Menu Innovations | April 2013 | By Mary Avant

Tricks of the Local Trade

Incorporating local ingredients into your menu can set you apart from competitors. But first you should know what you’re buying into.

Mad Greens CEO Marley Hodgson is committed to sourcing local ingredients.
Mad Greens CEO Marley Hodgson has committed his brand to sourcing several local ingredients for its menu. Jeff Panis
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Given the option to serve products that are considered fresh, high quality, and superior in taste—products that consumers crave and feel a connection to—operators generally don’t have to think twice. That’s why many limited-service brands are jumping on board with the local-foods trend, opting to purchase many of their ingredients straight from the source, whether it’s a cheese maker 100 miles away or a strawberry producer right down the street.

But while local is often defined as ingredients grown within 400 miles of a restaurant, brands with local on the brain haven’t spent too much time dwelling on the exact meaning of the term and its encompassing trendiness. Instead, they’re zeroed in on the tangible effects of local sourcing.

“It’s more about having a deeper connection to the food and the producers,” says Nic Jammet, cofounder of Washington, D.C.–based salad concept Sweetgreen. “It’s about finding superior products, like produce that’s grown by farmers that we can connect with and understand who they are, how they’re growing it, and what they’re growing.”

Brands like Sweetgreen shy away from offering their own concrete definition of local foods, but there are a few basic truths that any concept interested in local sourcing should consider before getting in the game.

Local is superior

For many quick serves, it’s pure logic that food coming directly from the source—even better, a source that’s nearby—will taste fresher.

“Most produce in this country travels 1,500 miles from where it’s grown to where it’s consumed, and all of that transportation and related logistics take time,” says Chris Arnold, communications director for Chipotle, which sources products like bell peppers, oregano, red onions, and avocados from local suppliers across the U.S. “The produce isn’t arriving as fresh as it is if it’s coming from a really close proximity, from the farm to the restaurant.”

Marley Hodgson, CEO of Denver-based salad chain Mad Greens, says even though much of its California-sourced lettuce is only three to four days old at most by the time it arrives at a unit, produce can lose its freshness and quality at lightning speed. “Being able to get stuff locally means a lot to us,” he says. “Our [brand] is based upon quality, and one of the main drivers of quality is fresh.”

Items sourced locally can also provide restaurants a greater sense of control over food quality, says David Silverglide, cofounder and CEO of California-based Mixt Greens and sandwich concept Split Bread.

“We’re hand-selecting, from the oils and vinegars that we’re using down to the herbs we’re getting,” he says. “Every product, we’re deciding where it’s coming from and we know the farm, we know what product we’re getting, we know what quality to expect. And because it’s seasonal and because it’s local, it tastes totally different and it tastes better.”

Local is a connection to the community

Not only does local sourcing give brands the opportunity to incorporate fresh, seasonal, and high-quality items into their menus, but it also lets them reach beyond their four walls and tap into the local community.

“Most regions have an incredible network of purveyors and farmers that need to be supported and have great products,” Sweetgreen’s Jammet says. “It kind of becomes this win-win-win [situation], where we’re able to support the local economy and get a better product for our customers, and a farmer’s able to make a great living and have a business relationship.”

George Frangos is the owner of Farm Burger, a locally sourced burger chain with three locations, in Buckhead, Dunwoody, and Decatur, Georgia. He says Farm Burger likes to think of itself as a neighborhood burger joint in every sense of the word.

“We were … really committed to what we thought was a neighborhood restaurant and being part of the community,” he says. “Buying local really lets you tie into your community, even if that community is a 100-mile radius or a 300-mile radius.”

This link to the community is often a winning attribute in customers’ eyes, too, says Shelley Gunton, chief operating officer at Chez Marie, an Oregon-based supplier of veggie patties for local limited-service brands. “People … love to support their own communities,” she says. “People feel good about that because they know that they’re supporting a local business. That means local jobs, that means local suppliers. It’s very much a, ‘Let’s come together and support what we have in our own backyard.’”

Local is a passion to promote

Most limited-service brands sourcing local products insist it must be a genuine commitment, rather than simply another marketing gimmick. But local sourcing does have to be marketed somehow, and it must align with the passion the brand feels for local products, sources say.

Arnold says it’s important to educate consumers about food issues and why the brand believes local is a better option.

“Over the last few years, you’ve seen conversations about issues in food becoming much more mainstream,” he says. “As that conversation has broadened and become more prominent, we’ve started pushing farther out with our marketing.” To get the word out, Chipotle largely uses point-of-purchase communication to exhibit its farm partners and what consumers are getting from that particular farm.

Jammet says clearly laying out local products and partnerships—rather than “preaching” about the virtues of local sourcing—is a friendlier and more digestible way of marketing local to consumers. In each of its 16 units, Sweetgreen displays a “local list” that changes every month and lists each local ingredient and the farm it comes from.

“Even if customers don’t order from it, just by seeing it, they feel that connection to the food and they see that there’s one middleman here, and that’s Sweetgreen,” Jammet says.

The brand also uses social and digital media to profile some of its farmers, as it recently did with its local kale farmer from Ploch Farm in New Jersey. “It gives them a little chance in the spotlight, and they love it,” he says. “They get to tell their story, and then a customer watches this two-minute video and they understand that connection to the food.”

Because brands that source locally are in the minority in the quick-service world, highlighting local efforts can be a real point of differentiation, Chez Marie’s Gunton says. “It sets [brands] apart from others and I think can be a real selling point for them as a community supporter,” she says. “It’s all about building a brand as a restaurant, and as part of that, if you’re recognized for the information you impart and the storytelling you provide to your customers, I think that’s very positive.”

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