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Local sourcing, on a large scale

How chains are managing to make local sourcing work.

The biggest word in purchasing today is local, and even more than organic and sustainable it’s reshaping buying decisions and practices. But it remains a hard nut to crack for chains, which don’t have the flexibility of a fine-dining independent. Some regional outfits, though, have made it work.

Washington, D.C.-based Clyde’s Restaurant Group started buying produce from local farmers 20 years ago, when it had just three restaurants. Quality, freshness and flavor were the drivers then, as they are today. Clyde’s now operates 13 high-volume multi-concept operations in the D.C. market. Rather than move away from local sourcing as it grew, the company had to get smarter about it, says Tom Meyer, executive vice president.

“When we started, it was easier to buy a melon grown in Chile than it was to get one from 20 miles down the road,” Meyer says. “Farmers weren’t used to selling wholesale to restaurants and the logistics were terrible. I drove around from farm to farm to pick up products.

Clyde’s eventually turned to its conventional produce distributor, Keany Produce, for help, first hiring one of their drivers to pick up from the farms and deliver to the restaurants and later to manage the entire program. Today, Clyde’s farmer partners e-mail their product lists to Keany for incorporation into their online order guide. The chefs place their orders and the local goods arrive along with the rest of the produce. Keany levies a per-box charge for picking up and delivering local items and a “slight premium” above the price the restaurants pay the farmers.

Two other companies that have committed to local sourcing are Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, Pittsburgh, parent of the 80-unit Eat’n Park chain, and Elmer’s Restaurants, a 29-unit chain based in Portland, Oregon.  Both are family-dining operations intent on bringing the benefits of local products to the masses.

Eat’n Park, whose “FarmSource” initiative was launched eight years ago in its noncommercial operations, is in its third year of sourcing local goods for its restaurant division. Elmer’s is just a year into its program, undertaken as part of a major menu repositioning called “Northwest Fresh.

At the outset, both operations tapped non-profit groups as a way to research local food producers. Elmer’s contacted Eco Trust, a Portland-based organization dedicated to connecting local producers to commercial buyers, while Eat’n Park joined the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

And both found distributors who agreed to handle the logistics.

“The distributor piece is critical,” says Jamie Moore, director of food and beverage for Eat’n Park. “Through PASA, I find farmers I’m interested in, I visit their farms and make sure they can supply what we need. I then connect the farmer to the distributor. If he can’t get the product to the distributor, I ask the distributor to pick it up.

Eat’n Park works with two specialty produce distributors and some 20 farms. Currently, 20 percent of the company’s purchases are from local producers. Commodity products are the focus and in-restaurant merchandising of local products is heavy. While produce represents the bulk of the FarmSource initiative, it encompasses dairy, meat and local artisan foods, as well.

Elmer’s, too, relies heavily on its distributors. Prior to developing its new menu, the company bought almost everything from a broadliner, Food Services of America. When they couldn’t bring in some of the local items Elmer’s wanted, purchasing director Rodney Bryant turned to specialty distributors. He now also buys from Rosella’s Fruit & Produce, Pacific Seafood and Nicky USA, a specialty meat company.

In some instances, Elmer’s knew the local products it wanted and asked the distributor to bring them on. In others, Bryant asked the distributor to source the items. He estimates 50 percent of what Elmer’s spends now goes to local producers at an average of 10 percent higher prices than on conventional supplies. The company’s franchisees, who own all but nine stores, have bought into the program, he adds, in part because the leg work is done for them. All of the local products are incorporated into the company’s managed order guide for consistent online ordering.

Tips for buying local

  • Tap ag and/or sustainability groups for leads to quality local producers.
  • Be open to seeking out new distributors who are willing to handle logistics.
  • Visit farms and producers to make sure they fit your vision and can meet your volume needs.
  • Clearly define what local means to you. Make sure your distributors understand and comply with that definition.
  • Ask farmers/producers to label every case with their farm or company name and date packed so unit managers can merchandise local products accurately.
  • Be flexible and have a back-up plan. The local asparagus or tomatoes you get today might not be available tomorrow.
  • Don’t just take what farmers/producers already have available. If their tomatoes don’t fit in your slicers, ask if they’ll grow a smaller variety for you.
  • Establish a good communication system to let managers know what’s available locally and make it easy for them to order those products along with everything else.
  • Start small with a few high-impact local items and grow from there.

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