8 Tips For Selling Your Produce At Local Restaurants

Local restaurants can become loyal farm customers—but you have to do some upfront work to get their business.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: Davis Staedtler/Flickr

If you were to imagine the perfect customer, this customer would probably buy high-dollar food, in bulk, every single week, all year long. That would be pretty nice, right? Well, fortunately, that’s what a good restaurant is. Because restaurants can be such great customers, the competition to get in with them is often fierce. Here are a few tips today about how to get the ball rolling with local restaurants—even those that might not be all that “locally-minded”—and land this potential dream customer for life.

1. Find The Right Restaurant

The best restaurants to sell to are busy ones. Any restaurant can be a good customer, but places that do a high volume of customers over a short period of time provide a lot of opportunity to sell produce.

That said, it doesn’t have to be a fancy restaurant. A place that sells a lot of burgers will go through loads of lettuce, tomatoes, onions and potatoes. If you can supply part or all of that in a year, that burger joint may very well be the only restaurant customer you need. Small, boutique restaurants, can be nice, too. They may not buy as much, but they may buy only from you, and those purchases can add up. Do not bother with most chains or fast food, as they typically have contracts with suppliers in place. Locally owned businesses are most likely to show interest and have the flexibility to work with local farmers.

2. Introduce Yourself

This seems straightforward, right? Just call the chef or whoever is in charge of produce. But it can be more complicated than that. Peak restaurant hours can be hectic, so you need to call the chef or manager during a lull—such as before or after the restaurant opens or between meal times.

Also, never drop in during service. That’s a great way to never get business with that restaurant. If you’re going to drop in, research what days they are open and what time their service starts. As a rule, never drop by within two hours of dinner service or within one hour of lunch service.

The phone call, in most cases, is the best place to start. Call the restaurant, explain who you are, and see what they suggest you do to get ahold of the chef. Some may hand the phone directly over to the chef, while others may suggest you send some information or produce lists (often referred to as fresh sheets) with pricing. If you do send something, it’s not a bad idea to follow up a week or so later with another phone call or email.

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3. Bring Samples

If possible, the first time you meet with a chef, bring him or her a few samples of what you grow. That can show the quality you can achieve, but it’s also just a nice gesture. If you don’t hear anything from them afterwards, it’s OK to follow up. Sometimes they love the produce but may just be busy. Other times, they may just not be interested and will likely tell you.

4. Prepare Produce Lists

It is good to design a produce list that is easily scannable, consistent and adjusted regularly. Do your best to not offer something you don’t have. If you’re able to offer special items or if something changes, contact the chef personally to let them know.

5. Provide High-Quality Produce

Make sure that the product you deliver is clean, fresh and worth the chef’s money. Getting a restaurant to buy something isn’t the hard part. The hard part is keeping this restaurant coming back for more.

6. Keep In Touch

Ask chef how they prefer to communicate about their produce needs. He or she may prefer text over email, have a particular app they like, or prefer weekly phone calls. Keep track of what method each prefers. Some may never, or rarely, check email so it may be a futile way to sell them food.

7. Set The Right Price

Because your restaurant will likely be buying in bulk, offer bulk discounts. Discounts should be based on quantity and should be listed on the price list. Do the math, though. Make sure the discount doesn’t also discount your time. It’s good business to be generous in your offerings when you can, but remember that you’re trying to make a living and restaurants shouldn’t expect free food.

8. Support The Businesses That Support You

It’s good business to eat at the restaurants you serve. It shows the chef that you’re into what they do, and you learn how the food is used. Take that back to the farm, and always keep working on that relationship.

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