PHOTO: NAIT/Flickr
Aliza Sollins
April 21, 2016

“Please send me some farmers!”

Chef Tony Yalnazov at Apiary Catering in Lexington, Ky., says that he would love it if more farmers contacted him to sell their products. Demand for local food in restaurants is growing, according to a 2016 survey by the National Restaurant Association, which found that 92 percent of fine-dining restaurateurs say they plan to add a locally sourced item to their menus this year, along with 73 percent of casual and 63 percent of fast-casual restaurants.

For farmers, restaurant sales can fit the niche between small sales to individual customers and large volume sales to wholesale outlets. Restaurants can be a great way to move bulk amounts of harvest, sell unusual or unique products, get publicity by appearing on a menu, and learn interesting food-making techniques and recipes that can be shared with customers.

But breaking into the business of selling to restaurants requires some additional communication and understanding to maintain a long-term farm-to-chef relationship. Here are a few words of advice from both farmers and chefs on what it takes to make the relationship work.

Consider:

  • ideal delivery times
  • variety and consistency of product
  • personal connections versus using a broker for convenience
  • the chef’s preferences on how to be notified about product availability

For quick and easy sales, use a broker.

Leo Keene is a Kentucky garlic farmer whose business has evolved into the full-time job of brokering sales between farms and restaurants. As a member of a local farmers market, Keene often found himself being contacted by fellow farmers who wanted someone to help them make sales and distribute to restaurants.

“Many chefs think they want to shop for produce at the farmers market, but that quickly falls to the wayside as they get busy,” Keene says.

By aggregating sales between many farmers, he’s is able to provide chefs with a greater variety of local produce. He makes regular deliveries on Wednesdays and Saturdays, which eases coordination and alleviates concerns about limited storage space at restaurants. Because he’s spent many years building relationships with local chefs, he is able to anticipate their needs and knows what questions to ask of his clientele. “

What I bring to the dance is fresh produce and the credibility of being a farmer myself,” he says.

Some farmers elect to sell to brokers like Keene because he already has restaurant relationships and the distribution infrastructure, so he can quickly and conveniently purchase excess produce at the end of the farmers market or whenever a farmer has a bumper harvest.

For repeated sales and specific products, build your own relationship.

Rather than making a few quick sales to a broker, other farmers may choose to build their own long-term relationships with local chefs. Carla Garey, who raises diverse produce, chicken, pork and more at Garey Farms, prefers to work face-to-face with the restaurants she sells to. Many chefs may appreciate this approach, which helps them learn more about the identity of the local food they are featuring on their menus.

Building your own relationship may take more work, but you’re interested in repeated, regular sales, it may be worth the time and energy to work directly with a restaurant. Chef Michel Lobel recommends that farmers make sure their product is consistent. Also, be sure to provide any useful information about proper storage methods or unique qualities of your product, such as a pumpkin that makes a particularly good pie due to its low water content.

Schedule meetings with local chefs.

Don’t just pop in suddenly an hour before the dinner rush when you have a bumper harvest or couldn’t sell that crate of fennel at the farmers market. To build a strong relationship with a restaurant, it’s helpful to set up a meeting before the harvest season is in full gear, so you can get to know what types of products a restaurant is looking for and how they prefer to coordinate deliveries.

Some chefs may appreciate text messages directly from farmers whenever they have any products for sale, while other chefs may not. A chef may even want to contract with a farmer to grow a specific item or may need to be educated about seasonality. A meeting is a good time to find out if a chef is interested in regular purchases of a specific product or if they’re fine with buying whatever is fresh and in season.

Educate chefs about local-food incentive programs.

Make sure to educate your chefs about programs that provide financial incentives for local food purchases, such as the Restaurant Rewards Program in Kentucky or REAP Food Group’s Restaurant Rewards in Wisconsin. And be sure to have a good system for providing receipts so that chefs can track their purchases.

Local farmers might not be able to provide the rock-bottom prices, endless variety and daily delivery of large wholesale distributors. But what local farmers can provide is freshness, a unique product and a connection to the local food system, which is increasingly important to chefs and consumers. Whether a you decide to work with a broker, build a long-term contract relationship or make occasional sales directly to chefs, you can fill a valuable niche to increase sales and availability of local food.

More information about selling to restaurants can be found at the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) website.


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