Cultivating a backup plan

The drought is forcing some operators to be more flexible about produce choices.
harvest big salad

Local sourcing has gained cachet among chefs and consumers, but the truth is that many restaurants rely on California for much of their produce. More than 50 percent of the U.S. fruit, vegetable and nut supply comes from the state. That could be bad news for some operators if the drought continues.

The good news for the restaurant industry is that California farmers are showing more resilience than many anticipated earlier this year, according to an analysis issued by the California Department of Agriculture at the end of May, and price increases are predicted to be under 2 percent through 2015. Many growers have planted crops closer together to conserve water and are pumping groundwater onto fields. However, if the drought extends into 2016 and beyond, the impact could be more severe, according to the analysis.

In the meantime, David Laborde, director of product development for Houston-based Salata, a 43-unit fast-casual salad chain, is working with suppliers to assure availability of his top buys: Romaine lettuce, spring mix, spinach, carrots and avocados.

“There have been tight moments, but by developing personal relationships, the suppliers direct crops to us first,” he says. Laborde recently visited California growing areas and vendors to forge those relationships.

He’s also flexible about substitutions. Last year, when the Roma tomato crop was wiped out, Salata switched to round tomatoes—with a few adjustments. “These were not exactly to our specs, and we had to revamp procedures and train store-level staff on new cutting techniques,” he says. Salata’s strict specs are designed to keep food waste to a minimum.

Swapping in more abundant produce in season is another way to stay on top of availability issues, says Laborde. This summer, for example, mangoes, blueberries and watermelon are among the 30-plus fruits and vegetables he’s offering for Salata’s custom-tossed salads. But while he can substitute kale from Texas for a portion of the salad greens, romaine is not flexible, Laborde says. So far, Salata has not increased menu prices.

Culver City, Calif.-based Tender Greens is moving aggressively in the direction of sourcing more hydroponic produce, says Erik Oberholtzer, founder of the 18-unit fast casual. Hydroponics doesn’t deplete ground water, he says; it’s a closed system in which water is collected in tanks and recycled, cutting usage by 90 percent. “We’re looking to expand Tender Greens and want to be fully ramped up on hydroponics so growers can supply more of what we need close to our units,” Oberholtzer says.

Menu flexibility also plays a part in the strategy. “A number of our dishes are more generically written to take advantage of fluctuation in supply and seasonality,” says Oberholtzer. “It’s a win-win for our chefs, too. They can get more creative.” In Tender Greens’ Market Fish Salad ($11.50), summer corn can be exchanged for gypsy peppers in the fall; arugula and cress are the salad greens of summer, but chicory is winter’s choice. “We never stress any one ingredient,” he says. 

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