When is the last time you visited a restaurant and were greeted by a chalkboard naming the farms and producers behind the ingredients featured on the menu?
Chances are it wasn’t long ago. It's all due to the massive restaurant farm-to-table movement.
Locally sourced food can be found everywhere these days, from high-end fine-dining establishments like No. 9 Park in Boston to national quick-serve chains like Sweetgreen, leading to a restaurant farm-to-table movement.
And according to Statista, approximately two-thirds of diners prefer locally-sourced meat, fruit, and vegetables.
The reasons are simple - customers are increasingly aware of local food and requesting it, and restaurateurs are recognizing the many benefits a local food program can deliver. Here, we explore some of the benefits of the farm-to-table movement and explain why your menu need not be compromised exclusively of local offerings to realize them.
First, What Does "Local Food" Mean for Restaurants?
While there is no hard and fast definition of local food, food sourced from within a 100 mile radius became a commonly accepted benchmark after authors Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon published “The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating” in 2007.
Otherwise, food can be considered local when it is produced in your state or region by a small-scale production. Farm-to-table food is better off fresh, after all!
The History of Local Food Restaurants
Alice Waters is often credited with founding the local food, or "farm-to-table," movement as we know it today with her Bay Area restaurant, Chez Panisse. Opened in the early 1970s, Chez Panisse pioneered the idea of letting locally grown, seasonal products steer the menu as opposed to the other way around.
Given the ubiquity of the local food movement today, it’s hard to believe this practice was considered avant garde at the time.
In citing menu trends to watch in 2017, the National Restaurant Association noted the pervasiveness of the movement:
“While farm-to-table concepts and locally sourced food still rank as top trends, they are moving toward perennial favorite territory, indicating that they may be on their way to becoming the new normal.”
Those chalkboards don’t lie.
How Can Restaurants Benefit From the Local Food Movement?
Whether farm-to-table is a core part of your restaurant’s mission or you’re just beginning to dabble, it’s worth understanding the value proposition of local food. Sure it’s about taste, quality, and the feel-good factor of supporting local businesses but the advantages don’t stop there.
1) You've Got Something to Talk About
Restaurant marketing is hard. Coming up with fresh content to share can be daily struggle. This is where seasonal menu changes are your friend. The arrival of new crops and farmer collaborations provide excellent fodder for social media posts and newsletters.
In this Facebook post, 12 Farms Restaurant in Hightstown, New Jersey announces a new menu item with early season swiss chard and gives a shout out to the producer, North Slope Farm. By celebrating and tagging the producer, they’re not only giving their customers insight into where their food comes from, they’re upping the chance this post will be shared and seen by more people.
2) Fresh is Best, Green is Good
The belief that locally sourced food tastes better and more fresh than food shipped hundreds of miles is a core tenet of the farm-to-table movement. Frank Pace, Owner of The Great Northern in Burlington, VT, says that's in part due to the reliability of the farmers and their products.
“I trust the products these farmers are producing and know it’s the best available product we have for our restaurant. We support local agriculture because it’s important to know where your food comes from and it just tastes better!”
Perhaps equally important to diners is the understanding that local food has a smaller carbon footprint than foods shipped great distances. While the concept of food miles is a contentious one, environmental sustainability resonates with diners nonetheless; it came in at #4 trend on the National Restaurant Association’s survey of chefs predicting the hottest menu trends for 2017.
One Boston restaurant embracing this approach is Mei Mei - named a certified Sustainable Business Leader by the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts. They're so proud of their local sourcing and sustainability (as they should be) that they even embedded this map on their website of all their suppliers!
If you want to learn more about what local-sourcing in restaurants means to Mei Mei, check out their full story here.
3) Meet the Face Behind the Food
Local food and farmer partnerships lend themselves well to events.
Consider meet-the-farmer/ brewer/winemaker/cheesemaker dinners. They allow restaurants to host ticketed events that deliver an experience above and beyond a regular dinner out and tap a new audience when producers cross-promote on their channels.
Bear in Boots Gastropub in Falmouth, Massachusetts hosts a regular series of meet-the-farmer dinners where they often have multiple farmers in attendance. As they advertise on their site, “This unique event gives you a chance to taste the product from two local farms, meet the farmers growing the produce and learn about how they make farming work here on Cape Cod.”
4) Jump on an Evolving Trend
As the farm-to-table movement continues a march towards the mainstream, we will likely begin to see it shaping the restaurant landscape more and more.
The Mug, a two-location drive-in concept in Indiana, bills itself as ‘farm to curb’ and provides a unique example of an instance where the farm came first.
“In our farm business, Tyner Pond Farm, essentially we are online sellers of meat. We wind up with a lot of surplus of ground products so it seemed natural we should expand by getting into the restaurant business,” says owner Chris Baggott.
They pair their pasture and grass-fed meat with produce, dairy products, root beer and more all sourced from Central Indiana. We’d consider The Mug a telltale sign of where the local food movement is headed next - to independent, fast casual operations answering consumer demand for food that’s fresh, fast and has a story to tell.
Your Turn to Contribute!
Have you started to work towards becoming a local food restaurant? Even sourcing one item on your menu from a local provider can work wonders for your business. The food will taste more fresh, you'll be supporting local small businesses, and you'll start appealing to that two-thirds of diners who want locally-sourced foods.
Tell us your experiences with and opinions on local food sourcing below!