Local sourcing isn’t a one-size-fits-all operation for restaurants. Operators must consider factors such as restaurant or chain size, concept and philosophy, and menu ingredients when tailoring an approach. However, operators who are looking into sourcing products locally can follow a few basic guidelines to get started. These five tips, which include advice from operators who are successfully incorporating localization on their menus, can serve as a starting point.
1. Look at your needs and parameters.
Perhaps no restaurant in the United States uses only local ingredients, so when trying to buy local products, realize your limitations. Figure out what sorts of local products can be used in your restaurant and how much of it you’ll need.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a restaurant in New York State whose purpose is to use the bounty of the farm on which it’s located, as well as that of other local farms, has bought dried beans from California, for instance.
Fast-casual salad and frozen yogurt chain Sweetgreen uses between 25 percent and 40 percent local product. “A small percentage of our menu is flexible,” said Nic Jammet, a founding partner of the chain. “But we had some things that were locked in.”
2. Develop relationships.
Meet local farmers. A farmers market is a good place to start, so get involved with the local farmers market organization.
Keep in mind that farmers can charge consumers more for their product than you want to pay, so be willing to commit to buying their food in bulk. Then, pay them promptly to develop trust. “A lot of farmers are apprehensive dealing with restaurants because they’ve been burned in the past,” Jammet said.
Eventually, you'll want to reach a point where you can commission the farmers to grow the produce that you want. Keep in mind that you also need to commit to buying it.
3. Get your staff to buy in.
Bring cooks, managers and servers to the farms where you're sourcing your ingredients so that they understand what you’re using and why.
4. Brag about it.
Let customers know what you’re doing in a way that’s not obnoxious, especially since you might have to charge more for your local products. For example, every Sweetgreen location has a “local list” that tells customers what comes from where. It’s displayed on a chalkboard for people who are interested in knowing.
Also consider shooting videos at farms that are good suppliers and posting them on your web site. “It allows customers to get a much stronger connection to the food,” Jammet said.
5. Befriend distributors.
If you have three or fewer restaurants and are a loyal customer, farmers might bring their product to you. If not, you’ll need help from distributors. Work with them to coordinate how they might send empty trucks returning from long-distance hauls to swing by farms to pick up your produce.