One of the biggest restaurant trends in the last few years is using local ingredients in your food. You’ve probably seen menus with the words “locally sourced,” but what exactly does that mean, and why is it such a hot trend? It can be confusing when paired with other common terms such as “sustainable,” “environmentally friendly,” and even “organic.”
As more and more restaurants are serving up local fare, you may be wondering if you should be doing the same. There are some challenges for sure, but doing so can reap great benefits for your business and your community. Read on to learn all about local ingredients in restaurants and how this applies to you as a restaurant owner.
What Exactly is Local? When you hear the word “local” in regards to food, you probably think it’s pretty self explanatory, and it is. Kind of. Local foods are those that are grown locally to where they are prepared and served, but how far is local? Is it within your city, county, or even state?
Turns out, the term “local” can mean any of these things, so when you put it on your menu, make sure you’re ready to define it because it’s likely that your customers will ask. Saying your ingredients are locally sourced within your state is great if you’re in Rhode Island, but not such a big deal if you’re in Texas. You can define it any way you’d like; but the more you narrow it down, the better. You can say you source everything from 100 miles away, for example. Considering that much of the food we eat comes from thousands of miles away, this should satisfy most people’s definition of local.
Local vs. Sustainable vs. Organic. If you’ve been to a restaurant that offers local food, you’ve probably seen these other terms on their menus. While it’s a common misconception that all local foods are sustainable and organic, this simply isn’t true. A local ingredient is one that is simply grown or made within a certain area. It can be processed with harmful ingredients, or grown in a way that is not economically or environmentally sound. Sustainable ingredients are those in which great care is taken to ensure they are not bad for the environment or surrounding communities. Certified organic foods are those that are certified by the FDA to be produced without the use of pesticides and chemicals.
Many foods do meet the criteria for all of these things, but local does not equal sustainable or organic, and vice versa.
Should You Add Local Ingredients To Your Menu? Given the recent restaurant trend of local ingredients cropping up in restaurants everywhere from fast food to fine dining, there are few that wouldn’t benefit from adding some local ingredients to your menu. You don’t have to make your entire menu locally sourced, but a few couldn’t hurt. Diners love local, seasonal produce, and adding a few to your menu is a great way to add healthy menu items as well.
If you do decide that local menu items would be a good fit for your restaurant, you should be authentic about it. While you don’t have to jump for joy at the thought of adding local ingredients to your menu, you should at least muster up some enthusiasm when talking to your customers about it. There are many benefits of locally sourced foods, including better tasting finished dishes, the environmental impact, and supporting your local community. Diners can spot insincerity a mile away, and if it looks like all you’re doing it for is your bottom line (or worse, you’re not entirely honest about just how local your menu items really are), you could end up with a negative reputation.
How to to Implement Local Items on Your Menu. Once you’ve decided to add local items to your menu, the next step is figuring out just how to to it.
Most restaurants would have a hard time making every single item in on their menu local, but you’d be surprised at just what types of local food is out there. Your first thought might be produce that’s grown near you, but there are many more items you can source in your community. Besides fruits and vegetables, you can get meat and dairy products from local farms, and bread from a local bakery. You can try getting honey, maple syrup, or jam from a local producer, and even foods such as dried beans and nuts can be procured from a source other than a commercial food service company. Sourcing local ingredients doesn’t mean you have to add a trendy kale salad to your menu.
Take a look at your current menu and think about where you get your ingredients. What can you add or change without having to adjust your menu too much? This is where to start. By taking smaller steps, you won’t be overwhelmed by trying to source too many products.
Sourcing Local Ingredients. Finding local products that work with your restaurant concept and budget may be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. The best place to start is your cities largest farmer’s market. There, you’ll be able to meet farmers, beekeepers, bakers, and other producers of the best your city has to offer. Many producers will work out deals with restaurants and other wholesale businesses, so be sure to talk about your restaurant and what you’re hoping to accomplish.
Addressing Challenges. Going local doesn’t come without challenges. The first thing you might notice is that many local foods are more expensive. This is because large food manufacturers sell so much that they can negotiate lower prices, whereas a smaller company may not be able to. If cost is an issue, start with products that you know will make a big difference in the taste and quality of of your food. Meat and seasonal produce are two items which will net you big rewards when your customers taste the finished product.
Another challenge, especially with produce, is that it changes seasonally. If you’re in an area like California where everything grows all year round, this might not be a problem. In places with harsh winters, this means you have to think creatively to provide local produce. If you start small and ease into it, you can make gradual changes to your menu instead of overhauling the entire thing every season. Instead of changing your menu, you could offer seasonal specials that change based on what local goods you can get your hands on.
If you’re used to buying frozen and processed goods, you may need to brush up on your food safety habits. Fresh food spoils faster than processed, and that leads to loss of money. You’ll need to implement an inventory system that makes sure nothing goes to waste, especially if you’re paying a premium for that grass-fed beef or those fresh vegetables.
When you’re creating your menu, you might be tempted to embellish a bit when it comes to where your ingredients are from, or even which ingredients are actually local. Don’t fall into this trap. Be honest and transparent, because your customers will ask. If you get some of your items from a large producer, don’t be afraid to say it. Most customers will understand that not every single thing in your restaurant can be sourced locally, but will appreciate the efforts and honesty.
Locally sourced ingredients and food products in restaurants is a trend that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. If you’ve got an independent restaurant, or even a small chain, local ingredients can increase business as well as help the environment.
Do you source local ingredients for your restaurant? If so, tell us about it!