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    Farming in Flux

  • Family farms are disappearing, even as restaurants look to source better ingredients. Can agriculture and foodservice help save each other?

    mad greens
    For fast-casual leaders like Mad Greens’ Dan Long, a successful restaurant-farm partnership begins with trust.

    “We continue to see nationally that people are caring for the provenance of where their food comes from,” Del Pero says. “We all talk about, ‘Well, it’s just the foodies,’ [but] I believe that everyone has a little bit of foodie in them—it’s just at different levels.”

    Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see the names of small, family-owned farms and ranches included on menus. But Frontera’s Cora says he can remember a time not so long ago when customers would scratch their heads at such mentions.

    Such shoutouts to farming partners not only attract customers, but also can promote the farms themselves and the exceptional quality of the restaurant’s offerings. “We’re on well over 5,000 menus across the country, and we’ve never paid one penny,” says Niman Ranch’s Tripician. “It makes sense. If you’re going to spend the premium on our product, you’d be kind of nuts to do that and not tell them it’s ours.”

    At the request of its partners, Niman also provides restaurant staff with handouts and training so that they can better answer questions guests may have about the ingredients.

    Boston-based Au Bon Pain, which serves soups, salads, sandwiches, and wholesome snacks, uses Niman Ranch to source its beef and pork products, and works with other farmers to produce its antibiotic-free chicken and turkey. Katherine See, executive chef at Au Bon Pain, sets product standards with the purchasing department early on to help the brand establish long-term relationships with reliable suppliers.

    While See comes from a restaurant background, she also has a master’s in nutrition, with a focus on agriculture. As a result, she has watched the system evolve with smaller operations and more community-sponsored agriculture (csa) outfits.

    “Just in the last couple of weeks, I have been talking with some CSAs and smaller farmer suppliers who are young. It’s not your traditional one supplier, one farmer; it’s usually a consortium of five or six young people in their late 20s or 30s who all have a different background that helps with farming,” See says. She adds that their specialties range from agriculture to supply chain to marketing. “They’re not approaching it one-sided. They’re approaching it knowing all the other factors that need to work.”

    Mad Greens’ Long has witnessed a similar grassroots movement with small, wholesale farmers’ markets seeking out foodservice partners. In the brand’s home state of Colorado, Long has seen a number of agricultural programs—almost like job fairs—where restaurants have an opportunity to visit local purveyors pedaling everything from granola and lettuce to buffalo meat and cheese. In these settings, businesses can find products they didn’t even know existed, and Long credits the farm-to-fork movement for building the infrastructure that allowed these agriculture grants and fairs to sprout up.

    Scaling up

    Restaurants with a limited number of stores in a concentrated geographic area might find viable partners in small operations. But as they grow, working with smaller producers becomes trickier.

    When Mad Greens started, Long says, the brand was able to work with small purveyors and focus on applying fine-dining techniques to the fast-casual environment in an affordable, quick way. But once the brand expanded beyond Colorado and its number of stores grew, the system required some retooling.

    “How do you bring these smaller purveyors forward into a more mainstream environment? When we only had one or two stores, it was relatively easy. As we grow and start having 15–16 stores in a given region, that becomes much more difficult to manage. It limits, to some extent, the size of the purveyors we can use,” Long says, adding that for some specialty products, volume isn’t as much of a barrier, but for main items like spring mix or spinach greens, it’s essential. “Our goal with using local products is local, not necessarily small. There are several benefits to local that have nothing to do with the size of the operation.”

    Long’s viewpoint represents a small divide within the better-farming movement. Some companies, like Mad Greens, build new relationships in every market they enter to ensure the food is local, while others prioritize a more streamlined supply chain, regardless of location.

    To that end, Au Bon Pain’s See points out that traceability becomes immensely simplified when a restaurant sources each product from a single producer.

    At the same time, a consolidated supply chain presents risks for both restaurants and farmers. If a crop fails one season, and the restaurant only worked with one producer, it could face crippling losses. Similarly, a producer that grows crops for only one brand could risk losing business should the menu change or the restaurant lose business.

    Cora says Frontera Grill never wants a single farm’s output to be monopolized by the restaurant. “We don’t want to be the main buyer from one farm,” he says. “In other words, we don’t want to have somebody growing 80–90 percent of their crops just for our business. I don’t think that’s sustainable.”

    For example, Indiana-based Gunthorp Farms, which had provided pork and turkey to Frontera Grill, started raising chickens exclusively for the restaurant. The product was excellent, but Frontera did not want to be its only chicken customer. The partners came to an understanding that purchaser diversity would be mutually beneficial, and now Frontera Grill accounts for about 40 percent of Gunthorp’s poultry volumes.

    From niche to mainstream

    The new age of agriculture, much like the new fast-casual scene, offers no one-size-fits-all model. Instead, restaurants are encouraged to build their own system based on their core values, prices, size, and growth plans. Some choose vertical integration; New York City–based Dig Inn even plans to purchase its own farm to bolster its operation (read more on Page 62). Others work with a variety of farmers and ranchers depending on their specific needs and locations.

    Regardless of the form it may take, the future of foodservice is inextricably tied to its relationships with agriculture.

    Del Pero says that in the past, these two industries have fallen into adversarial roles. But he emphasizes that such conflict is completely unnecessary.

    “The old mentality of Restaurant 101 is … I want the best price, the best quality, and I’m going to go to the broadliner and I’m going to have everyone bid for my business. Going directly to the source, it’s a completely different conversation,” he says.

    He offers an example from a few years ago involving Scarborough Farms, a company that has supported other fast casuals, like Mendocino Farms’ Los Angeles neighbor Tender Greens. The cost of its premium field greens was above the market price, so Del Pero asked the farm if there were ways to shave off the cost. Scarborough followed up with its own solution: to package the greens in a bigger box and share in the price reduction. It was an ideal solution. Del Pero notes that this is a far cry from some farmer-restaurant relations that involve ultimatums and threats. In fact, Del Pero adds that he regularly grabs lunch with Scarborough Farms owner Jeff Stein to discuss things coming down the pipeline from both sides.

    Whether informing farmer partners of new menu items or estimated volumes, regular communication makes the two parties a united team rather than opposing sides. In a way, fast casuals can be easier partners for farmers than a single fine-dining restaurant because their menus change less frequently and because they order in bulk.

    “Specifically with Tender Greens and Mendocino Farms, we know the items and the volumes they will be ordering day in and day out. That cuts down on waste both in the field and the warehouse,” Stein writes in an email. He adds that these relationships benefit Scarborough Farms, as well. “It helps us evolve from a farm that is good at growing a few things to a partner that can be a part of future growth.”

    And while small and medium-sized farms might best exemplify the ideal of this agriculture-restaurant dynamic, larger operations are taking note, too. Last year, Perdue Farms—one of the largest chicken, turkey, and pork processing companies in the country—bought Niman Ranch. The purchase could have worried foodservice partners and consumers alike that Perdue, a massive operation, was going to change Niman.

    But it didn’t happen, Tripician says. He adds that Jim Perdue himself said that the company was hoping to learn from Niman Ranch’s operation and its culture.

    “We’re a niche company; they’re a mainstream company,” Tripician says. “Is that a very visible sign that the middle of this industry is reading the tea leaves, listening to consumers, and saying we need to go in that direction? That is exactly what that is.”

    A flexible future

    Like any industry, agriculture faces challenges ahead—both known and unknown. Operators can help their farmer partners through uncertainty by committing to communicative relationships as Del Pero does, supporting grants given by nonprofits like FamilyFarmed and Frontera Farmers Foundation, and promoting the value of more premium ingredients to its customers.

    Mad Greens’ Long says it also helps to be flexible.

    “It’s trying to be flexible with your own needs and then also having that conversation, having that relationship with the farming community and understanding what their challenges are and what their needs are,” Long says. “You have to each trust each other and figure out how you make this work in an honest way so that everybody can win and everybody can be successful. It doesn’t help us if we drive such a hard bargain that it puts them out of business. That’s in nobody’s interest.”