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.”

Local is a sacrifice and commitment

Despite its benefits, local sourcing doesn’t come easy, and challenges often begin with product availability. In many areas of the country—like Denver, where Hodgson’s Mad Greens is located—growing seasons are limited. “It’s troublesome for us a good portion of the year to have access to large quantities, which we need in most cases, of fresh produce,” he says.

Frangos says Farm Burger pulls in up to 60 percent of its ingredients from local farms in the summer, but can only locally source 20 percent of its menu in the winter.

Another obstacle that routinely pops up is the inability to secure every product you want when you want it, says Mixt Greens’ and Split Bread’s Silverglide. For example, many of the brands’ local products, like corn, are only available for two to three months each year. “Some consumers get it, and others are upset by that,” he says. “They kind of expect the modern, 21st century grocery-store model where ‘I can get anything I want any time of the year.’”

This is also why Frangos says brands sourcing locally must say goodbye to one-stop shopping. If a restaurant is dealing with a large distributor, it’s simple to secure 20 pounds of tomatoes right when it needs them, he says. But with local sourcing, a unit may have to purchase the products from three different farmers, which can turn off some operators.

“Restaurants have to make that commitment to it and have to understand that it’s a change in the way we do business,” Frangos says. “Our world is based on making things more convenient and faster, and it is not convenient buying local. Everything is a trade-off, but we think the trade-off is huge, and you’ve just got to commit to it and put that time in your day.”

Buying local products also means consistency must sometimes fall by the wayside, whether it’s in product availability or being able to menu identical items at each location. Arnold says because Chipotle’s menus are uniform in every restaurant year-round, this lack of consistency can become an issue.

“It would not be possible, really, for a restaurant of our size and scale that runs the way we do with the same menu in all of 1,400 restaurants … around the country to be your local farm-to-table place,” he says. “We don’t have the luxury that a chef-owned restaurant would have of changing our menu based on seasonality and building menus based solely on what’s available.”

There’s also a risk that relationships and item availability may collapse due to any number of events. For instance, one dose of severe weather can knock the entire local supply chain out of whack when working with small farms and suppliers, Arnold says.

“If you’re operating a 20-acre farm and there’s a hailstorm that hits your farm, it probably hits all of it,” he says. “Whereas, if you’re operating a 1,000-acre farm and there’s a hailstorm that hits your farm, it probably only hits part of it and doesn’t wipe out everything.”

In addition, when a brand relies heavily on a single supplier, it risks being left to fend for itself if a supplier can’t deliver the goods—literally. Mad Greens uses nearly 10,000 pounds of goat cheese each year from its local cheese maker, Hodgson says. “Of course, there are some potential concerns that we’re taking a pretty sizeable chunk of their production. If something were to happen, we could be in trouble for a short period of time until we’re able to switch.”

Local is a relationship

Many times, striking a successful partnership is only the beginning of the local-sourcing process; brands must be willing to put in the time and effort to effectively maintain these relationships, too.

Sources interviewed for this story say the No. 1 trick to forming a profitable local partnership is communication—and plenty of it. Not only does an open line of communication make it easier for brands to relay their expectations and needs, but it can also help farmers better serve their local partners.

Farm Burger’s Frangos says clearly explaining how much of a certain product his restaurants need and are willing to buy means farmers feel more comfortable planting larger yields; this ultimately makes the buying process simpler.

“When you have these conversations, you can help each other out. Then I’m getting jalapeños that are grown locally … and I’m probably going to get a really good price because I’m going to buy everything he has,” he says. “It works for me and it works for him or her, and it only happens if you have those conversations going. If we’re both working kind of on our own, we don’t really understand that sometimes.”

Local relationships must not only be open and trusting, but they must also be sustainable and mutually beneficial, Sweetgreen’s Jammet says. “It has to be something that can be long-lasting,” he says. “It’s not about trying to squeeze them to the lowest price one month and then that’s it, I don’t care because I’m not going to have strawberries in May.

“It’s really about using farmers year after year or using them year-round,” he adds. “You have to make sure that they’re making the money they need to make on it, and that you’re not putting too much a burden on their operations.”

 

Tracking Down the Source

A taste of the local products and farms where limited-service brands find their foods.

Mad Greens

Peaches, corn, green beans, and baby greens from:

  • Clark Family Orchards and Fuller Orchards / Palisade, CO
  • Ahlberg Farm / Delta, CO
  • Petrocco Farms / Brighton, CO
  • VertiFresh / Commerce City, CO
  • Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy / Longmont, CO

Farm Burger

Beef, pork, assorted greens, and goat cheese from:

  • Cooke Cattle Company / Atlanta, GA
  • Benji Anderson Farm / Madison County, GA
  • Little Bit Farm / Hoschton, GA
  • Decimal Place Farm / Conley, GA

Sweetgreen

Mushrooms, kale, apples, and pickles from:

  • McDowell’s Mushroom / Nottingham, PA
  • Ploch Farms / Vineland, NJ
  • Boyer Orchards / New Paris, PA
  • Kaplan & Zubrin / Camden, NJ

Chipotle

Romaine lettuce, jalapeños, green peppers, oregano, and red onions from:

  • Satur Farms / Cutchogue, NY
  • Pahl’s Farm / Apple Valley, MN
  • Earthbound Farm / San Juan Bautista, CA
  • Grant Family Farms / Wellington, CO