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Getting More Locally Produced Foods into Restaurants

posted on January 19, 2007

Increased demand for renewable energy and the current rally in corn prices has some analysts warning of higher food prices. Even so, farmers and ranchers typically receive only a fraction of the retail dollar. According to the California-based Community Alliance with Family Farmers, every dollar's worth of produce sold in the supermarket returns an average of 9 cents to the grower. But direct purchases -- from a farmer's market for instance -- return an average of 90 cents per dollar. The alliance claims the direct purchasing model will keep thousands of small farmers in business. But their fate may rest largely in the hands of restaurants and the food service sector -- a $476 billion industry which accounts for nearly 50 percent of every food dollar spent in the United States. Nancy Crowfoot reports on a national "farm to fork" program that's helping restaurants purchase more locally grown foods.

Getting More Locally Produced Foods into Restaurants

The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis is known more for its theater productions ... than for food production. But when the 40 year old company opened its new facility in June 2006 ... expanding from one theater to three...

... it also entered the restaurant business.

But there was just one glitch. The theater knew nothing about the restaurant business ... or food industry. But what the Guthrie learned was the two very different venues could have a common ground.

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The theater is rooted in hiring local and regional actors. So why not prepare and serve locally grown food from area farmers and processors?

Melodie Bahan, Director of Communications, Guthrie Theater: "It wasn't something that we set out, that we were looking for. I don't think many of us were aware of the whole sort of philosophy around agriculture and food and restaurants and so it was a real learning experience for us."

The Guthrie Theater learned of a "buy local" movement in the restaurant industry from a California company called "Bon Appetit Management". It is a company that operates food venues for 190 corporations and institutions in 28 states and Ontario, Canada.

In 1999, Bon Appetit initiated a "Farm to Fork" program, mandating its chefs purchase at least 20% of their ingredients from local farmers and processors.

Marc Zammit, Bon Appetit: "Colleges and universities, corporations, museums are always looking for a way to give back to the community that they do business in. When they partner with us and when we do farm to fork it's a great way for them to support local economies."

Chef Lenny Russo showing us local food and talks:

"These mushrooms were gathered locally. We have foragers who go out for us."

"This is goat cheese from Kimball, Minnesota."

"The wild rice we serve under our elk is from the White Earth Indian Reservation."

Lenny Russo, Chef, Cue Restaurant, Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis. "And I think if I tried really hard, I might find somebody whose mining salt in northern Minnesota."

He may be half-kidding about finding locally produced salt, but Chef Lenny Russo is dead serious about searching out and purchasing as much locally produced food as he can for the two restaurants he manages at the Guthrie Theater. He says, with a weekly food inventory that can approach $50,000 to serve as many as 850 meals a day, he will spend up to 75 percent locally or at least in the Midwest.

He works directly with at least 30 or 40 producers in Minnesota and Wisconsin purchasing everything from mushrooms to meat to butter.

The food suppliers are small operations that include a creamery.

Victor Mrotz, Hope Creamery: "Our butter has a better quality because we use vat pasteurization and vat churning. Those are two things that are unheard of in butter making in any kind of scale at all."

There is also a 5th generation hog producer, trying to preserve a 25-to 30-year old lineage in his hog breeds.

Tim Ficsher "The type of hog that I have is a different kind of hog. It carries more back fat. I knew I didn't fit the mold that the packers wanted and I wasn't getting the premiums that they were offering at the time and yet I didn't want to give up my genetics. So I basically had to sit down and reinvent the wheel."

Tim Fischer and Victor Mrotz may not fit the mold of modern, conventional production, but they are exactly what Chef Lenny Russo was looking for. He wanted food farmed in a sustainable way and delivered farm fresh -- which means not transported from 2,000 miles away.

Chef Lenny Russo: "I think having stuff transported thousands of miles is a bad idea for any number of reasons besides the fuel and expense that goes into that. But also the fact that things are picked unripened and allowed to ripen in an unnatural way so the development of the flavors in those particular items isn't profound enough."

But getting the freshest ingredients does not come without a more time-consuming effort for both chefs and the producers. For example, Russo says he must change, or at least adapt -- his menu to each harvest – from spring and summer crops to fall squash and root vegetables.

To source such freshness, means more time on the phone to both chefs and producers like Tim Fischer.

Tim Fischer, pork producer, Waseca, MN: "It's very time consuming. It's not just the delivery part and raising the pigs. I put in probably between 4 and 5,000 minutes a month on my cell phone."

For his effort, Fischer says he makes 50-60% more than if he sold his hogs to a packing plant. Hope Creamery also charges a premium price for its butter.

Chef Russo doesn't flinch at the price.

Lenny Russo, Chef, Cue Rest., Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, MN: "I don't do much negotiating. Basically my message to them is you know how much money you need to make in order that you survive and prosper. I know how much I need to pay in order to survive and prosper. So hopefully those two things are compatible."

It's a partnership that seems to work well for all involved. If there is any complaint, it is in the distribution system, with several farmers all making small deliveries to the same restaurants – many on the same day.

Victor Mrotz, Hope Creamery: "There is some of that fatigue in the industry already. I thought I could just do it all myself. Drive the truck, make the butter, but eventually you run out of days and nights and you end up having to hire people."

Marc Zammit , Bon Appetit Management company: "I agree that from region to region the distribution issues are significantly difficult. There is no infrastructure for the small farmer to get their product to us. "

Bon Appetit's Marc Zammit says his company is working with another organization on a distribution solution to help farmers create their own system for delivering goods.

Marc Zammit : "As a company, we've actually invested in their company to help them build their infrastructure, to help them buy some trucks, to help them get some drivers and what we get in return for that is a one stop shop. First of all it's like a Farmers Market, if you will, that comes to us."

Zammit is confident distribution issues will be resolved and Bon Appetit's philosophy will spread. After all, he says, the company has been growing about 20% a year and last year hit sales totaling $400 million.

Marc Zammit, Bon Appetit Management: "What this is truly about freshness, flavor and nutrition. Now, the day that these qualities aren't important to the average consumer is the day that, you know, we will probably close our doors."

As for the restaurants at the Guthrie Theater local food continues sharing the bill with local theater.

For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


Tags: agriculture food local food news