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.
Peaches, corn, green beans, and baby greens from:
Beef, pork, assorted greens, and goat cheese from:
Mushrooms, kale, apples, and pickles from:
Romaine lettuce, jalapeños, green peppers, oregano, and red onions from:
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