The quest to buy local foods has been in the news practically every week. The public is constantly being asked to purchase fresh produce from their local farmers at their stands or at a farmers market.
Everyone can tell the difference between a local green bean steamed to perfection, and the canned version put on a plate. Consumers know the difference and chefs do also. The project has been to get the farmers and chefs to work together to put seasonal produce on their tables for the consumers. Not only is buying local good for the health of the people, but it also helps the environment and the local economy. Chefs buying local help farmers make a living and keep their farmland from becoming another housing development or retail center.
The Farm to Chef movement in northwest Ohio, also called the Northwest Ohio Fresh Network, partners more than 50 chefs, cooks and caterers with more than 50 farmers and producers. This partnership includes letting those who order foods know what fruits and vegetables are available locally that week and who is harvesting them.
Restaurants are a business, and like any business, they must be profitable. While the bottom line is always in sight, the restaurants still look for ways to bring interesting fruits, vegetables or other items to the menu that will make them heads above the rest. For example, the chef and staff will look at a regular order for bell peppers for a dish this week. To the staff a pepper is a pepper, and if they can order from a national food distributor and it comes to the back door at a relatively inexpensive price, the farmer may have a hard time competing. However, if a farm highlights they are carrying "jingle bell" miniature bell peppers (no bigger than a silver dollar) – which lets a restaurant taste them to prove they are mature and not bitter – the chefs will take notice and buy the product that will make their dish fantastic.
Why? Because it is unique and something they cannot get from their wholesale produce house.
Heirloom tomatoes are making a comeback for this reason. Heirloom tomatoes are full of great flavor, but are not a tomato that can be shipped like the usual pale orbs the restaurants receive. The varieties are beautiful, and the chef will pay for the chance to have patrons taste these local beauties that have thin skins that bruise if handled too much. These kinds of examples are a few of what the restaurants do on a daily basis. Patrons of restaurants who use local fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses are getting the freshest meals possible.
Fresh produce coming is usually not minimally processed. It is clean and chilled, but not minced, chopped or sliced. The nutrients are still in the items, and they remain fresh until they are processed in-house for that night's dinner service. More room and help will be necessary to process items for dinner, which of course will add to the expenses of the day. But, when fresh steamed green beans are served with fresh herb butter, the potatoes are colorful fingerlings and the salad has torn local loose leaf lettuces and spinach, and in no way resembles the bagged salad served at home, price does not become an issue. Patrons savor these dinners. They tell their friends. They ask where the items came from, and usually the patrons shop at a local farmers market shortly after a great meal like this to duplicate that great meal at home.
What should you do before contacting a restaurant? Planning is paramount; being prepared is expected. With these ideas in mind, here are a few strategies:
• Write up a history about your farm and be prepared to share your history with others. Writing it down will make you think and not forget something really important.
• Make a list of what you are growing, and when things will be available. If you are going to visit a restaurant during the growing season and have product available, take samples along.
• Know your product and why it is good or different.
• Figure a price for all products; take into account by the bushel, box of how many, or by the pound. This will all help the restaurant when it comes time to order. Put these prices on a list that can be left, and make sure you have a copy.
• Look your best, and talk about how you can help the restaurant. Be friendly.
• Understand that restaurants are constantly busy; don’t take it to heart if they don’t have time to chit chat, or they ask you to leave everything.
• Make and take a few business cards. A card with your name on it can be found easier than the heading on a price list.
• Check out the menu and clientele of your targets to see that your produce is something they can use.
• Figure out beforehand if you will be able to deliver items on a regular schedule.