6 Tips for Sourcing Local Foods

The farm-to-fork movement has proven to be more than a passing trend. Countless independent eateries are building their brands on a promise to deliver meals prepared entirely or mostly from ingredients sourced from nearby growers and producers… or at least pretending to. There’s no doubt sourcing locally is good for the environment and can attract a growing segment of diners who prefer to know that the money they spend dining out supports their local economy. Still, variables like unpredictable weather, limited availability, and seasonal scarcity make living up to that promise of locally sourced ingredients a constant challenge for restaurateurs looking to jump into the farm-to-fork game. Here are six things to keep in mind as you move your restaurant toward sourcing more local ingredients.

  1. Don’t feel pressured to source everything locally. Even cuisine that’s intentionally simple involves a diverse range of ingredients. There’s a good chance that at least a few items on your menu will require foods that must be sourced from across state lines some or all of the time. Sensible customers will be willing to forgive you for sourcing sugar from a national distributor if you stick with buying your meats from farms in the surrounding counties.
  2. Talk to your current distributor. Don’t think you’ll need to spend your free time driving around the countryside in search of roadside stands from which to source your produce. Often, the national distributors you already have established relationships with can procure locally grown food for you. Both Sysco and U.S. Foods have developed local sourcing initiatives to help their customers buy food grown closer to home.
  3. Do it yourself. Why depend on suppliers for everything when you can grow some of it yourself? Just a few dozen square feet can grow enough lettuce, greens, and root crops to serve hundreds of meals. A restaurant garden, whether it’s on a rooftop or incorporated into your landscaping, can pack extra allure into your brand and prove to diners that you really do cook with hyperlocal produce.
  4. Be open to suggestions. Growers may have a surplus of a certain item on hand that they’re be willing to sell you at a killer price. It always pays to ask what kinds of items a grower has to offer, rather than just asking for a handful of key ingredients. This is an excellent way to discover new ingredients and offer unique menu items while keeping your costs low.
  5. Prepare for the unexpected. Sourcing local food means having a backup plan to turn to in case unpredictable weather, disease, or some other variable causes crops to come up short. Don’t hinge an entire week’s menu on procuring one or two items. Rather, diversify your offerings and come up with a plan to replace key items if your original idea doesn’t pan out.
  6. Build relationships. Working with local growers isn’t as hands-off as ordering supplies from a national distributor and having it shipped to your back door. Local growers have an extra set of concerns that you must be mindful of. Understand that supplies are often limited and that some of the products you need may not be available in the quantities you’d like to have. Building strong, lasting relationships with suppliers will help ensure you’re among the first to know when fresh products are available.
Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.

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