Notes From the Field

The last few years have seen a subtle to seismic shift in the way restaurants source fruits and vegetables. From planting rooftop gardens to partnering with farmers, chefs and operators are making a big effort to be local and seasonal. But 2011 is shaping up as an even more produce-centric year.

• In the National Restaurant Association’s 2011 “What’s Hot” survey of 1,500 chefs, the words “local” and “hyper-local” show up in three of the top five trends, especially as related to produce.
• Foraging is emerging as a top hyper-local movement on the fine-dining scene. Some chefs are tromping through the woods and picking their own wild ramps, herbs, mushrooms and more; others are hiring professional foragers.
• EATALY, Mario Batali’s Italian marketplace in New York City, employs a vegetable butcher to custom-trim artichokes, snap asparagus and cut carrots.
• The Food Safety Modernization Act passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in January will give the FDA more authority over monitoring the produce supply chain.

Let’s see how these changes and others are impacting the purchase of fruits and vegetables.

On the supplier side

Anumber of distributors have made local produce easier to come by. FreshPoint, a subsidiary of Sysco, launched Eat Florida Fresh in late 2010—its first program to promote local suppliers. A coordinating Web site highlights more than 40 growers and local farmers in three Florida regions, and the company hopes to expand the program to other markets.

Testa Produce in Chicago has been delivering fruits and vegetables from within a 250-mile radius to restaurant customers for 10 years, but three years ago, the distributor launched the Testa-to-Farm tour program for operators. Since then, demand for local produce has increased substantially among Chicago-area restaurants, including multi-unit concepts like Lettuce Entertain You and Hilton Hotels. Availability has also increased—Testa now offers as many as 40 locally grown items at the height of summer, including pea shoots, beets, corn, peppers and zucchini.

“Farmers are the new celebrities,” claims owner Peter Testa. “The tours allow them to show off what they’re growing, help restaurants with menu planning and generate loyalty with our customers.” Input from the chefs also helps the farmers decide what to plant, which works in everyone’s favor. “We want to make sure the farmers can sell what they grow without overproducing,” he adds.

In the end, the quality of local produce is superior and the prices are generally significantly lower. All of the farms in the program are inspected and certified for food safety and many have passed additional third party audits.

Testa admits that wintertime is a challenge, but growers are trying different ways to boost local supply. More greenhouses are popping up and local storage crops, such as potatoes, apples and root vegetables, are on the rise.

Two sourcing strategies

James Boyce, chef-owner
Cotton Row, Commerce Kitchen and Pane e Vino
Huntsville, Alabama

From March through November, James Boyce sources about 65 percent local
produce for his three restaurants, which range from the high-end Cotton Row to the casual Commerce Kitchen and Pane e Vino, a pizzeria. “If the heirloom tomatoes aren’t perfect enough for a Cotton Row salad, we dice them for a pizza topping at Pane e Vino. And we can use the turnips in one restaurant and the greens in another,” he says. “Most of the produce gets delivered to Cotton Row and we redistribute it.”

This cross-utilization among concepts makes it practical and efficient to contract with Alabama farmers for the local commodities and specialty crops that set Boyce’s menus apart. Some of these farmers are quite small—like John Schmuck who grows 100 tomato plants in his big backyard and Mary Francis, the asparagus queen. The Brooks family grows field beans, fresh peas and sweet potatoes, while Geezer’s Garden provides specialty mushrooms. Boyce also works with Adams Produce in the Atlanta wholesale market, sending out a Huntsville buyer, Don Hardiman, with a shopping list. During the time of year when it’s tough to buy local, produce is sourced from Florida or flown in from Chef’s Garden in Ohio.

“The farmers send me e-mails as to what is ready to be picked and I change the menu according to availability,” notes Boyce. Right now, green garlic is going into a crust for veal paired with morels and local watercress and goat cheese for a salad at Commerce. Breakfast radishes, chard and peaches are at the ready for menu inspiration.

Barbara Kaiwi, director of purchasing
Hard Rock Cafés International
Orlando, Florida-based

With 134 locations in 52 countries, Barbara Kaiwi is responsible for procuring produce all over the world. In North America, 90 percent of the cafes—73 of which are franchised—have a consistent scratch-base menu, and she has to spec a steady and large supply of commodities like lettuce, tomatoes and peppers. This year, Kaiwi is moving the majority of her produce purchasing to the Tennessee-based Produce Alliance, a managing group that distributes in 27 states and 43 cities and delivers six to seven days a week.

“Eleven of our cafes were always under this umbrella and we used to bid the rest out locally,” she explains. “Produce Alliance has superior traceability and reacts quickly to problems in the supply chain. Plus, we can leverage our buying power to control costs.” Domestic cafes will still be able to run specials incorporating seasonal items and international locations can add indigenous produce.

Kaiwi’s biggest challenge this winter were the freezes in Mexico, Florida and other growing regions. “Our contracts protected us on extreme price increases but to get the best quality, we bought a little less each day and turned inventory over faster. The yield on our lettuce was lower—heads weighed around ¾ pound compared to 1¼ pounds,” she reports. Hard Rock absorbed extra costs and did not change menu prices or specs; salads contained the same quantity of lettuce and burgers continued to sport tomato slices.

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