Farmers Selling to Restaurants: 8 Tips for Success

Selling your farm's products to restaurants can be a great, reliable source of income. Here's how to find, develop and maintain those relationships.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Selling produce or meat from your farm to restaurants can be an attractive opportunity, especially when you have an abundance of food that you need to move. However, it is not always as easy as simply calling up a restaurant and asking if it needs anything. Even if it does want to buy something, it is a good idea to have a system for handling orders from restaurants.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the greater nuances of selling to restaurants and some tips to keep those sales going and growing. Restaurants can offer the farmer an enormous chance to move a lot of food in a short amount of time, but these arrangements have their challenges. Here are some things you’ll need or at least want.

1. Develop Good Relationships

Cold-calling chefs in the middle of the summer to see if they want tomatoes is not always the best route. Certainly, you could get lucky. However, for the most part, chefs tend to stick with the growers with whom they’ve already developed relationships. So selling tomatoes or beef or whatever when you have an abundance is about building a relationship with each chef, getting to know them and understanding their menus.

2. Dine at the Restaurants

Speaking of understanding a menu, it’s difficult to bring restaurants what they need if you don’t know how they use the product they already get. For our farm, an essential part of selling to any restaurant, even when that establishment is high-end, is knowing the menu and eating there. It starts with meeting the chef and seeing whether an opportunity exists for our product, but the next step is to dine. A $100 meal is a small investment in a relationship that could yield tens of thousands of dollars in sales over the next few years. In that time, you will also get to know to the kitchen staff—many of whom will go on to start their own restaurants and look to you for product.

3. Have the Ability to Forecast

Chefs love farmers who can forecast, meaning that you should be able to reasonably tell how much of this or that item you have coming up. This also means if there’s an interruption in the products you offer, you can provide adequate notice so they can plan their menus accordingly.

4. Provide a “Fresh Sheet”

If your product offering changes every week, you must provide what is called a fresh sheet. This can be a simple email with a list of what’s available, or a spreadsheet—whatever you and your chefs prefer. This should list what is in season and what is out of season, with pricing.

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5. Sharpen Your Organizational Skills

Selling to restaurants requires the ability to track the orders, send out invoices, and keep up with who has paid and who hasn’t. This can get overwhelming fast in the middle of the season, especially when different restaurants have different preferences for receiving fresh sheets and paying invoices.

6. Have at Least One Specialization

Go into the season knowing your farm’s strengths, then tell chefs what you can produce and for howl long. I recommend having one year-round crop (lettuce or carrots, for instance) and a few specialty crops. Let the chefs know and then keep them updated on how those crops are coming along. Also bring samples. Always bring samples.

7. Be Consistent and Reliable

Chefs are sticklers for timeliness. If you say you’ll be somewhere at a certain time, be there—or call to tell whoever you’re meeting that you have to reschedule. Nothing will endear you more to a chef than being consistent and reliable.

8. Consider GAP Certification

Some restaurants and retailers might require you to have a certification called GAP—Good Agricultural Practices—before they buy from you. This is true mostly for larger restaurants but it is becoming more common at all restaurants.

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