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Choosing farm-to-table for your restaurant is not for wimps. If you’re just starting a farm-to-table restaurant, you probably found that out in a hurry. If you have an established farm-to-table restaurant, then you’re likely reminded of that fact daily.

The reason is clear: Relationships between farmers and your restaurant must be shaped and honed with loving attention. They require constant vigilance, a cultivation of trust, active communication, creativity, resourcefulness and agility. One must support the other.

Fortunately, farm-to-table restaurateurs are a passionate lot, and are now riding a substantial wave of enthusiasm. Consumers want to know where their food comes from. It’s cool to be farm-to-table! It implies a focus on fresh, wholesome, flavorful food; a commitment to supporting local farmers and producers and the rights of farm and food industry workers; a commitment to sustainable farming and fishing practices and humane animal husbandry; and a commitment to supporting the local economy.

Choosing farm-to-table for your restaurant is not for wimps.

Here are some proven best practices.

Start with Ingredients

Studies abound that millennials prefer to buy from an organization with a social conscience. This translates to a ready-made market. Given the vagaries of maintaining consistent farm-to-table fare, it’s a good idea to start slowly. Consider introducing a select farm-to-table special or combine a few ingredients that aren’t farm-to-table until you can fully commit to the change. Incorporate farm-to-table dishes and descriptions of the ingredients you purchase into your overall brand and advertising. Whatever path you choose, supporting local farmers, buying fresh local produce and reducing your environmental impact is always a good idea.

Establish an Effective Collaboration

There is no magic formula, but these steps are a part of every successful farm-to-table partnership:

  • Pay attention to details. What are the farm’s operating methods? How do they weed and water? What types of food do they grow? How much do they grow in a season, and how much of that can they offer you as a restaurant food supplier?
  • Establish a contingency plan. What are the risks? Both chefs and farmers are at the mercy of weather and other unpredictable variables that could decrease expected yields, such as blight and livestock illnesses. Do you have a Plan B? Consider another local supplier not impacted by the event, or another similar ingredient you can use instead.
  • Follow advice. If your farmer informs you a particular crop won’t flourish in your region, it’s time to rethink your menu.
  • Promote your Unique Selling Point (USP). Let your guests know your ingredients are uniquely grown.
  • Know when to bail. Agree to a trial season to test effectiveness, and include an escape clause in your contract.

The makeup of partnerships will differ from restaurant to restaurant, with some farmers growing exclusively for a chef or dedicating specific acreage to the restaurant. The main benefit? Chefs get the exact produce they want, and can even choose the seeds.

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“That’s really where the next level of farm-to-table needs to go,” says Meghan Sheradin, former executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network, a group that works to build farmer-chef relationships. “The power of having commitments and planning with each other is super important.”

Promoting Your Farm-to-Table Status

Custom-grown produce can cost 5 to 20 percent more than conventional ingredients. Guests know this and are generally willing to pay more for quality. (Meanwhile, chefs need to keep a tight grip on waste.)

Although a high-risk option, a season’s worth of produce can be paid upfront; other partnerships use contract payments. Some agree on a monthly fee for all produce grown on the farm. Another way is to structure your partnership is to establish per pound rates for each item paid on delivery. Don’t be afraid to haggle on price for a specialty item, but be prepared to accept market and labor costs to harvest a product.

Flexibility is the name of the game. Your menu must be dynamic and adaptable. You can do this easily by offering rotating local foods specials such as “market beef,” vegetable of the day, or local fruit sorbet, to supplement your regular menu.

Farmers reap publicity from restaurants who tout their contributions. Beyond potential media mentions, the restaurant receives individual attention from the farmer and the selection of premium and niche ingredients. This enables farms to promote additional revenue streams, such as agritourism and gardening and cooking classes. As farmers diversify their income, it can, in turn, reduce farm costs to restaurants.

If you can manage to juggle all plates in the air at the same time, these partnerships can grow both businesses and bring added appeal to your guests. Both sides agree that the increased quality is worth it. While the initial introductions and legwork may take some effort, it’s worth the time to consider your options when it comes to farm/restaurant partnership.

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Still interested in learning more? Here are 19 additional points to consider:

  1. Establish a sustainable purchasing policy and purchasing specifications that are inclusive of local and regional producers.
  2. Commit to and budget for local, sustainable purchases.
  3. Set goals: Who do you want to reach? What do you want to achieve? Is there long-term potential?
  4. Source from local suppliers, including community supported agriculture (CSAs), farmers markets, food hubs and local cooperatives.
  5. Let your farmer know which ingredients you want to feature and order in advance, so the farmer can correctly time delivery.
  6. Consult with fellow restaurateurs in your area about their experiences collaborating with farms.
  7. Create strategies for improving connections to local producers: Social media? Community events?
  8. Are expensive food safety certifications necessary? Can you verify with your own on-site visits?
  9. If produce is unavailable, add local pork, beef, and poultry, as well as dairy and honey. Consider canning and preserving techniques to stretch the use of high-quality local ingredients.
  10. Establish stations for smaller producers: a smoothie station, smaller catered events, a station highlighting fresh and local ingredients.
  11. Some areas offer restaurant supported agriculture (RSAs), which are similar to a CSAs, offering buying discounts and other tangible benefits for restaurants.
  12. Think regionally, as well as locally.
  13. Plan co-marketing signage on websites, menus and brochures.
  14. Use apps like farms2table that link restaurateurs and chefs and locate farmers markets, local produce and family farms.
  15. Attend farmers markets. Introduce yourself.
  16. Conduct demos at farmers markets.
  17. Plan hands-on farm visits for restaurant staff. They, in turn, can share firsthand experiences with customers.
  18. Plan in-house farm dinners featuring products from one or more farms, with farmers as special guests.
  19. Plan on-farm dinners to bring guests to the middle of the action.
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Written by   |  
Author, Lecturer, and Professor Darryl Benjamin is passionate about sustainable food and nature, and cares deeply about social justice. His book, "Farm to Table: The Essential Guide" (Chelsea Green), co-written with Chef Lyndon Virkler, was published in October 2016. Benjamin lectures and blogs on sustainable food systems. He holds an MFA in Writing as well as a Certificate of Leadership in Sustainable Food Systems from the University of Vermont. He is founder of Real Food Seminars and The GMO Breakthrough Education Project, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming global food systems through education. Benjamin teaches in the Online MS in Sustainable Food Systems and Master of Science in Resilient and Sustainable Communities grad programs at Green Mountain College. Benjamin taught writing, marketing, and sustainable food issues at New England Culinary Institute for seven years. Presently, Darryl delivers workshops nationally and internationally (in October 2017, he delivered a workshop at Roma Tre University in Rome, Italy, at the Seventh International Conference on Food Studies) on The Future of Food and Farm-to-Table challenges and solutions.
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