Health | March 2010 | By Sam Oches

Local vs. Organic

Local and organic ingredients each present viable “green” opportunities for quick serves. But which is more realistic?

In December, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) released its What’s Hot in 2010 survey in conjunction with the American Culinary Federation (ACF), naming locally grown produce, locally sourced meats and seafood, and sustainability as the top trends to watch for this year.

The report underscored the fact that restaurant consumers are becoming more interested in knowing where their food is coming from.

“If you look at where the consumer is regarding the sourcing of food and the production of food, they have become much more riveted on learning about where their food comes from as well as the different production methods for that food,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the Research and Knowledge Group for the NRA.

As a response to the growing demand for this sourcing knowledge, two significant trends emerged within the restaurant industry: the use of local ingredients and the use of organic ingredients. Restaurants—and increasingly quick serves—are clamoring to include these ingredients in menu items to satisfy customers.

While chains explore local and organic and develop updated supply chains, questions remain over which is more cost effective, which is more sensible, and which customers prefer.Although both local and organic fall under the now-umbrella term “green,” the two sourcing strategies are different. Organic food is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and concerns how the food is grown and processed.

The definition of local food for restaurants is a little stickier, considering it is not something that is regulated. Local can mean the food comes from around the corner or across the state.

“Every company that you’re going to run into is going to have a different definition for local,” says Jamie Moore, director of sourcing and sustainability for Eat’n Park, a Pittsburgh-based concept with more than 75 locations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

Moore and others agree that the rule of thumb adopted for local ingredients is that they come from within a 150-mile radius. But perception of what local and organic ingredients are is half the battle for quick serves, which cater to customers who might not be educated on the matter and often confuse the green buzzwords.

“Now that ‘locally grown’ is getting so much attention and people are learning about it, I often hear, ‘Oh I thought locally grown was organic,’” says Matt Saline, president and CEO of Mambo Sprouts, a marketing firm focusing on natural and organic products. “There’s a huge perception problem there.”

Saline says farmer’s markets are partially to blame. Local producers often falsely tack on the term “organic” to nonorganic food items because it is a buzzword. With the shaky definition of what constitutes local ingredients, comparing them with organic ingredients can be impossible. But one thing is for sure: Organic ingredients are more expensive than other ingredients.

According to the USDA, the average premium for organic ingredients is as much as 100 percent for vegetables, 200 percent for chicken, and 300 percent for eggs.

“There are some ingredients that I’m paying 100–200 percent more for organic,” says Mary Putman, consulting general manager for Organixx, an upstart deli concept in Denver where 75–80 percent of the menu is organic in the peak season of summer. “Also, because of the limited market price and the limited availability of these products, I don’t even have a lot of competition for them. I may only have one place I can buy it.”

That’s not always the case for local ingredients, which can cost less to transport because of the shorter distances to the stores and because the farmers try to give the restaurants a deal.

Jack Graves, chief cultural officer at Burgerville, a Vancouver, Washington–based quick serve where about 70–75 percent of ingredients are sourced locally, says some food suppliers will bend over backward to give the chain acceptable prices.

“They appreciate consistency and the continuity and the partnership in knowing that they always have an outlet for the products they grow,” he says. “That’s worth something to them, and they appreciate that.”

At Eat’n Park, 20 percent of the menu is sourced locally, including eggs, dairy, bread, and some produce. Moore says the local program is cost effective because he only chooses accessible ingredients that aren’t necessarily going to be used en masse.

According to the USDA, the average premium for organic ingredients is as much as 100 percent for vegetables, 200 percent for chicken, and 300 percent for eggs.

“If we start to change too many variables, then execution becomes very difficult,” he says. “Do we convert all of our ingredients to local? No. Not possible. But we convert the items that are readily available.”

Certainly one of the challenges for sourcing local and organic ingredients is supply. It is especially a problem for local ingredients, considering how difficult it can be to find specific ingredients in some regions and the volume of ingredients that are needed to supply several units.

“One of the challenges when setting up a quick serve was the menu had to be pretty tight and consistent and it had to translate into a multiple-outlet concept,” says Putman, who sources local organic ingredients whenever she can. “When I was designing the menu, I had to take into account that they had to be ingredients that could be purchased locally, sourced locally in a variety of markets.”

Quick serves hoping to source local ingredients can only take what they can get regionally, at the time of year it’s available. At Burgerville, located in the Northwest, that means that favorite menu items like strawberry and blackberry milkshakes can only be seasonal. At Eat’n Park, in the Midwest and Northeast, that means local ingredients are limited and can’t include items like fresh fruit.

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