One of the latest trends in both energy conservation and restaurant cuisine is a focus on the use of local and regional products. The conservationist points to locally grown food as a excellent way to eliminate the large energy costs involved in shipping food across great distances. You will find it worthwhile to evaluate your local, and often organic, sources for providing excellent menu opportunities. This concept also offers valuable marketing and public relations opportunities when your diners are aware of your restaurant’s local commitment.
While there has always been, of course, a local market for produce and certain products, the current movement represents a serious and organized effort to significantly increase the amount of local items purchased by and made available to your local restaurant. While there are various initiatives in metropolitan areas around the country, several restaurants are using a number of methods to connect with customers that are aware of this movement, from uniforms that are modern & sophisticated, to communication with social media, to supporting local events.
A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2010 represented a major effort to study the concepts and issues behind the local food phenomenon. While the first thing this study establishes is the lack of any one single definition of local food, many now accept a 400-mile radius as the general area to qualify a food producer as local to any given area. This distance was established in the 2008 Farm Act. That general guidance varies, of course, by regions and local transportation systems. You’ll find more aggressive local food advocates like to promote a 100-mile limit.
A Growing Market Segment
This study found that the local food market nearly doubled in less than a decade to more than $1.2 billion. Moreover, that trend indicates an accelerating rate of growth. The number of farmers’ markets also more than doubled, to more than 5,000. The study notes, but does not specifically break out, the growing importance of direct sales by local producers to restaurants and food facilities.
Significantly, the study underlines the market evidence that a large segment of consumers will pay more when you offer:
- High-quality local food, organic or not
- Food with perceived low environmental impact
- Products from nearby, local producer and farmers
Additionally, this study and others highlight the growing number of federal, state and local programs supporting the local production and sales movement. These programs are in place to support environmental sensitivity and increase local employment.
Understanding the Trends and Risks
If you wish to take part in the local foods trend, it’s prudent to take the time to understand both the benefits and limitation it offers. The advantages include:
- Access to specialty produce and items not available from most commercial suppliers
- Freshness of products, many with same day picking and delivery
- Ability to offer unique and seasonal menu selections
- Support of local businesses and farmers
- Potential for marketing and public relations opportunities
Those who have spent time developing their local markets also note several areas of risk that the supply chain is currently addressing. These include:
- Inconsistent supply from small, often new participants
- Regulatory issues and some lack of oversight of quality and safety of items
- Time necessary to find and develop relationships with small, mom and pop providers
If you seek to provide creative and imaginative menu offerings, you might find some inspiration in locally produced specialties. You should highlight any participation in the local market on your menus, website and marketing materials.