The concept of Farm to Table is not new, and practices in modern restaurants vary. Fresh ingredients can easily set you apart from rival restaurants. Before exploring ideas of how to incorporate fresher ingredients, it is important to know the history and understand the cost of farm to table, as well as how to market fresh dishes.
The History of Farm to Table
Fairly recently, ‘farm-to-table’ was the buzzword in the restaurant industry. A little-known fact is that this concept began in the late 1960s. There were many advocates for this movement, from chefs and farmers to writers and environmentalists. Some of the most known names include Wes Jackson, Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, Barbara Kingsolver, and Edna Lewis.
Nearly fifty years ago, one of the first restaurants known as farm to table opened in Berkeley, California in 1971. This movement slowly grew into the slow food movement and has grown into a steady trend.
Mostly known as farm to table, in recent years there’s also been “farm to school”. These are programs that provide local produce to schools in neighboring communities. Both focus on sustainable and organic practices in food, but farm to table focuses on creating dishes.
The farm to table concept has shifted to a focus on local suppliers from the big box suppliers of days gone by. If you have ever had a farm-fresh carrot and then eaten a mass-produced carrot, the difference is clear. Fresh vegetables, fruit, meats, and grains are simply tastier.
In the summer, farm to table foods are crispy, brighter, and smell good. In the winter, while preserved in cellars, the same items still taste better than their mass-produced versions. A perfect example is any mass-produced strawberry versus a local, vine-ripened strawberry.
Buying local also lends itself to green practices. As fresh produce can be easily transported locally, without any need for plastic or other packaging, it is also good for the planet.
Current Farm to Table Practices
Whether a restaurant is using local berries, or a bar is using locally produced spirits, farm to table is a perfect way to connect with your local communities. It is one of the best ways to connect dishes to spotlight local specialty foods that may become customer favorites.
Local sourcing is about partnering with trusted vendors and suppliers who work closely with local farmers. A quick start could be a visit to your local farmer’s market. Start building connections with the vendors and ask questions such as if they know of local sources for specific produce for your restaurant.
After you’ve made your first purchase, there is not an immediate need to use the product. After all, it hasn’t been through a large processing plant or been traveling for days. Be creative and make your new or revised dish interesting!
Many ice cream shops use local ingredients for crazy, yet amazing, flavors. Local coffee shops often use locally roasted coffee and partner with local bakeries for their baked goods. Bars and places serving spirits and drinks will have local brews, wines, and spirits.
Understanding the Cost of Local Ingredients
The first thing everyone notices with farm to table ingredients is the added cost. Remember these items were locally grown, and in purchasing them you are supporting your local economy. At the same time, you are offering customers fresher and higher quality food. Generally considered a win-win situation, you will need to update your menu to acknowledge the fresh ingredients.
During the off season, it may be hard to find some produce, but some farmers will have greenhouses to grow a variety of things during those months. Simply discuss your restaurant’s needs and alternatives with your farming connections ahead of time.
If you are unsure your customers can afford small price increases, start with add-on or buy-up options such as:
- Jams, salsas, honey
- Breads, pastries, and pastas
- Locally raised meats
- Local milk, eggs, and other dairy products
Some restaurants have even taken it to the next level by growing their own ingredients. If you have a green thumb, start with your most needed herbs. Depending on your location and size of land, your restaurant could sustain a small garden with select produce. See what grows well in your region and start with one plant, or work with a local nursery to find out what they recommend.
Oftentimes paying a few dollars more for a fresher, more tasty meal or treat is not a deal-breaker. Many travelers will prefer locally grown food and want to eat like a local. Having signs and marketing that reflect your farm to table options will draw those looking for a local experience.
Ways to Market Local Dishes
Once dishes are made with fresher food and success is apparent, marketing these changes is key to continued success. Your customers will expect the same fresh taste every time. It is common for restaurants to incorporate seasonal menus for local dishes for this very reason.
Take time to ask your farm to table vendors if there are regional publications or websites. An example of what you are searching for is The Valley Table. Most larger cities will have something like this, or a site focused on local farmer’s markets. Make connections with the site(s) and explore opportunities for blogs or stories, or ‘partner’ links.
Update your menu to include information about your local ingredients. If you can afford it, look into digital menus. This type of menu is much easier to update and can include rotating photos of fresh ingredients and dishes. Remember to occasionally mention your partnerships in well-written posts for your social media efforts, and follow your vendors and farmer’s profiles in the platform you use.
With the basics of farm to table under your hat, go out and see what your community has to offer. Customer’s taste buds and health, along with the planet, will be all the better for your efforts.