Locally sourced ingredients are all the rage in restaurants across the United States. From little sandwich shops serving fresh, simple fare to steakhouses with a month-long waiting list for reservations, everyone seems to be jumping on the local ingredient bandwagon.
Is sourcing ingredients locally a good idea for your restaurant? What are the advantages and disadvantages of going local? Here's what you need to know about locally sourced ingredients for restaurants to help you decide whether it's a good investment for you.
Locally sourced food is loosely defined as food served within about 100 miles of where it is grown. However, there isn't an official definition for locally sourced food the way there is for some other food labels.
In fact, research has found that there really is no definition of “local food” that is generally accepted. Everyone agrees that the label has something to do with where the food is grown in relation to where it is served, but the distance between production and consumption required for something to be labeled as local is unclear.
Local sourcing is popular for good reason. There are a number of advantages for restaurants who source ingredients locally. Some of these benefits are in marketing, while others are practical, which is something that may surprise restaurant operators who only think about local sourcing in regards to attracting customers who care where their food originates. Here are some of the most important advantages of local sourcing for restaurants.
Wondering where you can get a steady, affordable supply of radish sprouts or an heirloom tomato worthy of a $15 BLT sandwich? Local farmers are a great place to start. Local farmers can grow things that are not available in the larger market. You may even be able to ask farmers to grow a specific specialty crop for you if you know there's something you want in a coming season.
While you might not have to advertise the fact that these difficult-to-find options are locally sourced to impress your customers, there is certainly a good reason to broadcast local sourcing. Your restaurant will stand out simply because you have some of these more difficult-to-find, unique foods that offer your customers new experiences.
Restaurants are at the mercy of farmers to grow the food they serve, while farmers depend on restaurants to buy crops. A good relationship between restaurants and farmers is beneficial for both parties. A farmer can give you a great deal on a crop they are having trouble moving.
You can pre-fund a crop you'd like a farmer to grow, enabling them to make initial investments in land preparation or seeds they may otherwise not have been able to afford. Letting a farm know that you'll buy a crop makes them more confident about growing it, which means you may be able to get exactly what you want from the local farmers you get to know.
Food science has gone to incredible lengths to enable produce to last longer in transit. A tomato that can still look plump and red after two weeks in a truck is much more likely to sell in larger markets than an heirloom that starts to fade a couple of days after picking.
Food that has been bred for flavor instead of longevity is pretty much guaranteed to taste better. Any produce benefits from less time between picking and eating. Furthermore, the selective breeding that has gone into heirloom crops has been more about flavor than storage longevity.
Food sourced locally simply tastes better than food sourced from further away. Qualities like tenderness, delicate flavor profiles, and other desirable qualities in your ingredients are more likely to be selected for in local varieties.
Today's customer doesn't just care about the product or service they're purchasing. They want to feel good about what went into producing it. Customers are demanding food that is grown cruelty-free, organic, vegan, vegetarian, local, and all sorts of other labels. The more labels apply to what you're selling, the more likely you are to attract customers who care about these aspects of their food.
Local food sourcing can appeal to a wide variety of customers. Customers who value small business and the local economy will appreciate the money you are keeping in the community. Foodies who want the best quality and variety of ingredients seek out restaurants that source locally to find the best food. Patrons who value a connection to the businesses they support will appreciate knowing the names of the farms who supply your business.
Restaurant types that rely heavily on customer loyalty, like pizzerias, are already heavily invested into the world of local sourcing, even growing food on the premises. It takes some creativity to make the most of marketing locally-sourced food, but when it's done properly, you may see a significant boost in overall seats filled and in the new customers you attract.
For all of the advantages of sourcing food locally, there are some good reasons that most restaurants only partially rely on locally-sourced food or don't use it at all. It's worth thinking carefully about whether this is an investment you want to make into your restaurant, especially if it will be a big financial move. Here are a few cons that may make you think twice about going local.
Food that is not bred or treated to travel across the country won't last as long in your kitchen either. Locally-sourced ingredients may need to be used within days of purchase to be at their peak.
Many restaurants that source ingredients locally may get two shipments a week and use almost everything they get before the next shipment arrives. Needless to say, having only a couple of days to use ingredients is likely to result in some food waste and a fair amount of stress.
You may not mind paying extra for difficult to find or grow ingredients, but paying significantly more for kitchen staples like onions and potatoes can be grating. After all, it's hard to attract new customers with a special heirloom onion. It's true you can find varieties in everyday foods that you may not be able to get elsewhere, but you may have a hard time making it worth the extra investment for these kinds of foods. This is why many restaurants rely on local sources for some ingredients while getting basics from major suppliers.
Counting on that locally grown specialty crop for your summer special? You might want to have a back-up plan. Unexpected weather patterns, disease in crops, or other local issues can obliterate local sources for particular crops. You can only get foods locally-sourced when they're in season, which means things will have to go on and off your menu. For loyal guests, a regularly changing menu may not always be a crowd-pleaser with customers.
Restaurants that grow some produce themselves on site can get a little bit more consistency. For instance, you may always know you have certain herbs available. However, even when you can get the same ingredient over time, you can’t expect it to be as consistent as if you were getting it from a larger supplier.
Local produce tends to come in bigger or smaller sizes, strange shapes, and vary in taste and texture over the months. This variation requires a good deal of attention on the parts of the chefs to accommodate. Simply following the recipe isn't always sufficient with locally-sourced ingredients.
People tend to think about locally-sourced food as being a more responsible choice than using big suppliers. However, larger suppliers are often held to quality standards regarding the management of potential contaminants like salmonella, how animals are treated, etc. Smaller farms are often exempt from this kind of regulation.
When you source locally, more of the responsibility falls on you to research the farms you’re buying from and make sure everything is up to par. While you can seek out additional regulations, such as choosing only organic farmers, to make up for this potential issue, you can also expect to pay even more for organic locally-sourced food. The prices often put organic, local food out of a reasonable investment for most restaurants.
There are some great reasons to consider sourcing ingredients locally. However, there are also some very scary aspects of relying on local sources for a lot of what your restaurant serves. One great option is to take it slow.
You don’t need to make your entire menu locally sourced at once. Try adding a few ingredients to the dishes you already serve. Make a special dish each week centered around what you’ve sourced locally. If you find that you’re having success, go ahead and depend more heavily on local ingredients. Remember, you can always go back to sourcing ingredients in other ways if the local market falls short of your needs.