Local food. It sounds great on paper, and it may even be the thing restaurant patrons claim they care about most. But the reality is that restaurants are businesses, and the restaurant business is one of the toughest gigs out there. Sounding good isn’t going to be enough to justify a rise in food cost or menu prices, no matter what the studies say.
This guide will explore the business side of the local food movement and address the primary concern any savvy restaurateur has: does this make business sense?
Why Buy Local?
Well, if the 2012 menu trends identified by the National Restaurant Association are any guide, buy local because it’s hot and customers want it.
If trends sound suspiciously like fads to you, then consider some compelling business reasons why investing in locally sourced ingredients make a lot of sense:
- They are fresher and taste better
- They allow for greater menu diversity
- They are a great marketing tool
There are also some good altruistic reasons to purchase local foods, and while altruism never made any business a direct profit, there is a lot to be said about the value your brand name can get from being a community leader.
But back to business.
Restaurant patrons consistently name price and taste as the two single most important elements of a good meal out. Local ingredients will consistently deliver on taste. They have traveled less and are closer to ideal harvest conditions, making for a bounty of bright colors, strong smells, and exquisite tastes.
Price is certainly a concern, as large shipments from a big supplier have all the advantages of economy of scale. Competitively priced comfort food options certainly have a place on any menu, and restaurants can and should shop bulk ingredients for the “value” items on a menu far and wide to find the best price.
Locally sourced foods are most valuable – at least from a business perspective – for the diversity they bring to a menu. They won’t be the cheapest dishes but they can be the ones that patrons remember and talk about to their family and friends. Marketed properly, dazzling specials featuring local ingredients can be a key differentiator from the competition.
What To Buy Locally
Every region has agricultural products that thrive there and are even completely unique. Sourcing locally is about playing to the strengths of local agriculture. Incorporating the ingredients that do best in the local climate gives the menu a distinct flavor and modifying the menu to match the local rhythms of harvest connects very effectively with customers.
That said, there are common products that can be found in most regions that can be provided by a local source as well. Many chefs and restaurateurs have even begun creating their own sources by turning vacant lots, rooftops, and other urban spaces into gardens of ingredients.
The most important calculation for a business is weighing the added value that more expensive local ingredients bring versus lower cost alternatives. If a given dish or special becomes a star because local ingredients make it shine with taste and perceived value, then a higher cost is justified. If local ingredients are driving up food costs but not translating into additional sales and raving fans, then sourcing definitely needs to be revisited.
Some restaurants have had great success by going all in with local sourcing and only offering local ingredients on their menus. This has proven to be an effective marketing tool for niche markets that are more tolerant to price. For the majority of restaurants a hybrid approach will probably be the most effective.
The relationship between marketing value and local ingredients must never be forgotten. Maximizing that relationship can lead to great success for any restaurant, and the intangible bonuses of improving brand value and community involvement make sourcing ingredients locally a sound business proposition for just about any restaurant.
Where to Buy Local
The following internet resources can aid restaurateurs in their search for quality local ingredients:
The Eat Well Guide www.eatwellguide.org
USDA Farmer’s Market Directory http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/
Local Harvest http://www.localharvest.org/
Local Dirt http://localdirt.com