Twenty years later, Paul Booras still remembers the taste of a locally grown tomato. Working at an upscale Boston restaurant, he took a road trip with the chef when the first plump ones came off the vines.
"We knew they would taste fantastic," he recalls. "You could coax assertive flavors out of them, not having to manipulate them by adding stuff. There was no Food Network talking about local sourcing. It just felt right."
Today, Booras is still buying local tomatoes– along with carrots, cabbages and cucumbers. But he's doing it on a larger scale.
As vice president of operations for the Boston burrito chain Boloco, he purchases foodstuffs for 22 locations. During the growing season, he'll buy 15,000 pounds of local produce. Year-round, he gets 5,000 gallons of local milk and 45,000 organic, free-range local eggs.
When it comes to local sourcing, Booras is part of a new wave of restaurant buyers, who are thinking outside the produce box. A decade ago, local sourcing meant chefs at independent restaurants working one-on-one with farmers. Today, it includes chains that cross state and regional lines. They're inventing new models for growing and distributing food. They're working out, in practice, what it means to feed globally and source locally.
"The key is, how do we scale up local food to move it into the mainstream?" says Jim Slama, director of the nonprofit Family Farmed. He connects Chicago-area farmers with mainstream buyers, like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Midway Airport.
"We're creating an infrastructure for getting locally grown food from the farm to the table," says Melissa Kogut, executive director of Chef's Collaborative, a Boston-based network of sustainable chefs. "We're scaling up to bring things to the next level, to make local food more available and more affordable."
Why are restaurant concepts looking local? They offer a mixed bag of reasons, from taste and freshness to shrinking their carbon footprints and supporting family farms. But the underlying reason is that customers are clamoring for it:
- Seven out of 10 diners say they're more likely to visit a restaurant whose menu includes local food, reports the National Restaurant Association. Chefs in an NRA survey have voted local meat, seafood and produce as their top menu trends for two years running.
- The National Grocer's Association found 45 percent of consumers called local food products "very important" in deciding where to shop.
- In 2012, there were 7,864 farmers markets nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's up 10 percent from the year before and 151 percent from a decade before.
"The consumer is usually ahead of the industry on some of these trends," observes Mike Donahue, chief brand officer at LYFE Kitchen. It has two California locations now and franchise plans for other states, and anticipates getting at least 40 percent of its produce within 500 miles of its restaurants.
He hopes LYFE can set an example for other chains. "What starts out as an emerging trend evolves into mainstream purchasing," says Donahue. "Once Whole Foods started to follow this trend, every major grocery chain had to modernize the perimeter of their stores."
That doesn't mean it's an easy trend to follow. Buying from lots of small farms runs against the DNA of the average restaurant chain, which is built on economies of scale.
"The issue is not just the appropriateness of a local vendor to a location, but whether it can supply more than a handful of restaurants," says Richard Hendrie, senior vice president of marketing for Uno Chicago Grill in Boston. It's using local cheese, eggs and bacon for its spinoff bakery café concept, Uno Due Go, with five stores from Boston to Whitewater, Wisconsin.
Besides volume, the other challenge is consistency. "Wisconsin cheddar tastes very different from Vermont cheddar," says Hendrie. "In our grilled cheese sandwich, we want some degree of uniformity in our dining experience." But as the trend matures, several chains are devising systems to make local food both available and consistent.
Foraging for farmers. In 2008, Chipotle Mexican Grill launched a local sourcing program with 16 growers. Today, it has 60, located within 350 miles of the restaurants they feed with romaine lettuce, red onions, green and jalapeno peppers and oregano.
Those numbers result from constant recruiting, says spokes woman Danielle Winslow. "We are seeking farmers, and farmers are seeking us."
Some come through produce houses. Others come through matchmaking groups like Family Farmed, which holds an annual "Meet the Buyers" event, where farmers can hobnob with more than 100 purchasers.
Setting standards. It's easy to get a consistent tomato from a factory farm. It's harder to get it from several small farms. The trick is to set clear specifications for those growers.
"You can't give me a tomato the size of a softball, and beside it is one the size of a baseball," says Jamie Moore, director of sourcing and sustainability for Eat'n Park Hospitality Group of Pittsburgh, with 72 restaurants in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Through its FarmSource program the chain bought $11 million worth of local produce, meat, dairy and baked goods last year.
"We show them the uniform size we're looking for, a little larger than a racquetball. It's a size that will fit into a tomato slicer."
Farmers who sell at markets and roadside stands may need help to meet the exacting standards of foodservice. Chipotle provides a guidebook, with instructions on its specs and audits. Family Farmed has run 6,000 growers through an educational program called Wholesale Success.
"Part of what we do is to train farmers to understand what wholesale buyers want," says Slama, "as far as handling, packing and food safety."
Don't skip the middleman. LYFE consultant Jim Campbell wants to source from dozens of farms, but not deal with dozens of farmers. "Even with just two stores," he says, "we'd need a staff of two or three people just to deal with 70 products that are seasonal and 200 to 250 suppliers throughout the year."
Instead, he deputizes regional produce distributors to work with local farms: two in California and one in Illinois. A larger grower, Earthbound Farm of San Juan Bautista, California, collects produce from up to 200 smaller organic farmers.
At Eat'n Park, Moore works directly with 30 different growers. But he routes their produce, meat dairy and eggs through a single distributor, Paragon Foods in Pittsburgh.
It's convenient, he says, that his farms fall within the same 125-mile radius as his restaurants. "The beauty of it is, we've got trucks going to make deliveries, swinging by farms en route, picking up produce and bringing it back. It's helping our distribution relationships that they're not deadheading back with nothing on the truck."
Thanks in part to grocery chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, local middlemen can now be found in more and more parts of the country, says Vaughan Lazar, CEO of 22-unit Pizza Fusion in Fort Lauderdale. That's helped him expand beyond Florida, to cities like Charlotte, North Carolina.
"Where there is a consumer base, there will be distribution," says Lazar. "We've been extremely successful finding distributors in every market we've gone into."
National food distributors like Sysco and US Foods are also taking a piece of the local action. Sysco offers local produce through 70 of its operating companies. With 8,000 trucks, says produce vice president Rich Dachman, "we are strategically positioned to readily provide each regional market with local, seasonal produce and locally sourced products."
Virtual farmers markets. In Boston, growers and chefs can find each other online. Some 170 restaurants, groceries and institutions post the products they're seeking, along with quantities, timelines and prices. Distributor OR FoodEx matches them with farmers, then uses its trucks to pick up and deliver. Buyers get a single invoice for multiple suppliers.
"We're essentially aggregating buy lists from people," says owner J.D. Kemp. "We're putting farmer and chef together, or talking to a farmer on behalf of 30 chefs. A farmer who's savvy enough can click and sell their products."
Aiming high, then higher. For 2011, Chipotle announced it would buy 8 million pounds of local produce. After it beat that goal, it set a new one for 2012—10 million pounds—and topped it again.
"Each year, we set a local produce goal," says Winslow. "It holds us accountable. It's also a way to communicate to our customers our commitment to local produce."
Smaller chains set smaller targets, based on regional growing seasons. At Boloco, Booras plans to buy 10 of his 16 produce categories locally, from July through September. He gets as specific as 500 pounds of carrots and 1,200 pounds of cucumbers. "Because I can look at the past three years," he says, "I can break it down by week."
For times when goals can't be met, he works with a conventional distributor as well. "You need to balance the commodities market with the local market," he says. "You can't turn your back on any one market and then find out you don't have relationships anymore."
Featuring farms. Just as restaurants highlight popular consumer brands on their menus, they can spotlight the farms that supply them.
"We market farmers on our menus," says Steve Lahaie, senior vice president of Shaw's Crab House in Chicago, which buys $25,000 of seasonal local produce a year. "We put the name of the farm and its location."
Name recognition pays off for the farmer as well as the restaurant. "The biggest thing is the publicity we get from putting our products out on their tables, says grower Mick Klug of St. Joseph, Michigan, who supplies Shaw's with asparagus, berries and peaches. "If they're at a restaurant, they eat something good and they see our name, some will go to the farmer's market and buy from us direct."
Market meat. To date, local sourcing means mostly fruits and vegetables. Natural or organic meat operations, buyers say, are still concentrated in a few parts of the country. But some restaurants are working to change that.
At Enzo in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Mary Reilly owns shares in a community- supported fishery, a twist on the concept of community-supported agriculture. Every Thursday, she's delivered 30 pounds of seafood from local boats. The contents vary from week to week, depending on what's running.
What's consistent, she says, is the quality of the catch. "I'm using it when it's at its best. It comes to the dock between noon and two o'clock. It's usually at my door by 3:30."
In Birmingham, Alabama, Nick Pihakis dislikes using commodity pork for his 30-unit Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q. With a state economic development grant and $1 million of his own money, he's converted an emu plant to process hogs from up to 40 local farmers. At capacity, he hopes to butcher 325 animals a week, 4 million pounds a year.
"We want to be able to get a better-quality product at an affordable price," says Pihakis, who estimates the pork will run 20 percent higher than what he's getting now. He also wants to promote hog farming in the Southeast. "I just think it's a shame that farming used to be huge here, and the farming belt is just gone. It's real important to bring things back locally."
What might be the next trends in local sourcing? Advocates suggest two that are just starting to sprout:
- Indoor farms for growing out-of-season. They can take a variety of forms, from greenhouses to hydroponics—crops grown in nutrient-rich water—to aquaponics: systems that raise fish together with vegetables.
- Hyper-local produce raised on urban farms, from converted vacant lots and warehouses to gardens on rooftops.
Those trends may take years to reach scales that can supply multi-unit restaurants. In the meantime, says Winslow, plenty can be done with existing agriculture.
"The biggest challenge is that there is no overnight switch," she says. "You have to build a program like this from the ground up, working with a core group of suppliers, growing their business and growing the number of farmers you work with. There is a financial commitment in doing so, but it makes food that tastes better, and it's better for communities and the environment.
"Building a local produce supply can be challenging but not impossible. It's something any company can do if it's committed to it."