Restaurateurs open up more menu space for locally grown produce

06/15/2010 03:49:06 PM
Jim Offner

Foodservice is central to the success of Ontario field produce growers and shippers, and they say they have a major market in Toronto to help move that piece of the business along.

“Red onions have been a big mover for us there. I’ll bet that’s increased 50% in last 24 months,” said Doug Pearce, partner in Leamington, Ontario-based Pier C Produce.

“There are a few different cultures in Toronto that eat red onions, so that has picked up. It’s just an item we started a few years ago with a few, and we didn’t realize red onions were that big in the marketplace the last couple of years. They have really taken off.”

There isn’t universal agreement among producers that their wares are marketed with full vigor in the restaurant sector, however.

“It could be better,” Pearce said. “Sysco has had some success with it.”

Restaurants are attracted to homegrown products, said Scott Biddle owner of Simcoe, Ontario-based Scotlynn Commodities.

“I think it is promoted,” he said.

The reason: cost.

“Certain foodservice industries do promote local-grown products, but I think they promote it for a different reason: to get a better deal on it,” Biddle said. “On sweet corn, they can put a cob on that plate cheaper than something different that’s not in season. So foodservice people are looking for local-grown for different reasons.”

Foodservice hasn’t been a major part of Biddle’s business, he said.

Some growers, such as Bob Proracki, take their products directly to foodservice customers.

“For my perspective, the organic markets I go to, I’ve got chefs coming in and they come in and get the product and take it home, said Proracki, owner of Waterford-based Ontario Sweet Potato, an organic producer. “If they’re interested in our product, it’s there for them.”

Proracki said he delivers sweet potatoes to 10 markets in the Toronto area.

“There are several markets I deliver to the chefs,” Proracki said. “There’s a market called Brick Works in Toronto that wants sustainability and wants local products used by chefs.”

There’s a high-end chefs market that takes deliveries every Tuesday, Proracki added.

“We have service by Jimmy Kennedy, a well-known chef in Toronto, and we’ve taken our product to him,” Proracki said. “We grow three or four different varieties, so there is a choice. The difference draws people to us too.”

Some Ontario growers say the smaller-scale, independent restaurants are among the best supporters of locally grown produce.

“The larger chain restaurants are the most difficult ones to convince, but the smaller ones are doing a good job of putting the Ontario logo on their menus to make sure diners know that it’s Foodland in their recipes,” Paul Procyk, owner of Wilsonville, Ontario-based Procyk Farms, said, referring to the government-backed Foodland Ontario initiative. “Your larger Wendy’s and McDonald’s, I don’t see them coming to the plate on that yet.”

High-end restaurants are developing an affinity for locally grown products, said Tony Moro, president of Bradford & District Produce Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Bradford Cooperative Storages, Bradford, Ontario.

“I’m seeing in some of the Toronto fine-dining establishments, products from the Holland Marsh,” Moro said, referring to the production area about 30 miles north of Toronto. “We’re introducing onions and beets in the area. A lot of Chinese oriental vegetables come into the area, as well as a bit going to the places on the border.”

Moro said growers would like to see that business increase, but there has to be a consistent, dependable supply.

“When you put it on the menu, you have to make sure it comes from that place all the time, and that’s hard to do,” he said.

Paul Otter, co-owner, Woodville Farms Ltd., Woodville, Ontario, said he also is seeing more interest from foodservice customers.

“Big-time,” he said. “There’s more and more all the time. They’re always looking for something new nobody has on the menu. With asparagus, they can’t get enough to fill their needs. When strawberries are out, even though California may be cheaper, they buy the (local) berries. They want to have Ontario on their menus. People want to see it there.”

Jamie Reaume, executive director of the Newmarket-based Holland Marsh Growers Association, said the trend toward more homegrown produce on menus is unmistakable.

“They’ll want it from restaurants and wholesalers and guys from the foodservice sector, and that’s a huge market, providing foodservice sector with local food, because that’s what consumers want,” he said. “This is no longer just about retail.”



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