As the Director of Food Service and the Commonwealth Executive Chef for the Kentucky Department of Parks he redeveloped the concepts of 17 resort park restaurants, 3 employee cafes and the Café at the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea. His program to facilitate government operations purchasing produce, meat and dairy products directly from farmers gained national attention.
He is currently the Coordinator for the Food Systems Initiative in the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky and serves as the hub of the sustainable food and farm diversification network. His task is to connect university research and extension efforts with governmental agencies, advocacy groups, farmers and chefs.
Bob lives in a 120 year old home on an historic farm in Garrard County with his wife and two sons.
Building Relationships Between Chefs & Farmers
A Day in the Live
It is 3 o’clock in the afternoon and your day’s work is not even close to half over. You are having trouble with one of your pieces of equipment and you’ll have to stop working to fix it or the rest of your day will be ruined. You would buy a new one but margins are tight and even though it takes extra time to fix it, repairing it is still cheaper than replacing it so you have to take the time. You are sweaty, smelly, hot, tired, with who knows what on your clothes and you have a cut on one finger that’s complicating matters. Some of the supplies you ordered did not arrive so now you will have to make more time to go out and get more, but being short on help right now that is going to be difficult. The weather is threatening too and if it turns really bad it will ruin your day’s work but you will still have all the expenses to deal with.
This could be a normal day for either a farmer or a chef, and if the two understood how difficult and similar each others work life were it would help to foster strong relationships between them.
Chefs and Farmers: More Similar than Different
- They both work very long hours in less than optimal environments.
- Labor is a constant problem both in finding people and paying them.
- The weather is a constant threat to their business.
- Their profit margin is very slim, especially considering their efforts.
- They are affected by many factors and regulations out of their control.
- In spite of all of this, they eat well, probably better than 99% of everyone else!
- They have chosen their path in life not for money but because they are passionate about it and love what they do. It is not a career choice but a lifestyle choice.
Selling directly from farms to restaurants continues to be a hot topic. This momentum has been gaining ground since the 1970’s but only in the last few years has it really gained strength and become widespread. Farm to restaurant sales have primarily been concentrated in fine dining operations as they have the most flexible menus and have the most affluent customers who are willing and able to pay higher prices for fresher and more unique food.
In addition to the awareness of the ecological, social and economic benefits of buying local food promoted by advocacy groups, other factors are also behind the expansion of local food systems and direct farm sales. Fuel prices that have increased the cost of production and transportation of commodity food are beginning to erase price differences with locally produced food. The explosion of farmer’s markets has greatly increased opportunities for farmers to sell direct. Food safety issues such as the spinach, tomato & pepper recalls and numerous E-coli related beef recalls are prompting the public to ask where our food comes from.
We are facing a steep re-learning curve across the entire spectrum of restaurant operations, producers and consumers. We are actually not creating a new system of local food, but partially re-creating the system as it existed prior to WWII. For the producer this could almost be called neo-farming, as many of the practices and procedures being utilized can be found in historical cooperative extension publications. These practices coupled with the wealth of new knowledge gained in the interim offer a sustainable farming system with incredible potential. However, the most difficult task is to re-develop local and regional distribution and markets for their products.
Chef Issues with Direct Farm Sales
#1 It is too hard and takes too much time.
It is easier for chefs to order everything they need from one source and have only one delivery. Large food service companies and even smaller regional companies offer not only fresh and frozen food but also restaurant supplies, pots, pans, furniture and equipment. The best sales reps for these companies get to know the chefs and their businesses intimately and build strong relationships with them.
Foodservice companies constantly offer new products and samples and try to stay ahead of the chef’s needs. Because these sales reps have many accounts they can compare business practices across a wide variety of restaurants and look for the best practices to share with all their customers. They are “in the know” when it comes to helping chefs and many function as unpaid consultants. This is a trend in the industry and the larger companies train their sales reps this way.
Ordering, especially for larger operations, can now be done online at any time of the day. This is especially good for chefs when they can take time at the end of a day, often late at night. The prices are listed on the website and the chef can decide whether or not they want a particular item without having to contact a sales rep.
#2 Local produce is not as consistent as wholesale produce or as easy to use.
Produce packing houses have the advantage of being able to size produce exactly the same since they have other outlets for odd sizes and the economy of scale to discard less than perfect produce. A case of tomatoes, squash, bell peppers, etc. will contain produce of almost identical size, weight, color, etc. making it easier to utilize.
Most restaurants now rely on bagged lettuce that has already been trimmed and washed, all they must do is open the bag and pour it in a bowl. Many types of produce can also be purchased ready to use, such as diced or sliced onions and peppers.
#3 Local produce costs more than wholesale.
This is not necessarily the case, but is a perception of many chefs. Pricing is one of the most difficult aspects, the producer must ask enough to make a profit but must also keep in mind the chef is worried about making a profit also. Neither has a large bottom line and price is always an issue.
#4 Availability, Quantity & Packaging
Foodservice companies rarely run out of products, and can be counted on to have items on short notice. It is the easy convenience that makes it hard for farmers to compete with. They also use standardized packaging that is easy to identify and to store. Many commercial varieties of produce are also treated in some way to extend shelf life, making them more economical but not improving taste. Storage in restaurants is always a problem, very few ever have more storage than they need, they usually don’t have a barn.
First Steps for Farmers Seeking Restaurant Sales
Every report, pamphlet or website concerned with helping farmers sell to restaurants advises farmers that the most critical thing they can do is build a relationship with the chef, and you can’t do that until you get to know them and their business.
- Farmers need to figure out how wide their delivery area can be and determine what restaurants within that area they should approach.
- Learn as much as you can about the restaurants. Conduct a web search first; many restaurants list their menus and information about their operation and personnel on websites. Ask friends and neighbors if they know anything about the restaurant or the chef.
- Eat there! If you want their business reciprocate by giving them yours, especially if you ask for a meeting on a slow day at the end of the lunch service. Plan to eat lunch there towards the end of their service time. It will give you something to talk about with the chef and show that you appreciate their work and is the best way to learn about their operation and menu.
- Take them samples, it doesn’t have to be a lot, but simply dropping off samples of early harvest gives them a taste of what is to come.
- Get a job there in the off season. Sound crazy? If you need off farm income in the winter months try offering yourself as part time help. You will learn a lot about how restaurants work and really build a relationship with the chef.
- Always be available either by cell phone or promptly return calls and emails. Learn how to text message, it is the fastest way to communicate and chefs like to use it.
- Keep the chef informed of upcoming harvests, not only the variety but how much and how long they can expect it.
- Offer consistent sizing, save your odd sizes for farmer’s markets and other sales avenues, restaurants need consistency.
- For produce, offering to sell to a restaurant near the same price they are currently paying from their regular sources. This method was proven with the KY state parks project and will account for price fluctuations during the growing season. This is especially important for those producers who utilize season extension methods as prices are higher in the shoulder seasons.
- Be as flexible as possible to delivery schedules and be prepared to deliver on short notice if the chef suddenly has an unanticipated need for product. Being able to save the day for a chef with products will really help develop the relationship.
- Develop an invoice system with two copies and have both signed. In a busy restaurant invoices sometimes get lost, follow up with a monthly statement.
- Ask when the best time to deliver is! This varies for every restaurant and may depend on whether or not they serve lunch.
- Be clean. Showing up in a mud covered truck in dirty clothes and boots is not a good image. Always take the time to present a good image. No one expects you in a coat and tie but a clean shirt and manure free shoes are a good idea.
- Be nice, a smile goes a long way.
Chefs should continue to incorporate locally produced food however they can, it is good for business. No one expects you to go totally local and anything you can purchase locally will help develop your local food system.
Farmers should continue to expand diversity on their farms, the more items they can offer chefs the more attractive they become as a vendor. Seek to build relationships with chefs, ask them what they really want to cook then produce it.
Advocates should try to help our existing small processors become more efficient and support new processors and continue to seek government support in the form of grants and low interest loans for small farms, small processors and distributors.
We all need to guard against regulations that benefit large producers and processors and impose burdens on small ones. Small eco-friendly processors and on-farm operations do not have the same problems that large scale farms and processors have and should have different regulations based on size.
Parts of this paper were presented at the University of Kentucky Ag Advisory Council, January 17, 2007
Thank you Bob, The Farmer and The Chef.