NCAT Agriculture Specialist
© NCAT 2004
Upscale restaurants serving locally-grown produce are in the headlines nationwide. Growing for this market is both lucrative and demanding. Profiles of growers from around the country illustrate successful strategies and points to remember when working with chefs.
Locally grown food is gaining in popularity among chefs in upscale restaurants. Chefs buy from local farmers and ranchers because of the quality and freshness of the food, good relationships with the producers, customer requests for local products, and the availability of unique or specialty products.(1) Selling to local chefs is among the alternatives that will help to build a diverse, stable regional food economy, and a more sustainable agriculture.
The obstacles chefs find to purchasing locally grown food are related to distribution and delivery–getting the right product in the right quantity to the right place at the right time. Some chefs find limited availability and variety are also barriers to using local foods.(1)
If you are selling at a farmers’ market, you may already have met chefs who want to use local produce. If not, you will have to do a little research to learn which restaurants feature specialty salads, homemade soups, or unique cuisine. Your local phone book is a quick and easy place to start. Stop by the restaurant to see what kind of establishment it is. If you like what you see, contact the head chef or manager in person or by phone. Bring samples of your products, recipes or ideas of how they can be used, and a brochure that lists your products and when they are available. As with all types of marketing, building a relationship with the customer is critical.
Profiles from around the U.S. show how farmers and chefs are connecting to use and promote locally grown produce. They highlight advantages and disadvantages and share ideas for success. These are restated in the Summary.
By Lynn Byczynski, in Growing for Market, March 2003.(2)
Odessa Piper is a frequent visitor to the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, Wisconsin, where she makes purchases for her famous restaurant, L’Etoile.
One of America’s most celebrated women chefs, Odessa Piper has built her reputation and her restaurant business on the concept of using seasonal, local food. She was honored in 2001 as the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef–Midwest.
The menu at L’Etoile changes about every three weeks. At the top of her menu are the names of the farms that have contributed to that season’s dishes.
Kay Jensen and Paul Ehrhardt of JenEhr Family Farm say Odessa has helped them be better farmers.
"Working with Odessa has been not only a pleasure but a wonderful opportunity for us to learn," Kay says. "She is very particular about what she wants and how she wants things, which has helped us understand production from a chef’s perspective. She’s also been most gracious about letting me come into the kitchen and help for a half a day whenever I’ve asked. You certainly have a different perspective on your picking and packing once you’ve worked on the product in the kitchen.
"She does an exemplary job of creating beautiful meals with our local products. And in the process, she’s really created a partnership with the area farmers, working together to bring nutritious, high quality and good tasting food to the region."
Odessa’s advice to farmers who would like to sell to upscale restaurants is to not be intimidated.
"Farmers should not be afraid of coming across as businesslike and competent. They should not be afraid to show that side to their counterparts in the restaurant business. Farmers need to be current on the trends."
She recommends reading Food Arts, a glossy magazine that is free to culinary professionals; you can try to sign up for a free subscription on the Web site, www.foodarts.com. She advises farmers to FAX or e-mail chefs a weekly "fresh sheet" of what’s available.
"Make it clear what it is, how you pack it, and how much you are charging," she says. "Deliver when you say you will. Have a good phone system, have a cell phone, call us back. Don’t be afraid to be savvy, smart, and effective."
P.O. Box 564
|Liberty, Jonafree, Gold Rush Apples||E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org|
Organic Lamb Farm
5643 Gilmore Rd.
Albany, OH 44665
|Organic Lamb||Albany Farmer’s Market
|Frog Hill Farm
7896 Frog Lane
|A variety of vegetables and berries||On-farm Store
652 Patrick Road
Galena, OH 43201
|Pastured chicken, beef, eggs||E-mail: email@example.com|
For more information about L’Etoile and Odessa Piper,
Alternative Meat Marketing
Market Gardening: A Start-up Guide
Entertainment Farming & Agri-Tourism
CSA Community Supported Agriculture
Bringing Local Food to Local Institutions
Postharvest Handling of Fruits and Vegetables
Marketing Strategies for Farmers and Ranchers (SAN)
By Stuart T. Nakamoto, in Western Profiles of Innovative Marketing.(3)
Dean Okimoto, the owner-operator of Nalo Farms, has built a highly successful business by supplying excellent-quality salad greens and fresh herbs to many of Hawaii’s top restaurants. Many establishments feature Dean’s signature product, Nalo Greens, a premier salad mix, prominently on their menu.
Dean believes there are three keys to successful niche marketing in a restaurant and resort hotel environment: top quality, consistency, and customer service. All are equally important.
The first key is unsurpassed quality of the product. Nalo Farms’ mission statement reads "We cut in the morning, we pack midday, we deliver in the afternoon, and it’s on the customer’s plate that night."
According to Dean, product consistency and delivery reliability—delivering product in quantities desired and at times promised—are keys for maintaining customers. Clients stay with Nalo Farms because the business is able to consistently give the restaurants what they need, when they need it. However, Dean considers consistency to be one of the high-stress points of his business. Dean always overproduces, not only to assure supply but also to enable only the best product to be marketed.
The third key is customer service. Here Dean goes beyond day-to-day service to include a longer-term view. "When you do these (smaller) restaurants, a lot of times if these guys are good, then they’ll move on to other places. You shouldn’t overlook a restaurant only because it is small. And, when you go into a restaurant, if there are ‘kids’ that are interested in what you are doing, take the time to explain it. You never know who is going to go on to be an executive chef at another restaurant or move up at that restaurant. Never alienate anyone."
Marketing for Dean starts by using the right contact in the client firm. Dean tries to deal only with the chef or the person in charge. Especially in corporate-type organizations, there is a tendency for salespeople to be sent to the purchasing managers. "Purchasing managers are not concerned with quality; they are concerned with price. Our Nalo Greens may cost twice as much per pound as a similar imported product, but when you plate it up, it will come out to exactly the same price. You’re able to plate up more because it’s fresher, so it has more ‘fluff.’ You don’t have to use as much. Then when they taste it, it sells itself."
It’s also important to be computer literate or have staff that can use computers. One big use is to track trends and busy seasons. Dean considers the San Francisco area to be a mecca of new agricultural products. He often travels there to find new ideas. "There are some open markets that are just humongous," he says. "There are probably 150 different varieties of just tomatoes. It’s fantastic; it’s unbelievable."
It is also part of Nalo Farms’ business philosophy to give back to the community. "You’ve got to give back to get back," says Dean. "Besides, when we do these charity events, we generally gain business from that. At the beginning, we probably gained one or two customers at every event. It’s not only the people who patronize the event, but also the people who are serving. So, we not only give back, but it can make good business sense as well."
Dean and his staff are constantly talking to the chefs to find what their needs are and what they want.
Nalo Farms is considering expanding its operations beyond its restaurant and resort hotel niche, perhaps into mainstream supermarkets. Dean does not want to have the same product for the general public as is in the restaurants. "We would shoot ourselves in the foot if we did that. Part of the reason the restaurants are using Nalo Greens is because they are not widely available in the market. We may offer a different mix and call it something like ‘Nalo Wonder Greens’ so people are aware of the difference."
By Diane Green on Greentree Naturals Web site.(4)
Diane Green and husband, Thom Sadoski, operate Greentree Naturals, a small certified organic farm in rural northern Idaho. They produce a wide assortment of specialty produce, herbs, fresh and dried flowers, and berries. Diane manages a growers’ collective, marketing several farmers’combined produce through farmers’ markets, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and to upscale restaurants.
"By ourselves, we couldn’t meet the demands of the market, but by working together, we all are able to improve our sales."
"There’s also safety in numbers. If one of the growers has a crop failure, we can count on one of the other farms to meet the order, so we don’t lose a customer," she says.
Greentree Naturals also hosts summer farm tours and on-farm workshops. They teach all aspects of organic production and market gardening and offer a consulting service for the same. They also have an active apprenticeship program for aspiring farmers and are presently involved in designing a curriculum for the University of Idaho and Washington State University, to establish an accredited curriculum for on-farm student-apprenticeship programs.
Diane and Thom believe that diversity in their farming practices is every bit as important as diversity in their approach to marketing their crops. They grow 37 different kinds of salad greens, 60 culinary herbs, 15 varieties of squash, 8 kinds of peppers, 7 varieties of eggplant, and much more. Greentree carrots come in four different colors: orange, yellow, red, and purple. They get top dollar for these unique crops that chefs can’t get through the normal produce suppliers.
Diane Green and Thom Sadoski have published a guide on Selling Produce to Restaurants for other small-acreage growers.(4) It is based on their own experience, including working with the growers’ collective to extend the season, variety, and quantity of available produce. They include a copy of a restaurant survey they use to determine the needs of potential buyers and a sample cover letter used to introduce themselves.
By Torrey Reade, Neptune Farm.(5)
Torrey Reade and Dick McDermott are the owners of Neptune Farm, a 126-acre organic farm in southwestern New Jersey, about six miles from the Delaware Bay. They raise beef cattle, sheep, asparagus, and blueberries. The farm has been certified organic by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ) since 1992.
The soils are mostly sandy and silt loams, and the land is very flat. When Dick and Torrey bought the farm in 1989, its topsoil was gone in places, and it had grown up in weeds. With help from NOFA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and neighbors, the land is being restored to health.
"We are using grass-fed farm animals to bring our soils back to life."
Torrey says, "Growing hay and pasture for them allows us to have a productive farm without much tillage, so that the soil biota have a chance to recover. Nutrients cycle from the grass through our cows and sheep, and wind up back in the soil. Healthy soil produces healthy plants and animals, and builds a resource for future generations."
Torrey says the trouble with selling meat to restaurants is that it is hard to convince chefs to use all the cuts of beef. Fortunately, the chefs they work with are willing to try new things. White Dog Café chef Kevin Von Klause in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, found ways to use the whole beef. At the White Dog Café they even corn their own brisket. The chefs also decided they didn’t want to use any animals that were not humanely raised. Neptune Farm animals are certified organically grown, slaughtered in a USDA inspected facility, and are sold fresh, not frozen.
Neptune Farm is at the end of half a mile of dirt road, remote by New Jersey standards. Torrey says, "For most of the year there are only the two of us running the farm, and we’re busier than one-armed paperhangers. That means we wholesale most of what the farm produces—no farmstand, no farmers’ market, and no CSA. We also need to
maintain what the state and federal vets call ‘biosecurity’ for our animals, by minimizing their exposure to visitors. "
Neptune Farm markets are listed on the Web site located at www.neptunefarm.com.
Inspired by other local-food-to-local-people projects around the country, a group of growers, chefs, CES staff, NCAT staff, and community activists in Northwest Arkansas began meeting in early 2001. Their discussions focused on three questions:
The group came up with a long list of projects, and decided to focus on the one most likely to bring attention to local food and food producers. Inspired by All-Iowa Meals (7), the group initiated an All-Ozark Meal project (6), and received a grant from the Southern SARE program to fund the project.
During the 2003 growing season, All-Ozark Meals were served at several venues, including the Ozark Natural Foods Cooperative’s deli during customer appreciation day, the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market during its 30 th anniversary celebration, Bordino’s restaurant, Doeling Dairy, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and Ozark Brewing Company. Several vendors have continued to sell to chefs as a result of contacts made during the project.
The range of venues confirms the experience shared by Bayfield, Wisconsin, market gardener Tom Galazen: "Sometimes regular non-upscale restaurants committed to quality can be very good consistent markets, too."
A new report from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture shows that produce from conventional sources within the United States travels an average of 1,494 miles from farm to point of sale, while locally-grown produce travels an average of only 56 miles to reach the same points of sale.(8) Five companies control 80% of the food industry market. Rather than cede local control of our food system to global processors, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers—all of whom are beholden to their shareholders first (9)—we can pursue alternatives. Selling to local chefs is one of these.
Oct 11, 2003 • Owner Appreciation Weekend
Squash & Pecan Dressing
Ozark-Style Chicken Pot Pie
Assorted Greens & Vegetables
Why Local Food Is Better
Supports local farm families • Preserves farmland and open space • Great fresh taste! • Healthier and more wholesome • Ensures local food production • Shorter shipping distances • Supports local economic development • Keeps dollar in local economy
A small group of committed individuals and volunteers met over two years ago to examine food production and consumption in our region. This group, called the Northwest Arkansas Local Food Initiative, includes: the City of Fayetteville, Fayetteville Farmers Market, National Center for Appropriate Technology, Ozark Natural Foods, Ozark Pasture Beef, Sassafras, Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, and Washington County Extension.
Funding for the All Ozark Meal Project has been provided to the National Center for Appropriate Technology by Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), a part of USDA.
Use of locally grown foods by chefs at upscale restaurants is making the news. This affords a marketing opportunity to growers who are able to consistently produce and deliver high-quality, high-value products from their farms. Chefs are often willing to pay premium prices for specialty products, such as berries, sweet corn, cherry tomatoes, and salad mix, but not for "commodities" such as potatoes. One key to remember when working with chefs or restaurant owners is that they are very busy people. The following pointers will help you get and keep their business.
· Contact the right person: the chef or person in charge.
· Ask the chefs what day and time is best to contact them; be consistent about making contact at that time every week to find out what they need.
· Ask how they want to be contacted: telephone, e-mail, or FAX.
· Find out what they want. Keep up-to-date on food trends. Schedule a winter visit with seed catalogs in hand before ordering seed for the coming season; chefs appreciate the opportunity to tell you what they can use or would like to try.
· Grow more than you think you need so you can select the best.
· Bring samples, recipes, and information about your farm.
· Provide advance notice about what is available. This will allow chefs to feature local produce on their menus.
· Notify the restaurant as soon as possible if there are shortages in what was ordered or if the delivery will be later than scheduled.
· Provide reliable delivery service and consistently top-quality products and packing standards.
· Be professional in invoicing.
Selling to local chefs is among the alternatives that can help to build a more stable regional food economy and a more sustainable agriculture. This market does, like any other, have challenges: a chef with whom you had developed a strong relationship may move on, and you may lose that account; a restaurant may close, or tight finances at a restaurant may result in late payments to you. A diversity of markets as well as a diversity of crops helps to provide the flexibility and stability you need to stay in business. Joining other growers to form a cooperative may also help to reduce some risks, but also adds new challenges. See Further Resources for related ATTRA publications and other sources of additional information on ways to connect local growers to local consumers.
The author would like to thank John Hendrickson of the University of Wisconsin CIAS, and market gardener Tom Galazen of Bayfield, Wisconsin, for their help in reviewing this publication.
[This list is not comprehensive and does not imply endorsement of these companies, products or indiviguals.]
1. Zumwalt, Brad. 2003.
Approaching Food Service Establishments with Locally Grown Produce. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 39 p. Online at www.farmprofitability.org/research/grownlocal2/grownlocal2.htm.
Copies of the complete book are available for purchase or can be freely downloaded and printed from the Web.CALSmart
5. Neptune Farm
6. All-Iowa Meal
7. All-Ozarks Meal
8. Pirog, Rich, and Laura Miller. 2003.
9. Brady, Eileen, and Debra Sohm. 2003.
Alternative Meat Marketing. ATTRA Information Packet. 2000. By Holly Born. NCAT, Fayetteville, AR. 24 p.
Farmers’ Markets. ATTRA Information Packet. 2002. By Janet Bachmann. NCAT, Fayetteville, AR. 20 p.
Entertainment Farming & Agri-Tourism. ATTRA Information Packet. 2001. By Katherine Adam. NCAT, Fayetteville, AR. 20 p.
Community Supported Agriculture. ATTRA Current Topic. 2002. By Katherine Adam. NCAT, Fayetteville, AR. 2 p.
Bringing Local Food to Local Institutions. ATTRA Information Packet. 2003. By Barbara Bellows, Rex Dufour, and Janet Bachmann. NCAT, Fayetteville, AR. 28 p.
Postharvest Handling of Fruits and Vegetables. ATTRA Information Packet. 2000. By Janet Bachmann. NCAT, Fayetteville, AR. 25 p.
Marketing Strategies for Farmers and Ranchers. 2003.
Sustainable Agriculture Network. 20 p.
Gibson, Eric. 1994.
Halweil, Brian. 2003.
Home Grown Wisconsin
Oklahoma Food Cooperative Organizing Committee
Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
This page was last updated on: August 28, 2014