When Technomic released a study last year that researched transparency in the supply chain, Garden Fresh Restaurant Corporation CEO John Morberg took the data seriously. The study found that most consumers want restaurants to be more transparent about ingredients, and Morberg knew customers at Garden Fresh’s Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation restaurants were no different.
“Guests ask us all the time, ‘Where does this come from?’” Morberg says. The answer is that the brands’ ingredients come from local farms and ranches—no middlemen involved—but Morberg believed the company wasn’t doing enough to share that story with customers.
Inspired by Garden Fresh’s recent “Discover Fresh” campaign, which is a store remodel and marketing program focused on the brand’s dedication to farm-to-table food, Morberg developed what Garden Fresh calls “Farm Teams.” The Teams are employee duos in each store that serve as brand ambassadors, sharing the company’s authentic story of healthy, sustainable foods.
When the company launched the endeavor in November, it also invited Garden Fresh farmers to one of the chain’s 12 San Diego locations to converse face-to-face with transparency-hungry guests.
Bob Campbell, a fourth-generation grower at Campbell Ranches in Lompoc, California—also known as “Broccoli Bob” to the Garden Fresh family—spoke with consumers about the importance of generating appeal for healthy foods.
“I think the more people you can introduce to freshness, good quality, and a more flavorful product, then the more people are going to be attracted to vegetables,” Campbell says.
And he’s willing to take the transparency process a step further: Campbell invites customers to his farm to show them exactly how the broccoli they eat at Garden Fresh restaurants makes it to their plates. A few days after the initial event, one family took Campbell up on his offer.
“This family drove up from San Diego to see how we grow broccoli,” he says. “It was a great experience for me.” Campbell took the family on a tour of the entire ranch, allowing them to experience first-hand the growing, harvesting, packing, cooling, and delivery processes for broccoli production.
But not all customers can afford to make the five-hour trip from San Diego to Campbell Ranches. That’s why Garden Fresh’s Farm Teams provide customers with a smaller-scale version of the farm-to-table experience, Morberg says.
“The intention of the Farm Team is to help teach [guests], enlighten them, and let them know what we’re doing with our partner farmers that are out there, and the type of quality produce that we receive from them,” he says.
Sustainability innovation advocate Nancy Himmelfarb says the Farm Teams are a great direction for a restaurant company.
“They certainly are capitalizing on consumer interest in local foods,” Himmelfarb says. She points to the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” trend list in its 2015 Forecast as proof that these types of campaigns are what customers are interested in. The chef survey found that locally sourced, environmentally sustainable, minimally processed, and healthy foods were in the top five food trends chefs expected this year.
The Farm Teams test phase is underway in San Diego, consisting of six brand ambassador teams that rotate weekly throughout Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants at peak hours. Team members wear bright green T-shirts to stand out among restaurant visitors. Some teams meet and greet patrons at the door, while others chat directly with guests via table-to-table interactions.
Without millions of dollars to spend on advertising and public relations, Morberg says, these word-of-mouth interactions are cost-efficient ways to spread the Garden Fresh story. The Farm Teams also publicize the Garden Fresh story via radio advertisements and through informative coloring sheets for younger restaurant guests.
“A lot of kids are saying they want to be part of the Farm Teams,” he says. “We’re thinking it could go in really great directions. I’m going to send busloads of kids to see Bob.”
Based on positive guest feedback thus far, Morberg feels optimistic about expanding the program. He aims to plant Farm Teams in locations in Los Angeles and Orange County in the coming months. If efforts continue to prove successful, the company will expand the Farm Team concept across the U.S.
As Garden Fresh expands its Farm Team reach, Himmelfarb says, the company must continue to practice what it preaches. “There is nothing to lose and everything to gain from being open and honest about what’s in your food,” she says. “If they’re saying, ‘We’re fresh and we’re doing all this great stuff,’ that is fantastic. But then they need to be able to back it up.”
Morberg is more than ready to heed Himmelfarb’s advice. “All we have to do is just authentically tell the story,” he says. “We have nothing to hide. We only have great things to tell, and we think that’s the best way to serve the freshest meal and experience we can for our guests.”