Upscale restaurants like Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., feature ingredients procured from local farmers as a hook to draw customers.
Upscale restaurants like Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., feature ingredients procured from local farmers as a hook to draw customers. Photo by Edwin Remsberg

Sales to Restaurants & Institutions

Restaurants, especially high-end restaurants, provide lucrative markets. Chefs and restaurant patrons pay premium prices for top-quality, distinctive, locally grown products — if they are available in quantities that warrant inclusion on the menu. Some states and regions have created marketing programs to encourage restaurants to feature local farm products, and an increasing number of restaurants identify farms in their menu item descriptions and in other promotions.

The challenge often lies in getting farmer-chef relationships established. In some areas, organized sampling events have brought farmers and chefs together to talk about seasonal availability, preferred crops and varieties, volume, post-harvest handling and delivery logistics.

In the mid-90s, after receiving a SARE farmer grant, Brian Churchill held an “expo” for 50 chefs from top restaurants in nearby Louisville, Ky. “We showed we can produce the volumes they need in as good or better a quality as they can get anywhere,” Churchill says.

The SARE grant started Churchill down a path he continues to tread more than a decade later. He expanded his “IPM sweet corn” to 60 acres and sells that and other produce to two chefs, who pick up their requests at the farm twice a month.

Another SARE-funded project in northwestern Arkansas organized 11 “All-Ozark Meals” at restaurants, delis, farmers markets and other locations in 2003. Enthusiasm from the event translated to more local purchasing by restaurants and groceries and a new commitment from a regional environmental group to support farmland preservation issues. Several chefs who cooked for the All-Ozark Meals now participate in a popular competition at the Fayetteville Farmers Market, in which chefs have two hours to shop at the market and then prepare a three-course meal using all-local ingredients. Strong media response has confirmed the value of farmers’ stories when it comes to selling food.

In Hawaii, a SARE-funded effort known as the “12 Trees” project is combining new crop development with culinary expertise, organic growing techniques and agritourism. Farmer and organizer Ken Love solicited input from chefs to identify 12 tropical tree fruits with commercial potential. Then, project leaders and volunteers planted trees on a demonstration site where farmers and researchers could learn about production methods — and tourists and local residents could come to see, taste and buy unusual fruits. Over the course of the project, it evolved from a research plot to a tourist destination.

“This came about solely because of community involvement,” Love says. “So instead of a university test plot, we have an attractive public park complete with educational displays on sustainable agriculture.”

As the trees come into full production, the Kona Pacific Farmers Cooperative will market the fruit to area restaurants. Students at the West Hawaii Culinary Arts program have been involved in developing recipes for the fruits, which include loquat, pomegranate, mysore berry, tropical apricot, figs and more.

“Everyone wins and benefits from this project,” Love says. “Researchers have a sustainable certified organic field for tropical fruit production tests, and chefs and student chefs are exposed to a wide variety of fruit that they continue to purchase from local growers.”

The 12 Trees site, located near the culinary school, was designed for visitors. Self-guided tours with field signs highlight information for growers and consumers. Two natural amphitheaters provide space for local groups to hold on-site workshops on such subjects as pruning and grafting. It also draws visitors to the 101-year-old historic Kona coffee co-op.

Other farmers report success from approaching local chefs directly.

“It seems that every type of restaurant has its own particular needs,” writes Jan Holder in her book, How to Direct Market Your Beef (Resources, p. 20), adding that locally owned restaurants are a much better bet than franchises. “Restaurateurs usually want fresh, not frozen beef. They also want a uniform product. The last thing a restaurant manager wants is a customer complaining that last time he ordered this steak it was a lot bigger, or leaner, or more tender, or whatever.”

Restaurants already working with seasonal, locally produced foods might be most willing to work with you, Holder says. Providing weekly availability lists can help educate chefs and other food service personnel about their options.

Prospective restaurant suppliers should consider:

  • Upscale restaurants and specialty stores pay top dollar for quality produce and hard-to-get items. According to Eric Gibson’s Sell What You Sow!, growers can expect a minimum of 10 percent over wholesale terminal prices for standard items at mainstream restaurants.
  • Most restaurants buy in limited quantities, and sales may not justify the necessary frequent deliveries. Growers should line up buyers a year in advance and develop secondary outlets.
  • Call buyers for appointments and bring samples.
  • Meat producers can offer a variety of cuts, and even bones for soup stock, but most restaurants will want fresh products.
  • Major selling points include daily deliveries, special varieties, freshness, personal attention and a brochure describing your farm and products.
  • When planning your crop mix, talk with chefs and specialty buyers, who are constantly looking for something new. Successful restaurant sales depend on meeting the changing needs of your buyers.

Other farmers and nonprofit organizers are exploring the potential of direct farm sales to institutions like schools, hospitals, and senior-care facilities. Philadelphia’s nonprofit Food Trust received a SARE grant in 2003 to strengthen farmer access to markets in the inner city. Working with farmer groups, extension services and institutional buyers, the group brokered marketing relationships, matching farmers with buyers, bargaining for better prices and coordinating deliveries.

Among the project’s successes was the creation of a “Farm Fresh” fruits and vegetable option for people participating in a “share food” program run by a state nonprofit organization. That program offers discounted monthly food packages with a labor commitment. About one-quarter of participants now choose fresh produce that was not previously available.

Sales from farms to Philadelphia schools is set to top $200,000 in the first two years of the group’s farm- to-school project, according to Food Trust staffer Patrick Gorman. A special kindergarten initiative is supplying Pennsylvania farm produce for morning snacks at 11 schools, three days a week. The project has nutritional and educational benefits for the children as well as economic benefits for the farmers.

Selling to schools can be challenging — budgets are limited, many decision-makers are involved, and many schools no longer manage their own kitchens. But as public concern over childhood obesity grows, new opportunities for school food programs are opening in many parts of the country. Privately run schools and institutions often have more flexibility than public schools.