What Chefs And Grocers Wish Their Small Farmers Knew

Whether you already wholesale your farm products or you want to start, try these tips small farmers can leverage for a bigger bottom line.

by Susan Brackney
PHOTO: ponce_photography/Pixabay

Chef Daniel Orr depends on local farmers for many of the seasonal and specialty ingredients he features on his menu at Farm Bloomington Restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana. Still, he’s quick to admit that he can’t afford to purchase everything from small-time producers. And neither can other restaurant owners.

“In the restaurant business, you need to buy your bulk items at the cheapest price possible,” he notes. “If you’re going to buy potatoes or cauliflower or broccoli, it may be easier or cheaper to buy it from [large] purveyors.”

Orr has owned and operated Farm Bloomington since 2008. He’s also the author of The Wellness Lifestyle: A Chef’s Recipe for Real Life. “I need to be able to make sure that my menu price isn’t like New York City,” he explains. “It needs to be a middle-of-the-U.S.—southern Indiana—price range.”

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Something Special

Even so, that doesn’t necessarily mean small farmers are precluded from selling to their local restaurants and grocers.

“What I always ask my local farmers to do is to grow specialty [items] that are going to be more interesting. And these give me value-added on my menu,” Orr says. “So, if I can say that these purple Brussels sprouts or this purple asparagus or these microgreens are from a local farmer, I can use those as a value-added menu enticer.”

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Seasonal, hyper-local ingredients like wild-foraged redbud flowers or morel mushrooms can also earn you top dollar. And if you usually grow green beans? Opt for unusual varieties like the bright violet “purple dove bush beans” or some purple-streaked “dragon tongue bush beans” instead.

“Choose those things that are a little bit different,” Orr suggests. “Also, try to [provide] some ethnic ingredients. Grow some Latino or Asian or African ingredients. Or South American stuff.”

A few interesting ideas Orr recommends include muña, also known as Andean mint, water spinach and winged peas.

Time Is Money

You can also distinguish yourself from the competition by helping your customers to save time—something that has become increasingly important.

Farm Bloomington hasn’t provided carry-out or delivery services like other restaurants have during the coronavirus pandemic, but Orr acknowledges, “Where you are trying to operate with a small staff, some of those value-added things like pre-washed produce and ready-to-eat items probably appeal to a lot of restauranteurs. They can just put it on a plate or throw it in a pan. If you have to have extra labor there in the restaurant, that’s going to add to your costs.”

“Any time there is a labor-saving advantage to a product, that becomes particularly important during these times,” he continues.

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The Whole Story

If you’re able, you should also share as much information as you can about your products’ origins. For instance, Orr serves a lot of local bison, duck, and pork—and, like many chefs and grocers, he actively seeks out organic meats.

“If [your farm is] doing organic and you are using a [meat] processing plant that does non-organic, your [meat] will usually be processed first.”

In other words? “You get the first run during the day, because there hasn’t been anything else run through the factory or the butchers’ processing plants,” Orr says. “So, you’re working on clean equipment, because they can’t run the organic stuff after something that’s [not organic.]”

That’s another value-add for both restaurant owners and grocers—especially since some of the largest U.S. meat suppliers are struggling with the effects of the coronavirus. As a result, if you share more detail about your product-handling protocols and production processes, customers may be willing to pay more for a little added peace of mind.

Do—and Please Don’t

One thing to avoid? “People try to contact me during the busy parts of the day,” Orr says. “You do not want to try to get in touch with a chef at 12 o’clock during lunchtime or at 7 o’clock during dinnertime.”

He adds, “Don’t expect them to answer the phone and have time to speak with you.” Instead? Call during a slower period with the intention of setting a time later to talk.

Pre-coronavirus, this might have entailed an in-person meeting complete with product samples. Now, however, small farmers are better off requesting a simple online meeting.

“Utilize those modern technologies like Zoom and Facebook Live or FaceTime,” Orr says. “Everyone feels better if they can look someone in the eye and that person is telling them, ‘This is how my food is raised and this is where it is processed.’ ”

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