Overcoming the challenges of local sourcing

As consumers increasingly seek locally-grown foods, restaurants are responding by offering farm-to-table concepts that bring the area’s delicacies right to the plate. But as eateries try to boost their local cuisine options, they face challenges involving pricing, quality and adequate supplies. Finding the right balance can help restaurants overcome these challenges.

Start early

Restaurants that are just starting to gravitate toward local sourcing should plan early in the season, says Michael Kilpatrick of In the Field Consultants, who works directly with farms to boost their sourcing opportunities. “Most restaurants are accustomed to using a company like Sysco, where they call and the product shows up 24 hours or less later, and that’s the ultimate convenience for them,” Kilpatrick says. “The problem with local farmers is it’s almost the exact opposite. If you’re just looking for corn, beans, tomatoes, that’s pretty easy to source locally in-season. But once you start moving into things like micro-greens, edible flowers, rainbow carrots, those are tougher to do.”

Kilpatrick recommends that chefs reach out to farmers in the off-season to explain what kind of crops they’d like to buy, what their volume is and the quality they need. “Sometimes, chefs just need a lot of something for a dish like a soup, so it can be unattractive product as long as it’s high quality -- but the farmer needs to know that,” Kilpatrick said. “If you need perfect arugula rosettes because it’s going to be the centerpiece of a high-end salad, that’s something you have to communicate because it may have to be custom-grown to order.”

Chefs may have to search to find the farms that have crops to sell, said Lauren Kendzierski, a chef and farmer who also works as a farm-to-table consultant with Locavore Consulting. “Initially, unless you’ve always worked in the same small area and you already know all the farmers, the initial sourcing is somewhat overwhelming because not all farms have websites and not all are necessarily looking for wholesale, but they might be perfect for you,” she said. “Work with your farmers and let them know what you’d like to buy and in what quantities, because they’re running a business.”

Conversations like that can go far with farmers, Kilpatrick said, because their biggest fear is that they’ll grow custom crops for a restaurant, and the chef will end up not needing them and they’ll be left with products they can’t sell.

Build in operational time

A restaurant that sets aside a few hours a week to source from a large company should be ready to spend more time when switching to a local sourcing model.

“We keep a calendar that looks like a college textbook, and it shows what crops our purveyors are forecasting they’ll have each week,” says Ryan Sulikowski, executive chef with Lotus Farm to Table in Media, Pa. “Right now, we’re planning to change the menu for next week, so last week we started looking at whether any new things are coming up, whether supplies of any particular ingredient are dwindling, etc. We work with some coops who source from multiple farms, we have specific places we go to get certain items and some farms have reached out and offered to grow a particular crop if we’ll use it, which gives us the flexibility of requesting local foods to create menu items we’d like to offer.”

When crops don’t pan out as expected, chefs must change menus repeatedly, so restaurants should invest in printers so they can adjust menus often, Sulikowski said. “Our three-month summer seasonal menu may change seven or eight times, since we change the menu based on what we can get.”

Building in planning time is paramount, but creativity is also key, Kendzierski says. “Something I talk to people about is that you have to think like a chef with a creative mind and not as a cook. You can’t put an item on the menu and then try to find the ingredients afterward.”

Nail down pricing up front

Local foods can sometimes cost more, but that isn’t always the case, Kilpatrick says. “This is the biggest thing we work with farmers on, because restaurants usually know the cost of every plate of food but farmers generally don’t do that, unfortunately, so I’d encourage the chef to talk to the farmer about volume and quality and work together on the price.”

Farmers also see an extra benefit in working with chefs because it gives them free advertising. “Maybe the chef will have one night shaped around a specific farm’s products, which can drive restaurant traffic and also give the farm massive exposure in the community -- the farmer can even come in for the night and answer questions,” Kilpatrick says. “That creates buzz. Far too often, farmers aren’t celebrated, and that’s just a win-win for everyone.”

Be ready for customer comments

Customers often want locally-sourced foods but may not be prepared for the fact that it can translate into not getting to eat ingredients that are out of season. “From a kitchen standpoint, if I can’t get local tomatoes, I don’t get them and we move on,” Sulikowski said. “Trying to explain that to diners is a whole different situation.”

In addition, customers should be prepared to forego certain favorites in the off-season. “If they come in on Valentine’s Day, we’re not going to offer chocolate-covered strawberries, because they aren’t in season locally,” Sulikowski said.

One way around this is to take fresh ingredients when they are in season and use them to make jams, sauces or other items so consumers can have them year-round in other forms, Kendzierski says.

The benefits are vast

Ultimately, chefs find that offering local ingredients boosts their food quality due to the flavors they provide. “You always want the highest quality products to work with, treat them with respect and use them the right way, and that will result in the best finished product,” Sulikowski said. Working seasonally, products are at the peak of their flavor and ripeness, and therefore create the best dishes, he added.

“It starts with the best ingredients but it’s really about community and support and globalism all wrapped into one,” said Kendzierski.

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