Sustainability | March 2014 | By Julie Knudson

Taking Local to the Next Level

Hyper-local sourcing brings food production in-house.

Quick service brands grow local produce to use in their fast food restaurants.
Catering brand Sugarsnap grows its own winter squash, kale, and chard in a nearby agricultural center. sugarsnap
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Today’s consumers want to know where their food is coming from and are hungry for local foods. In the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) “What’s Hot in 2014 Culinary Forecast,” which surveys U.S. chefs, locally grown meats and seafood and locally grown produce were the No. 1 and No. 2 trends for this year, respectively.

Now some restaurants, including quick serves, are taking local sourcing to the next level. The NRA’s “What’s Hot” survey found that hyper-local sourcing—or foods sourced from the restaurant’s premises—ranked as the sixth-most popular trend.

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at NRA, says consumer interest is driving the move toward hyper-local sourcing.

“From the consumer perspective, the word local basically equates to freshness,” he says. Considering that much of the quick-serve industry’s core demographic skews toward the younger end of the spectrum, it’s no wonder food grown by a restaurant is increasingly popular, he says. “Those younger individuals are much more interested in the story behind the food they’re consuming.”

Since its inception, catering brand Sugarsnap has grown its own food and considered that element core to its business model. Based in South Burlington, Vermont, the concept’s original restaurant and catering operations were supported by the company’s three-acre farm in the Intervale Center, a nearby agricultural area. “We’ve done a lot of things over the years at the farm,” says Abbey Duke, Sugarsnap’s owner. “We’ve learned a lot.”

Much of what Sugarsnap focuses on growing in-house are items its team can’t purchase from other local farms, including culinary herbs and edible flowers. “We also grow other things we want to use and that we’ve found are efficient for us to grow ourselves,” Duke adds.

Tomatoes, winter squash, kale, and chard turned out to be economical for Duke’s team to grow, and they’re crops that work well with Sugarsnap’s offerings. Other crops haven’t fit the niche.

“They’re either too much labor or they take too much fussiness,” Duke says. Plants that are easily overtaken by weeds or those that require frequent attention often don’t make the cut, she adds.

This year marks the fifth year that Boston-based b.good has grown its own produce. The idea came from a customer who had a pet project centered on urban agriculture. “They thought it would be cool to team up and grow some tomatoes on our roof in a baby pool,” says Jon Olinto, b.good’s cofounder.

Olinto acknowledges that the first year’s harvest—grown in a half dozen baby pools—was a modest amount of food, but the endeavor generated a lot of interest among customers and the local community. Schools did field trips, and since the operation was visible from the street, people were intrigued to stop in.

“From that interest, it led us to think we should continue to do it,” Olinto says. “Every year since then, we’ve expanded.”

At b.good’s downtown Boston location, the landlord provides the restaurant with eight parking spots at the top of a parking garage each summer. “Every year, we somehow manage to squeeze a few more baby pools up there,” Olinto says.

At one of the store’s suburban locations, 12-foot-by-12-foot raised beds take the place of those little pools. Tomatoes, collard greens, and kale are among the crops b.good’s team grows.

Olinto says the biggest obstacle his team encountered was finding enough space in the right locations and with the necessary accouterments. Unless another fast-casual operator owns the building, they’re at the mercy of one or more landlords, he says. Even if a property owner agrees to the concept, the logistics still may not pan out. “When we started, we didn’t have water running all the way to the roof,” Olinto says.

Today, b.good’s garden sites all have direct plumbing, and irrigation is managed with a timer. b.good still partners with the customer who sparked the original idea and who now runs an urban agriculture company.

“They’ve grown over the years and they still support us, so they really take the labor out of it for us,” Olinto says. Managers and staff at b.good harvest the food, but much of the day-to-day maintenance is handled externally.

Mother Nature often has her own agenda, though, and Duke says uncooperative weather is a real problem for hyper-local sourcing. Sugarsnap’s tomato plants recently suffered through the wettest June on record. “Wet summers aren’t good for tomatoes,” she says. The setback prompted the brand to purchase a greenhouse.

The possibility of diseases and pests that attack crops can diminish output as well as flavor, often forcing restaurants to adjust budgets and augment internally grown food with produce purchased from local farmers, Duke says. On the flip side, some harvests may yield more than expected.

“A couple years ago, I think we grew 3,000 pounds of buttercup squash,” Duke says, adding that Sugarsnap’s menu featured buttercup squash for several months.

Restaurant farms, rooftop gardens, and even herb walls are concepts easily adopted by small brands like Sugarsnap and b.good, but national chains might find it hard to integrate, Duke says.

“I do think some of the big national brands are really interested in how can they implement this sort of local foods movement in what they’re doing,” she says, but challenges arise when consistency over large or multiple regions comes into play.

Olinto believes the big companies may be a bit envious of brands that tap into the hyper-local sourcing trend. “It’s in the sweet spot of the things the customers care about,” he says.

Several large quick serves have at least made an effort to incorporate the local-foods trend, however.

“You already see it in several of the major national players in the quick-service and fast-casual arena,” the NRA’s Riehle says. “There are operators now on a national basis that make a point of communicating to patrons [about] the sourcing of the potatoes used in [french] fries.” Those potatoes may not have been grown in-house, he says, but letting customers know where their food comes from is a step in the right direction.

Different operators may develop their own approach to the issue, but Riehle says that regardless of a brand’s size, “they’re both responding to the same primary consumer want and need regarding knowledge about where that item comes from and how it is produced.”