(This feature appears in the current issue of Produce Business magazine)
By JOHN LEHNDORFF
Where the asparagus originated is becoming as important as how the asparagus was grown to chefs and customers at the nation’s restaurants.
“Local,” like “organic,” is no fad, but what “local” actually means depends on who you ask.
With consumer interest in transparency and sustainability driving the demand, distributors, growers and restaurants are developing innovative programs to make locally grown fruits and vegetables accessible to restaurants and a wide array of foodservice operations.
For chefs in big cities it is like they have a farm down the street. For growers the trend has increased market access and changed the crops they have traditionally grown.
Baldor Specialty Foods created its Local Pledge to make life easier in hectic restaurant kitchens. “Chefs want to cook local but we were asking too much of them as food service customers. Most don’t want to deal with choosing from 100 kinds of heirloom tomatoes and where they came from,” said Benjamin Walker, Director of Marketing for the New York-based food distributor. About 75 percent of Baldor’s business in in foodservice in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.
The pledge removes the “local” equation from the decision-making process. “Restaurants authorize Baldor buyers to automatically substitute local produce alternatives that are the same or no more than 10 percent more expensive. Commit to buying local so I can commit to buying from the farmers,” Walker said, adding that Baldor now has 223 Local Pledge customers.
Upscale restaurants are not the only ones requesting local sourcing. “A lot of companies see it as part of their mission to support local growers and sustainability. Corporate cafeterias and higher education food service have led in this area. Yale University, Amtrak or Yankee Stadium, everybody’s trying to use local ingredients,” he said.
Baldor’s system works because most of the company’s deliveries are early in the morning. “Everybody wants it at 7 a.m. and it’s in a concentrated delivery area. It leaves the truck empty by midday so we send them to backhaul from the farms to the warehouse. Basically it’s farm to restaurant in about 24 hours,” Walker said.
Restaurants use an online ordering tool to show them how far they are from the source. “We have almost 500 local farms supplying us from Maine to Jersey. Fifty farms offer a real time shop-by-farm feature,” Walker said.
While the local trend is growing it has its limits because of supply and cost. “Our local orders are up 50 to 100 percent in the past four years, but there’s only so big it will get. There’s no citrus or tropical and winter is challenging. In the summer we are only getting to about 15 percent local produce, but this allows us to get a part of our supply from small farms,” Baldor’s Walker said.
Sourcing ‘local’ for a national dining chain
Putting the word “local” in front of every vegetable or fruit on a restaurant menu is easy. Sourcing local produce for a single café can be a problem on many levels including food safety. The logistical challenges only get multiplied for a multi-unit national dining chain.
“Our menu states ‘Fresh Ingredients Locally Sourced’ but it is a challenge with produce from a purchasing and execution standpoint to make that happen with 46 units nationally,” said Jessica Smith, Senior Director of Marketing at Georgia-based Ted’s Montana Grill. The chain is famous for sourcing most of its bison from the ranches of owners Ted Turner and George McKerrow Jr.
Collaboration with food distributors and farmers is helping make sourcing local produce much easier, said Jim Ebersold, Purchasing Manager for Teds Montana Grill. PRO*ACT’s Greener Fields Together program has really helped us to identify local farmers who can supply various locations with produce that meets our specific needs. We deal with 16 different produce houses nationally but basically we have one-stop shopping. I get an advance calendar about what’s going to be available in each market,” he said. Marketing materials about the farms are conveyed to Ted’s managers and servers to share with diners.
“The program allows us to adjust the produce we’re featuring seasonally,” Ebersold said. Ted’s seasonal local vegetable side dish has varied from Southwestern corn to a tomato and bleu cheese salad with balsamic vinaigrette.
“Local” is rising in the popularity polls. “The percentage of local produce Ted’s uses has been growing steadily 2 to 3 percent a year. In 2015 local grew to 16 percent of the total and it should grow to 20 percent this year,” Ebersold said.
How local is ‘local’?
The Greener Fields Together (GFT) initiative has been a win-win for growers and food service companies, said John Alpers, Vice President of Sales for Atlanta-based Royal Food Service. “GFT makes certain that these smaller farmers have the right agricultural practices in place before we make purchases for our customers. We work with the growers so they don’t have to foot the entire cost of certification,” Alpers said.
“Each customer decides what local means to them. Our working definition of local is anything within a day’s drive – 500 miles or eight hours or that it is from a bordering state, Alpers said.
One fan of Royal’s local program is Chris Hall, co-owner of three Georgia eateries: Common Quarter, Local Three and Muss & Turner. “It has really helped put the farmers in touch with the restaurants in a streamlined way. I have a consistent supply of local corn this year. Instead of one type of tomato I choose from varieties like Cherokee Purple and Cherokee Rose,” he said.
Over time one farm’s crop can become a local benchmark. “There are certain farms that are a brand. Pearson peaches is one of those where you want to put the name on the menu,” Chris Hall said.
Food safety focus sparked GFT program
It’s not hard to deliver “local” produce once you know what it is. “How do you define ‘local?’ Is it within 10 miles or 100 miles or within the state? It’s up to the customer,” said Lloyd Ligier, VP for Business Development or Monterey CA-based PRO*ACT which has grown to 38 member distributors.
“We help farmers get certified to supply our distributors. We offer farmers grants for infrastructure improvements, marketing, buying machinery, further education, to go organic or to build an effective website to help tell their story,” said Kathleen Weaver, PRO*ACT Supply Chain Sustainability Manager. She works with farms to implement GFT
“These are long-term relationships. Local family farms don’t necessarily have the volume to immediately supply distributors. We help them gradually build their capacity,” Weaver said.
Marcus Agresta, Marketing Director of Indianapolis-based Piazza Produce, said he knows that customers are using the marketing materials about the farms that arrives with his locally sourced produce. “It’s always cool to me when we go out to eat and the server says that so-and-so farms grew the tomatoes and I know it’s on of ours,” Agresta said.
Twain’s Brewpub & Billiards was one of the first restaurants to sign up for GFT. “I don’t have time to shop for vegetables. I tell them: ‘If it’s local then send it to me.’ That way I don’t have to think about it,” said Savannah Haseler, executive chef at the restaurant and at the just-opened Comet Pub and Lanes in Atlanta
“GTF gives me the right produce I can use in this setting, a brewpub not fine dining. They send a weekly newsletter letting you know what’s available from which farm. If you can buy local and it’s only a little more expensive, it’s worth it for the quality,” she said.
Diverse and sometimes unexpected produce also arrives from the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share that Twain’s has from a local farm. “One week we got a whole case of different radishes. We ended up making these great radish preserves,” Haseler said.
It’s hard to avoid locally grown vegetables at Peach & the Porkchop. The restaurant is near a farm that grows some crops for its menu. “In summer I define ‘local’ as being grown within the zip code. When I talk to customers I can tell them exactly where everything on their plate comes from,” said Charles Staley, co-owner of the Roswell, GA-based restaurant. That focus on transparency includes a 23-item kid’s menu.
Year round Staley sources through Royal Food Service to ensure a dependable supply. “In the winter it gets tougher and we start to reach into Florida to source. Produce that is local and organic is very expensive. I may pay $4 a pound for heirlooms but I bet they are the best damn tomatoes you ever tasted. Our Caprese salad blows me away,” Staley said.
Gearing up for local produce demand
The Veloccity local produce program for Chicago-based Midwest Foods was created when the distributor received a large new supply order stipulating that 25 percent of the produce had to be sourced locally.
“We had always believed in local but we had to look at ways to increase the availability of local produce. The farms need to get a third party audit for certification to supply us,” said Mary Anne Fitzgerald, director of the Veloccity program for Midwest Foods
“One thing we did was talk to the farmers about planting less cabbage and growing uscan kale, toybox peppers and other crops we know we can sell for a premium,” Fitzgerald said.
“We started with about ten farms and bought $1 million of local produce in 2010. We have 50 farms now and expect to purchase $14.5 million this year,” she said.
Midwest Foods defines “local” as being grown within 150 miles of the customer’s location. “We have farms in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois. If a customer is in Wisconsin we source from a Wisconsin farm,” she said.
When eateries sign onto the program they receive produce marked “Local Certified.” The box contains information about who grew the produce. “We found that it helps restaurants talk more about their local sourcing on social media. Some of the restaurants partner with the program and commit to buying X amount of a crop from a particular farm,” she said.
Midwest Foods’ Local Committee of chefs, buyers and growers meets quarterly to extend the reach of the farms including the IDP – Imperfectly Delicious Produce – program offering farms’ No. 2 items. “We buy it for a discount and pass it along. We use al lot of it ourselves in our Edible Cuts processing facility,” Fitzgerald said.
Hartwell, GA-based Stone Creek Hydroponics grows Bibb lettuce, green leaf lettuce, watercress and frisee primarily for restaurants and foodservice. When owner Zachary Unruh wanted to expand his business four years ago he approached Royal Food Service. “True story: I just packed up a box of mixed lettuces and brought it to them,” he said. Unruh got his first order within a week.
“This year we’ll do about $1.2 million in sales. At this point we are pushing out 17,000 pounds of greens a week,” Unruh said.
When the local trend began Unruh was admittedly doubtful. “I thought it was another fad. I honestly believe it’s here to stay now. Mileage matters when you’re talking about produce,” Unruh said.