Restaurants Offer Local Farmers a Growing Market:

Chef Jacques Legros of Au Gout d'Autrefois Restaurant in Quebec City, Canada. (photo by Au Gout d'Autrefois)

There is welcome news for those of us entering the field of farming–a new study by the National Restaurant Association shows that local and sustainably-grown ingredients will be some of the most popular food served in restaurants this year.  Locally-raised meats and seafood ranked number one on the list of the hottest menu trends, followed by locally-grown produce.  Hyper-local items and sustainable foods were ranked fourth and fifth respectively. “Local sourcing of everything–from meat and fish, to produce, to alcoholic beverages–is [a] big trend for 2012,” said Joy Dubost, Ph.D, R.D., director of Nutrition & Healthy Living for the National Restaurant Association. “Local farms and food producers have become an important source of ingredients for chefs and restaurateurs wishing to support the members of their business community and highlight seasonal ingredients on menus.”

Also, when chefs were asked if the restaurant where they work has an on-site garden, nearly one-third responded that it did, one-fifth answered that they did not have space for a garden on site, and about a half said that they did not have a garden at the restaurant and relied on suppliers for all their produce.

When the chefs were asked for the best way to follow the USDA’s newest guidelines, which recommend increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in people’s diets, a majority of 55 percent suggested offering a wider variety of fruit and vegetable side dishes on menus, followed nearly 20 percent saying they would use more produce in their recipes.

In an interview, Annika Stensson of the National Restaurant Association shared her thoughts on the study and what it means for local, sustainable food.  She mentioned that the trend towards buying local and sustainable food has strengthened over the last several years, suggesting this to be a sub-trend of increased consumer concern with what’s on the plate and where it comes from.  Stensson said that many restaurants have increased the amount of local food they serve, and continue to do so, but that challenges can arise in selecting ingredients depending on season and geographic location.  “Independent, chef-driven restaurants typically have more flexibility with menus and can adjust accordingly depending on what’s available, while multi-units most often have standard recipes that require certain ingredients that may not be available at all times,” said Stensson.  “Working with suppliers is key to striking a good balance of cost, quality and availability.”

According to Stensson, there are several reasons that customers choose local, sustainable food.  One primary reason is to support local businesses and economies.  Another is a desire to eat fresh food and to reduce the distance that food travels before it gets to customers’ plates.  Also, “going green” has been a trend in American society for several years.  Both people and businesses are becoming more environmentally conscious and are making more sustainable choices, especially when it comes to food.

Stensson also talked about some of the advantages and challenges of restaurants growing their own produce at a garden on site.  The advantages include fresh ingredients and the option of growing specific items that might be hard to find through the regular supply chain.  A few challenges associated with on-site gardens are the time it takes to take care of a garden, the weather, and the space that the gardens take up.

photo by StuRap on Flickr

Restaurants have varying levels of relationships with farmers, said Stensson, ranging from “…very close relationships with restaurants using farm-branded ingredients, to no relationship at all.”  She said that restaurants don’t always buy directly from farmers, but instead make purchases through suppliers.  Some do buy directly from farms, but Stensson said this is not likely the norm.  But because restaurants aim to serve great food to people, they try to develop relationships with local farmers as partners in providing high-quality food to their customers.  Stensson’s insights show much potential for sustainable farmers to foster relationships with restaurants as a way of strengthening local economies.

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