribution, accounting and marketing challenges small farmers face and the potential safety concerns that restaurants encounter, many cities are setting up food hubs. These act as distribution points where local farmers drop off their product and restaurants, in turn, pick it up. Many of these maintain food safety guidelines and strict procedures which help ease a restaurant’s fear of contamination. Food hubs often contain refrigerated storage facilities. Some local hubs have trucks that deliver to the restaurants.
Another option to ensure food safety is to work with your existing distributors. Many are rising to the demand by working directly with local farms.
In addition to fulfilling the increasing demand among consumers for local, sustainable food, those that have answered the call also find higher check averages and loyal customers. The ultimate solution may be one that incorporates both local and larger supply chains. Yes, we have to get our bananas from Central America if you want our signature banana-walnut cake trifle, but our salad greens topped with honey lavender goat cheese is locally sourced, certified organic and verified sustainable.