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.
â€śIn the restaurant business, you need to buy your bulk items at the cheapest price possible,â€ť he notes. â€śIf you’re going to buy potatoes or cauliflower or broccoli, it may be easier or cheaper to buy it from [large] purveyors.â€ť
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. â€śI need to be able to make sure that my menu price isn’t like New York City,â€ť he explains. â€śIt needs to be a middle-of-the-U.S.â€”southern Indianaâ€”price range.â€ť
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Even so, that doesn’t necessarily mean small farmers are precluded from selling to their local restaurants and grocers.
â€śWhat 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,â€ť Orr says. â€śSo, 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.â€ť
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 â€śpurple dove bush beansâ€ť or some purple-streaked â€śdragon tongue bush beansâ€ť instead.
â€śChoose those things that are a little bit different,â€ť Orr suggests. â€śAlso, try to [provide] some ethnic ingredients. Grow some Latino or Asian or African ingredients. Or South American stuff.â€ť
A few interesting ideas Orr recommends include muĂ±a, 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 timeâ€”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, â€śWhere 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.â€ť
â€śAny time there is a labor-saving advantage to a product, that becomes particularly important during these times,â€ť 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 porkâ€”and, like many chefs and grocers, he actively seeks out organic meats.
â€śIf [your farm is] doing organic and you are using a [meat] processing plant that does non-organic, your [meat] will usually be processed first.â€ť
In other words? â€śYou get the first run during the day, because there hasn’t been anything else run through the factory or the butchers’ processing plants,â€ť Orr says. â€śSo, you’re working on clean equipment, because they can’t run the organic stuff after something that’s [not organic.]â€ť
That’s another value-add for both restaurant owners and grocersâ€”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.
Doâ€”and Please Don’t
One thing to avoid? â€śPeople try to contact me during the busy parts of the day,â€ť Orr says. â€śYou 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.â€ť
He adds, â€śDon’t expect them to answer the phone and have time to speak with you.â€ť 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.
â€śUtilize those modern technologies like Zoom and Facebook Live or FaceTime,â€ť Orr says. â€śEveryone 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.’ â€ť