Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed the proliferance of a particular word on restaurant menus in recent years: local. Every dish seems to come with geographic coordinates in the near vicinity: mushrooms from in-state, steak made with locally produced grass-fed beef, greens grown right on the restaurant roof.
“Eat local” has become not only a slogan but an international phenomenon. But what does it mean exactly? How can local food be used not only as a catch phrase, but as a means to promote a restaurant and increase sales? Here, we will explain the eat local movement a bit more, including tips for how to parlay this phenomenon into superior offerings as well as a marketing tool for a restaurant.
** Link to 2 relevant chefworks articles in post
Going local: the basics. With the trendiness of “local” in foodie parlance, it’s easy to lose sight of what it actually means. Let’s give it a quick overview.
What does “local food” mean? On the one hand, the definition is fairly literal: local food is, well, local. While many will think of fruits and vegetables first, local food isn’t limited to produce. It can also refer to locally produced meat, seafood, dairy, or even beverages such as cider or beer. It can even refer to foods such as coffee, which would not be grown locally but are roasted locally. Typically, it is produced on a small scale.
First, what defines the perimeter of “local”? This can vary depending on who you ask. Some US states would call anything produced in-state “local”. But in large states such as California, this really could be from quite a ways away–the state is over 800 miles long!
Many restaurants will assign a mile limit to what is considered local; this can vary depending on how much is grown and produced in a given area. A radius could be as much as 200 miles, but a good average is 50 to 100 miles.
What is the deal with local, sustainable, and organic? “Local” isn’t the only word which has been used with ubiquity in recent years. “Sustainable” and “organic” are also tossed around a lot these days. Are they all the same thing? Not necessarily. Here’s a quick rundown:
Local food: As described above, local food is either grown or produced within a geographical area.
Organic food: Sources on organic farming and ingredients state that foods that are organic are grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage by-products, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. When the product in question is an animal product, including meats, eggs, and dairy, the animals in question cannot take antibiotics or growth hormones.
Here’s the thing: to be officially considered organic and be awarded the seal, a food must not only meet these standards but be certified by the USDA. The process requires inspections and a lot of paperwork, and can cost upwards of $1500. Because of the expense, many local producers may follow organic guidelines and practices, but are not officially certified.
Sustainable food: According to this article, sustainable agriculture is a way of growing or raising food, including animals, in an ecologically and ethically responsible manner using practices that protect the environment, safeguard human health, are humane to farm animals, and provide fair treatment to workers.
Because foods grown locally are often grown on a smaller scale, the likelihood that they will be organic and/or sustainable is higher than foods produced on a large commercial scale, but just because a food is local does not instantly make it sustainable or organic.
Why go local? There are many benefits to “going local” in your restaurant. To name just a few:
You know where your food comes from. There is a great deal of power in knowing where your food comes from. For one, the restaurant has a relationship with the producer, meaning that there is a higher level of accountability than buying food from a faceless corporation. For another, it increases a restaurant’s knowledge about foods from the region, and allows them to create a menu that reflects it properly.
You support your community. Small farmers or producers get business, restaurants get superior food and a fantastic marketing tool, and customers get to enjoy local bounty and get to know area producers. This creates a sense of pride in community, promoting quality of life for all parties.
Your food is fresher. When foods are grown locally, they have less distance to travel from the field, factory, or mill to your door. This means that you will receive the foods at their pinnacle of freshness.
Your food is of a superior quality. Because it is grown or produced in smaller batches, the food often has better quality control. It is made by people who care about producing the best, not merely producing the most cost effective product.
It’s a good marketing tool. Quite frankly, local food has become a powerful marketing vehicle. By getting in on it, you can not only benefit from all of the above reasons, but you can also capitalize on the trend in a positive way.
Challenges of going local. Going local isn’t always easy. Here are some of the challenges you might expect to encounter.
Higher costs. Often, locally produced products are made in smaller batches, which makes them more expensive. However, this need not be a bad thing. Restaurants are often in a better position than individuals to buy in bulk. Talk to the producer about your expected needs and see if a good price can be worked out.
Availability is not consistent. Many factors can affect locally produced food; for instance, a late freeze could affect crops, making some foods scarce and therefore more expensive.
For this reason, many restaurants featuring local food have rotating menus, so that they can tailor the menu to availability, rather than having a set menu which may be difficult to maintain depending on availability.
You’ll be dealing with more vendors. Often, local vendors specialize in just one or a few products. That means that instead of dealing with a large commercial vendor for all of your food, you’ll be dealing with multiple suppliers: the meat supplier, the dairy supplier, various fruit and vegetable suppliers. This can add a lot more paperwork and a lot more to keep track of on a daily basis.
Smaller vendors may not be as efficient. While it’s not true in every case, there is a reputation for small producers that when they have their mind on production, they are not always quite as prompt about being timely with delivery, et cetera. Be careful in choosing vendors, getting references if needed to see if they are the right fit.
How to get started going local: here are some tips for dipping your toe into offering local food.
Start small. You don’t have to incorporate every single local ingredient at once. Start small, with something that you know you’ll be able to sell, such as salad greens. From there, you can begin to incorporate more and more local products into your menu.
Make your menu seasonal. An ever-changing menu that reflects the food that is available and freshest is a great way to assist your restaurant in going local. This will allow you to keep the dining experience fresh and interesting, and allow the freedom to create new dishes that will use the currently available local food.
Spread the word. Make sure that your menus and advertising material mention that you serve local foods. This is a powerful marketing technique. Do not underestimate it.
Be sure to educate your staff. Educate your staff on who your vendors are, what the local foods are, and any selling points or things that are special about them. WHen they can convey this information to diners, it gives them a richer dining experience.
Going local might seem like an unattainable goal at first, but it is well worth exploring. While at first it may seem confusing and expensive, ultimately it is going to garner a better product, as well as create a community around people and food. It supports local farmers, keeps your community interesting, and gives your diners a fantastic experience.
What do you think is the most interesting aspect of local food?