As a child in the ’60s and ’70s, growing up on an Illinois dairy farm, the concept of eating local was simply logical and frugal—and sometimes the only way to eat. Many items on our supper table were raised and grown by my family or harvested from neighboring farms. Raised by children of the Great Depression, “growing your own” and buying directly from the farmer was a fact of life. Oranges, to my folks, were so exotic and precious when they were growing up that we received them in our stockings every Christmas, just as they had.
Today, you can walk into the produce department of any major grocery store and find no indication of the season, or perhaps even what part of the country you’re in. If we want it, we can find it growing somewhere in the world and have it in our kitchens the next day. But with growing concerns about the climate effects caused, in part, by the globalization of food and the fossil fuels that are used to produce and ship items, not to mention concerns about food security when much of it comes from thousands of miles away, Americans are taking a strong interest in the “eat local” or “locavore” movement.
For many of us, the strong rural ties of our parents’ generation lead us to a certain yearning or nostalgia for local farm-fresh produce. But, today, the word “local” next to a food item—along with the name of the farm it came from—also speaks to a company’s commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship, which is becoming increasingly important to today’s consumer. According to a USA Today poll, 69% of Gen Y'ers consider a company’s social and environmental commitment when deciding where to shop. A recent Zagat survey found that 68% of respondents said they thought it was important for food to be locally sourced, organic or sustainably raised, and 60% said they would pay more for that food. Meanwhile, a recent poll by the American Culinary Federation found that sustainable and locally grown and sourced ingredients are a top menu trend among its members.
We have polls and surveys attesting to the marketing strengths of adding local foods to our menus, but the biggest draw for many is flavor. Buying tomatoes that were picked red off the vine yesterday—from a farm in one’s own county—vs. tomatoes picked green two months ago and gassed to “ripeness” is no contest. That peach you remember from your childhood—the one that was soft and sweet and needed to be eaten over a sink—isn’t coming to your place on a 53’ truck; it’s from the orchard 50 miles away, and it’s delivered to you by the great-granddaughter of the homesteader who planted those trees. When varieties of fruits and vegetables are being planted that haven’t been hybridized to “ship well” or have a perfect shape, you usually receive the payoff in improved taste. Another draw for purchasing local foods: regional pride and anticipation of peak seasons. Do you have farmers’ markets in your area? If so, there is a good chance many of your customers are visiting those stands. They get to know the local farmers and become familiar with the options. Letting customers know that you won’t have a caprese salad on the menu until the farm in the next township starts harvesting some of the best tomatoes in the world tells them that you’re committed to good food. So your customers want it, your competitors are doing it, and everything simply tastes better. But how can local make its way onto your menu?
Here are five simple steps to get you on your way:
1. Find a farmer. Farmers markets can be a good source. Attend your local farmers markets a few times and do some comparison shopping. Get leads from your fellow restaurateurs. With the local movement so hot right now, other restaurants in your area are likely already buying from a local farmer.
Look for restaurants that are promoting sustainable products or a farm-to-table mantra in their marketing and promotions. The Internet can also be good way to find information. Websites such as localharvest.org can provide names of farms in your area with a ZIP code search.
2. Determine your product needs. Do you want a farm that offers a wide range of products or something more specialized? One of the organizations I use is actually a farmers co-op that represents about 30 farms. With one call, I can get an amazing selection of produce, as well as meat, eggs, grains, nuts and cheese. At the opposite end of the spectrum is another farm that specializes only in herbs and lettuces.
3. Set delivery procedures. Will your farmer be able to deliver on a day and at a time that is convenient for both of you? Small farmers not familiar with the restaurant business need to know they can’t show up with a delivery at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night. Similarly, someone from the rural outskirts of your city might need to be warned of the inadvisability of trying to deliver during rush-hour traffic.
4. Work out an ordering system that works for both parties. How many days in advance will the farm need your order? Will the farmer send you an availability sheet every week? Will you place orders by phone or email? Does your farmer understand that restaurant owners often need to place orders at midnight?
5. Negotiate price. Often, farmers can offer a cheaper, wholesale price. Can you decide on a price together before the season and lock it in? Can you commit to a certain quantity of onions or tomatoes every week so the farm can plant enough while having the assurance of a market for the product?
One last tip: Keep the lines of communication open; it is a relationship, after all. Farmers need to understand that you’re counting on them to provide the products you order, and if Mother Nature, in the form of hungry rabbits, destroys the lettuce crop, you need to know as soon as possible. On your side, have some understanding and patience when events like this occur, because inevitably they will (it is Mother Nature, after all).
With a little legwork, buying local can be done fairly easily, and the payoffs are great. You help your local economy, increase the quality and taste of food for your customers (which keeps them coming back for more), and do your part in controlling global warming. It’s a win all around.