In addition, when a brand finds local, in-season products, the cost of goods can be equivalent to conventionally sourced items, she says. “A restaurant should first challenge the view. It might not cost more; it might actually be a profit-driver.”
For operators to think of local sourcing as a sustainable business model, they must also realize it’s an investment in the future of the brand, Karlatiras says. “You’re making a mid-term investment in a practice that eventually will have the price driven down on it,” Karlatiras says. “And a lot of times, you’re not actually looking at more expensive [products] if you’re talking about quality and yield. So the question becomes, Are you a business that values the bottom line only, or are you a business that values everything that comes along with serving food to customers?”
Local sourcing can also mean investing in technologies that allow products to be grown year-round in a local setting, even right outside your door, she says.
Mad Greens, a Denver-based salad chain, has experimented with this type of technology in its partnership with VertiFresh, a company that repurposes shipping containers to hydroponically grow produce, using just one-tenth of the water traditional farming does. Last year, Mad Greens created an LTO using some of VertiFresh’s greens, which owner Marley Hodgson says was a hit with consumers.
Incorporating local products into a menu doesn’t just pay off in the local community, Stone says. It pays off in the restaurant, too. “If you’re sourcing local, the local people are the ones that are coming to your establishment,” he says. “It’s a relationship that’s sustainable: You’re buying from me, and I’m coming into your restaurant and I’m spending money back with you.”
One step at a time
Even with more limited-service brands dipping their toes into local production, making the method work on a broader scale may be a slow process, and it’s easiest to incorporate local products when using a step-by-step approach, says Chipotle’s communications director Chris Arnold.
“What bigger operators need to realize is you can’t necessarily go from zero to 100 percent on [local sourcing] overnight,” he says. “While you can’t do it all, small steps in this direction still have a significant positive impact.”
Lusher Shute suggests brands begin with sourcing one or two local products at a time, like lettuce or tomatoes, to test out whether the process will work for their brand. “One change is better than no change,” she says.
Ramping up the volume of local products in the supply chain and on individual menus can also be done incrementally, Barlow says. For example, a brand can set a goal of spending 1 percent of its yearly produce budget on local items; if the test is successful, it can then grow to 5 percent the next year, 10 percent the next, and so on.
“It exponentially increases, and farmers—who, when you get down to it, are businesspeople—are going to see the market and say … ‘This local market just keeps growing. I’m going to take 10 acres and go local with it.’”
The future of limited service?
Though the challenges may seem daunting, many experts interviewed for this story say local sourcing can become the quick-serve practice of tomorrow, but only with dedication and effort on both sides of the industry.
And according to a May 2010 report from the USDA Economic Research Service (ers), the widespread practice of local sourcing in the U.S. is likely to have positive and far-reaching effects.
To start, the process can infuse local economies with both jobs and money. Barlow says that in 2012 alone, Sloco sourced $130,000 worth of local products. “If I have three, four, five [units] in the city, that’s a huge influx of dollars into local food, and now you’re talking about potential land preservation and being able to be a farm incubator for young farmers,” he says.
There’s also potential for the practice to help fight the obesity epidemic, as fresher and more nutrient-rich products become more widely available in all markets. In addition, the ERS suggests that food security—in which every individual has enough food to lead a healthy and active life—will improve, as areas that traditionally lack fresh food will gain access to it.
Unfortunately, none of this can happen unless influential players in the limited-service sector do more to make local sourcing a common practice, Chipotle’s Arnold says.
“The more big guys want better food from better sources, the more opportunity it creates for those sources and the more of them will move to fill the demand,” he says. “Our mission as a company is to change the way people think about and eat fast food, and we’re not going to be able to do that by ourselves.”