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Notes from the field

The last few years have seen a subtle to seismic shift in the way restaurants source fruits and vegetables. From planting rooftop gardens to partnering with farmers, chefs and operators are making a big effort to be local and seasonal. But 2011 is shaping up as an even more produce-centric year.

  • In the National Restaurant Association’s 2011 “What’s Hot”survey of 1,500 chefs, the words “local” and “hyper-local” show up in three of the top five trends, especially as related to produce.
  • Foraging is emerging as a top hyper-local movement on the fine-dining scene. Some chefs are tromping through the woods and picking their own wild ramps, herbs, mushrooms and more; others are hiring professional foragers.
  • EATALY, Mario Batali’s Italian marketplace in New York City, employs a vegetable butcher to custom-trim artichokes, snap asparagus and cut carrots.
  • The Food Safety Modernization Act passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in January will give the FDA more authority over monitoring the produce supply chain.

Let’s see how these changes and others are impacting the purchase of fruits and vegetables.

On the supplier side

Anumber of distributors have made local produce easier to come by. FreshPoint, a subsidiary of Sysco, launched Eat Florida Fresh in late 2010—its first program to promote local suppliers. A coordinating Web site highlights more than 40 growers and local farmers in three Florida regions, and the company hopes to expand the program to other markets.

Testa Produce in Chicago has been delivering fruits and vegetables from within a 250-mile radius to restaurant customers for 10 years, but three years ago, the distributor launched the Testa-to-Farm tour program for operators. Since then, demand for local produce has increased substantially among Chicago-area restaurants, including multi-unit concepts like Lettuce Entertain You and Hilton Hotels. Availability has also increased—Testa now offers as many as 40 locally grown items at the height of summer, including pea shoots, beets, corn, peppers and zucchini.

“Farmers are the new celebrities,” claims owner Peter Testa. “The tours allow them to show off what they’re growing, help restaurants with menu planning and generate loyalty with our customers.” Input from the chefs also helps the farmers decide what to plant, which works in everyone’s favor. “We want to make sure the farmers can sell what they grow without overproducing,” he adds. In the end, the quality of local produce is superior and the prices are generally significantly lower. All of the farms in the program are inspected and certified for food safety and many have passed additional third party audits.

Testa admits that wintertime is a challenge, but growers are trying different ways to boost local supply. More greenhouses are popping up and local storage crops, such as potatoes, apples and root vegetables, are on the rise.

Two sourcing strategies

James Boyce, chef-owner
Cotton Row, Commerce Kitchen and Pane e Vino
Huntsville, Alabama

From March through November, James Boyce sources about 65 percent local produce for his three restaurants, which range from the high-end Cotton Row to the casual Commerce Kitchen and Pane e Vino, a pizzeria. “If the heirloom tomatoes aren’t perfect enough for a Cotton Row salad, we dice them for a pizza topping at Pane e Vino. And we can use the turnips in one restaurant and the greens in another,” he says. “Most of the produce gets delivered to Cotton Row and we redistribute it.”

This cross-utilization among concepts makes it practical and efficient to contract with Alabama farmers for the local commodities and specialty crops that set Boyce’s menus apart. Some of these farmers are quite small—like John Schmuck who grows 100 tomato plants in his big backyard and Mary Francis, the asparagus queen. The Brooks family grows field beans, fresh peas and sweet potatoes, while Geezer’s Garden provides specialty mushrooms. Boyce also works with Adams Produce in the Atlanta wholesale market, sending out a Huntsville buyer, Don Hardiman, with a shopping list. During the time of year when it’s tough to buy local, produce is sourced from Florida or flown in from Chef’s Garden in Ohio.

“The farmers send me e-mails as to what is ready to be picked and I change the menu according to availability,” notes Boyce. Right now, green garlic is going into a crust for veal paired with morels and local watercress and goat cheese for a salad at Commerce. Breakfast radishes, chard and peaches are at the ready for menu inspiration.

Barbara Kaiwi, director of purchasing
Hard Rock Cafés International
Orlando, Florida-based

With 134 locations in 52 countries, Barbara Kaiwi is responsible for procuring produce all over the world. In North America, 90 percent of the cafes—73 of which are franchised—have a consistent scratch-base menu, and she has to spec a steady and large supply of commodities like lettuce, tomatoes and peppers. This year, Kaiwi is moving the majority of her produce purchasing to the Tennessee-based Produce Alliance, a managing group that distributes in 27 states and 43 cities and delivers six to seven days a week. “Eleven of our cafes were always under this umbrella and we used to bid the rest out locally,” she explains. “Produce Alliance has superior traceability and reacts quickly to problems in the supply chain. Plus, we can leverage our buying power to control costs.” Domestic cafes will still be able to run specials incorporating seasonal items and international locations can add indigenous produce.

Kaiwi’s biggest challenge this winter were the freezes in Mexico, Florida and other growing regions. “Our contracts protected us on extreme price increases but to get the best quality, we bought a little less each day and turned inventory over faster. The yield on our lettuce was lower—heads weighed around 3/4 pound compared to 1 1/4 pounds,” she reports. Hard Rock absorbed extra costs and did not change menu prices or specs; salads contained the same quantity of lettuce and burgers continued to sport tomato slices.

Q&A with Gregg Storey

Executive Director, Center for Science and Innovation, Clarkston Consulting, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina

What changes will the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act bring?
Traceability will be key to sourcing any produce. If a food-borne illness does occur and a voluntary recall doesn’t happen, the FDA will have the authority to issue a mandatory recall and require that the company provide relevant information on the product, including contact information for the supplier. After any recall, summary information will be published on the FDA Web site and notifications could be provided directly to the public.

Are technological advances facilitating traceability in the supply chain?
The produce industry is in the process of self-implementing the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) which tracks produce using bar codes on pallets and cases from farm to distributor. Scheduled implementation of PTI is 2012. Pilot projects are underway to evaluate practical implementation and the associated costs throughout the food value chain. While there may be initial costs, operational efficiencies may eventually make it a break-even situation.

How can operators be sure that the produce they are buying locally is safe?
If you’re sourcing from smaller farmers, “know your supplier” is the number one rule. Find out where and how the produce is grown and harvested, and whether the farm is GAP certified. Don’t risk your restaurant’s brand just to say an item is locally grown.

Some chains are purchasing directly from growers and shippers. Do you see drawbacks to this model?
Direct purchasing is a trend that comes and goes, but if the economics are right, it can be a good thing. It does require adequate staffing, time and experience to manage the logistics. Direct sourcing can be complex since a majority of produce is purchased from several sources.

Innovation times three

Creative sourcing and technology have led to new ways to buy produce.

On the Web

FoodHub, an online marketplace created by iSite Design, connects purchasers and sellers in the Northwest. It works much like Craigslist: Producers with everything from one case of peaches to a truckload of onions can put up an “available” post; buyers who need an item add a “wanted” post. “FoodHub was designed to accommodate the buying patterns of many types of operations—from regional chains that need a continuous wholesale supply to small indies making a single purchase,” says Deborah Kane, VP of food and farms at EcoTrust, FoodHub’s parent. Of the 450 buyers currently signed up, about 30 percent are restaurants.

Commodity update
TomatoesWhile supplies were tight through mid-March, volume continues to build and should be back to normal by mid-April, reports the Florida Tomato Committee.
MangosVarieties at their peak in spring and summer include Ataulfo, Francis, Haden and Tommy Atkins, coming in primarily from Mexico, says the National Mango Board.
StrawberriesNew strawberry varieties and ideal growing conditions led to record production in 2010, even though acreage was down slightly. Weather permitting, the 2011 crop looks to follow suit, according to the California Strawberry Commission.
ArtichokesIn mid-March, all sizes—from small to jumbo—were showing signs of light frost, according to Ocean Mist Farms, but “frost-kissed” product is high in quality and flavor.
Vidalia OnionsDespite a prolonged freeze in January, the crop of Vidalias fared well and sweet, juicy bulbs are expected to be harvested in Georgia during April and May.
CornGood volumes of Southern corn are expected for all of April and May, predicts the Fresh SuperSweet Corn Council. Come July, local supplies will start coming in.
AsparagusThe harvest got off to a late start due to continuing rains in California during February. By late March, the harvest was in full swing and ample supply is expected into early June.
BerriesDriscoll’s blueberries ramp up into strong supplies beginning in May and lasting through the summer; raspberries reach peak volume from mid-May through mid-June, with good supply throughout the fall. Driscoll’s blackberries are in good supply through April and May, with excellent availability in the summer months.
LettuceRomaine was the most severely damaged from the February freeze, which extended from Arizona to Mexico. Demand still exceeds supply, notes Mann Packing of California. Boggiato Produce, the company behind Garden Hearts romaine hearts, reports that quality and supply are both high. The hearts are unaffected by the cold and the frostbitten outer leaves are discarded.

 

Buying direct

The 1,400-unit Panera Bread has a new produce procurement model that cuts wholesalers and distributors out of the supply chain. The goal—to speed up delivery and source more locally and regionally grown fruits and vegetables.

For its huge demand for romaine lettuce, for example, Panera partners directly with growers and shippers in California and Arizona; the lettuce is bagged and sent to one of the chain’s 22 fresh dough facilities for daily delivery to its cafes. Bypassing central distribution centers takes about a week off the age of the produce, said chief concept officer Scott Davis in a story in The Packer. This arrangement gives Panera more control over crops from seed to field and allows the chain to spec produce tailored to its needs. Davis is also looking for regional growers for seasonal supply.

A triumph for traceability

On the retail side, Top 10 Produce just launched Locale, a strawberry brand that is 100 percent traceable to the farm of origin. Each Salinas Valley strawberry grower under the Locale brand affixes a product label that can be scanned with ShopSavvy, a smartphone app. What appears is a grower profile with info about the farmer, a map of the location where the berries were grown and links to the farmer’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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