Foodservice is doing its part in generating momentum for locally grown fruits and vegetables, according to David Visher, senior analyst with the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of California-Davis.
College and institutional foodservice programs often are in front of the trend, he said.
“If you want to see where a lot of cutting edge work is being done on developing those purchasing policies, you go to those institutions,” he said.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of distributors who say these institutions aren’t really buying that much, but if it weren’t for the students standing up in the colleges and universities and saying this is what we want, we wouldn’t be hearing about this.”
Colleges, in particular, can get marketing mileage out of buying local produce, Visher said.
“If you’re a university and you can say, ‘Our dorms serve locally farmed food,’” he said, “that’s a selling point in bringing in new freshman, and it’s something they send out as part of their specifications to the foodservice organization that does their meals.
“They develop a policy to buy local and tell their distributors they have to tell them the story of their farmers. The pressure gets passed up or down the food chain to buy this kind of product.”
Other foodservice outlets have driven the local movement, as well, Visher noted.
“There’s been a trend for a long time for the more upscale restaurants to start listing on their menus the place where the product was grown,” he said. “That trend has now sort of peaked and is going away, because, for most chefs, it’s a little old-fashioned to be listing the actual location in every case on their menu of where the product was grown.
The “buy local” theme is employed in a more general context these days, Visher said.
Grower information hasn’t disappeared from menus in Kentucky, said Adam Watson, produce marketing specialist with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Frankfort.
In some instances, restaurants will feature on the menus bios of farmers they’re buying from or displayed some way,” he said. “There’s that connection with diners. There are some that have convinced producers to can tomatoes while they’re in season so they can still feature local products out of season.”
Buying local is only one strategy among many, though, Visher said.
“I guess lot of this relates to this whole idea that one thing is going to make your sales go through the roof, and that’s not going to do it any more than putting a seal on your product certified by so and so,” he said.
“The marketing organization has to think through their whole strategy in marketing, and these things are just pieces of that. There’s no one thing that’s going to make sales go through the roof. It’s part of a strategy.”
In the Cobble Hill area of Brooklyn, N.Y., Ted & Honey, a neighborhood eatery, emphasizes organic and locally grown, said Michelle Mannix, co-owner.
We both use either one — it’s fine with us,” she said. “It’s a huge part of our identity. We feel very confident with the product we’re producing. I would think 90% of our stuff is homemade and procured from local organic sources. Our papers products are biodegradable, so in general it’s part of our ethos as a company.”
At Ferrari’s Ristorante, an upscale Italian restaurant in Cedar Falls, Iowa, diners prefer locally grown tomatoes and greens, said Chris Meyers, executive chef.
It has become a key part of our menu,” he said.
Local produce isn’t just for smaller, independent restaurants. Major chains get into the category, too, said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications, United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.
“I know, for example, you’ll take a chain like Olive Garden or Red Lobster that takes menus that are customized for that particular locality,” he said.
“Olive Garden might have hundreds of menus, and what they’re doing is capitalizing on local favorites. They know what they’re customers like. For the chains, they try to gear toward local tastes, like using locally grown items for that area.”