Promoting locally grown produce is no longer a retail phenomenon.
“Years ago we started getting demand from retail,” said Sean McFadden, sales manager for Parker Farms, Oak Grove, Va. “Now it’s getting big in foodservice. They’re aggressively looking for local product, and they’re promoting it on their quote sheets to customers.”
McFadden said direct sales to chain stores represent two-thirds of Parker Farms’ sales. Foodservice now represents one-third of the company’s business.
While retailers were quick to embrace the local craze because of consumer demand and reduced freight costs, McFadden said it took longer to get foodservice operators on board.
“Foodservice guys don’t want to do it,” he said. “It’s a pain to have a slot for California romaine and a slot for local romaine, but the high-end chefs and institutions — like college cafeterias — are demanding local stuff. They’ve been forced by their customers to offer local product.”
Leanne Dubois, Virginia Grown program manager for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said colleges such as Virginia, Virginia Tech, James Madison and William & Mary are hiring sustainability coordinators in their foodservice operations.
“One of their goals is to source 20% of their food from within 100 miles of campus,” said Dubois, who added that some hospitals and senior living centers also are buying local when possible. “These institutions buy millions of dollars’ worth of produce each year.”
The Virginia Grown program offers a logo that restaurants can use on their menus and window clings that tout local offerings.
“It’s a marketing niche,” Dubois said. “People want to know where their food came from. Some white-tablecloth restaurants have had farmers come out and meet diners the same way that their chefs come around to tables. I’ve been involved in agriculture for a long time. It’s exciting to see people have respect for farmers.”
Will Hales, president of Coastal Growers LLC, Salisbury, Md., said his company is starting to get more inquiries from foodservice companies about buying direct.
“It is coming,” he said of foodservice interest. “The chain stores have been out in front of this deal. Foodservice is trying to catch up.”
Hales said growers in the Mid-Atlantic region are well located to take advantage of the local movement with access to markets in cities including Annapolis, Md.; Baltimore; Philadelphia; and Washington, D.C.
“Buy local has been huge for us,” said Hales, whose company grows watermelons in Laurel, Del., and Salisbury, Md. “We’re less than two hours away from quite a few metro areas.”
Hales said demand from chain stores increases every year, and Coastal supports the efforts of its retail customers through meet-the-grower events and in-store sampling.
“We do quite a bit of demos with the chains,” Hales said. “The rewards of doing that are huge.”
McFadden said retailers are getting more aggressive with pricing on local items, which can be problematic for grower-shippers in extreme situations.
“Every spring we visit the chain stores,” he said, “and they say they want as much local as they can possibly get and they want it as early as possible. Retailers are doing all they can to get local.”
Richard Papen, vice president of Papen Farms Inc., Dover, Del., said retailers have put his photo in stores and in their flyers.
“Everybody wants to do more local produce,” said Papen, whose farm is within 90 miles of D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia. “You never know if local is 10 miles or 200.”
Dubois said the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has six regional marketing directors who work with larger chains on promoting Virginia Grown.
“Wal-Mart and the larger supermarket chains are recognizing the importance of supporting the local economy,” she said. “It helps consumers identify Virginia produce.”