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Local sourcing proves problematic for large national chains

This year, the 1,000-plus-unit Chipotle Mexican Grill chain expects to serve more than 5 million pounds of produce sourced from local farms around the nation. The fast-casual burrito specialist also is planning to increase its dependence upon local sourcing by purchasing additional produce from smaller producers.

“It’s a plan we’ve been building over the last three years,” said Chris Arnold, spokesman for the Denver-based brand. “This year, our goal was to be serving 50 percent of at least one produce item when it’s seasonally available. Last year [the goal] was 35 percent.” 

Talk to trend watchers across the industry, and they’ll likely tell you that local sourcing is all the rage with restaurateurs and consumers. But while independents and regional chains have certainly opened their pantries to the growing locavore movement, Chipotle remains in the minority among large foodservice brands. 

Many bigger players, in fact, are finding they have a long row to hoe before they can start serving local ingredients — particularly produce.

Roadblocks begin with lack of supply and the difficulties in locating sources that can guarantee delivery on a regular basis. At the same time, larger chains may fear becoming targets for lawsuits when diners become ill due to tainted food sold by farmers who don’t always follow strict food safety standards.

Serving local and seasonal products is part of the image cultivated by Seasons 52, the 13-unit dinnerhouse chain owned and operated by Darden Restaurants. 

“We want to be regional, and we want to position ourselves as local when we get into a community,” said the chain’s senior director of culinary and beverage, Cliff Pleau. “So we hire managers and a chef who live locally, and it’s their job to create items that fit. We use regional whenever and wherever it’s possible.”

But to ensure that its products are safe, all of Seasons 52 procurement is funneled through its Orlando, Fla.-based parent company. 

Local sourcing is limited primarily to produce or specialty items that are unique to a region, said Ana Hooper, Darden’s vice president of total quality. “Before a restaurant manager purchases from a local source, they must seek approval from our total quality team in Orlando to ensure the suppliers are approved and the products meet our strict specifications. We hold these suppliers to the same food safety standards” as all suppliers. 

Darden’s team of food safety and quality professionals includes over 50 biologists, food scientists and public health specialists. The company also employs 17 field plant inspectors and 20 “total quality managers who review and certify in-restaurant processes,” she said. Some 1,500 suppliers service the 1,800 restaurants under the Darden umbrella — Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52.

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Blind taste test shows picking out local food not so easy

When in doubt, opt out

Companies that are too small to employ a host of food safety and farm inspection specialists but large enough to pose supply problems to farmers might decide to opt out of local sourcing — which is what the West Roxbury, Mass.-based Uno Chicago Grill did.

“We’re just too big,” said Frank Guidara, president and chief executive of the 160-unit casual dining company.

“We found a guy who grows tomatoes in Maine, and we spent a lot of time [setting up] this project,” he said. “It lasted about three weeks.”

The farmer couldn’t keep up with the demand, he said, adding, “It’s hard to find someone who can supply a concept this big.”

If Uno allowed regional mangers to buy on their own, purchasing could become chaotic, Guidara added. 

However, he said, consistency of food quality remains his biggest concern. “Sometimes it’s not as safe [to buy locally],” Guidara said. “[Farmers] may not wash the product. We have to inspect their farms, and find out where they have their livestock, and we don’t have the staff to do that. 

“I’m a lot more comfortable going to sleep at night when I know the produce is triple washed rather than buying from the guys who throw it in the back of their pickup trucks,” he said. 

Guidara said he questions whether chains the size of Uno will someday be able to buy locally. 

Meanwhile, Uno sends a message of freshness on its bar menu with a section called “Regional Draft.” The menu reads: “We offer one or more of these terrific regional beers. Ask us what’s on tap.” 

‘Lo-co’ gains steam

But while larger chains remain wary of the local sourcing movement, diners across the country are beginning to embrace it.

“Americans are paying real attention to where their food comes from,” said New York-based futurist Faith Popcorn, who dubbed 2010 the year of Lo-Co – Local Cocooning. “Massive increases in farmers markets and the community-supported agriculture movement suggest a real change in our food source preferences.”

“The new local hero: the local farmer — forget the mayor, the football coach, the pediatrician,” Popcorn wrote on her website. “We’ll be celebrating our local farmers and demonstrating that through community-supported agriculture. 

“As part of this trend, we predict the rise of the Lococonsumer,” she continued. “The locavore movement — eating locally produced food — will extend beyond food to an intense effort by consumers to buy neighborhood- and community-sourced products and services of all kinds.”

Popcorn also predicted that we’ll be seeing retail supermarkets looking more like farm stands. 

Fakers flushed out

While Popcorn cited consumers’ desire to see more local 
products featured on menus, she also warned against misidentifying items. Local washing, a false marketing attempt to cash in on the public’s enthusiasm for local sourcing, will be sniffed out, she said.

For example, McDonald’s outlets in Washington State launched a regional marketing program in July claiming that all of the milk, 95 percent of the fries and fish fillets, and 85 percent of apples served there are purchased from Pacific Northwest sources. 

Even though the program indeed promoted McDonald’s use of closer-to-home-grown foods, national bloggers immediately assailed the promotion as “local washing.” The chain’s Washington program is similar to marketing initiatives it undertook in the United Kingdom that expressed its support of British and Australian farmers, and where a long-running partnership with local beef ranchers was the basis of a media campaign.

Regional advantage 

Centralized regional chains that have the majority of their stores near to one another may have an advantage over their more spread out, national competition because of their ability to source local products more easily. For instance, Mountainside, N.J.-based Charlie Brown’s recently launched a Jersey Fresh Produce program at all of its 49 locations in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. 

“It seemed natural, especially being in New Jersey,” said Sam Borgese, Charlie Brown’s chief executive and president. 

But the mechanics didn’t seem obvious in the beginning, particularly since the program would rely on crop yield, which can pose a challenge.

“The logistics were a little daunting,” Borgese said. “But we were able to get our existing distributors to buy from these farms. [We’re] as local as we can be, and some days it’s quite substantial.”

New Jersey fruits and vegetables, including tomato, lettuce, cabbage, green pepper, cucumber, zucchini, cilantro, eggplant and corn were included on Charlie Brown’s salad bar. The chain posted signs informing guests that the items “may or may not” have been grown locally. 

Depending on availability, selections on the bar featured green bean and sesame salad with roasted potato and citrus vinaigrette, panzanella salad prepared with sourdough bread marinated with ripe tomatoes and basil, and watermelon and asparagus salad tossed with feta and black olive. 

Borgese said he plans to re-energize the seasonal program next spring and is looking into purchasing local beef. It took the chain six to nine months to roll out the produce program. 

Similarly regional but larger than the Charlie Brown’s chain, Eat’n Park operates more than 75 outlets. The Pittsburgh-based chain, which has a $7.70 check average, jumped on the local purchasing wagon early. 

Eat’n Park started using regional produce back in 2002 because the company’s onsite division, Parkhurst Dining Services based in Doylestown, Pa., already had begun buying locally after guests at their accounts in colleges and universities began demanding them.

As a result, distributors already were established when Eat’n Park launched its FarmSource program, which purchases from family farms and dairies in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where their restaurants are located.

“Because we’re regionally focused, we have a lot more control on quality,” said Kevin O’Connell, senior vice president of marketing. All restaurants are company-owned.

Jamie Moore, Eat’n Park’s director of sourcing and sustainability, and his colleagues blog about how they work with local farmers and what’s available each week. They name the farms currently supplying them on Eat’n Park’s blog as well as where the farm is located and what dishes are being prepared with each item purchased locally.

For example, this summer they highlighted a baked chicken bruschetta, a hand-breaded chicken breast topped with local tomatoes when in season. It was the No. 1 seller in August, according to O’Connell. 

“It was also featured as part of our Eat’n Smart menu – which is our healthier items menu – with only 326 calories,” O’Connell said. “I think it shows that fresh, local, great taste and low calories can be a great combination for sales.”

“We also had our menu cover in August that explained our whole program,” he added. And a weekly printout with the local items available is posted on the salad bar in the restaurants. 

“We had red peppers, green peppers, zucchini, squash,” he added. During the season the restaurants offered a fried zucchini appetizer that was hand-breaded and fried to order. 

“And, of course, the salad bar was full of local stuff,” O’Connell said.

Consistency counts

One challenge for Eat’n Park is its ability to maintain quality while purchasing a large array of products from different farms.

“We work with the farmers to help them understand what we need,” O’Connell said. “We also make a lot of stuff by hand. So because it doesn’t come from a commissary, people can adjust.”

O’Connell said he didn’t have numbers on any related labor cost hikes, but he said buying local does lower his food cost. 

Chipotle’s Arnold said local produce costs the chain more, but it saves in transportation costs, making it “about a wash.”

Pita Pit, a chain with almost 300 units across the country, chiefly located around college campuses, offers regional specialties based on the location and taste of area diners. In the Northeast, for instance, Buffalo wing-type flavors are popular, said Peter Riggs, vice president of corporate units for the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based Pita Pit USA, so blue cheese is a common condiment in the area. 

And operators have the flexibility to buy from area food producers. “Generally, it’s not more expensive, especially when you’re talking about produce,” Riggs said, adding that purchasers save on shipping and distribution costs. “And it gives them a chance to work with their community partners to develop local flavors.”

Customers also like it, he said, adding that, in a lot of locations, the franchisee will involve local customers in dish development. Some regional dishes have even been named after diners. 

When purchasing local products is not practical, some chains appeal to local tastes with regional-style dishes. Pita Pit’s The Aloha is a regional dish served in Hawaii. It consists of chicken, black forest ham and pineapple grilled with teriyaki sauce and combined with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, Swiss cheese and ranch dressing. 

 Zaxby’s, which operates 500 locations concentrated in the South, recently debuted a regionally inspired selection, the Caramel Pecan Pie Milkshake. The thinking behind the menu item was to highlight a nut that symbolizes the South.

“I grew up in Georgia, and pecan pie was a staple at most family gatherings and holiday meals,” said Zach McLeroy, chief executive and co-founder of Athens, Ga.-based Zaxby’s. 

Large-scale sourcing

Cleveland-based sourcing specialist, Steve Schimoler, who runs Crop restaurant, said he completed his third season operating, a website he owns in conjunction with Sysco, the national food distributor. It connects Cleveland-area independent restaurants with farmers and Sysco. 

Schimoler plans to expand the site nationally. Currently, he works with just one contract feeder — Aramark at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. “There’s been no one who can handle a chain,” he said, referring to the local vendors.

“We’re plugging a truly local supply chain into a rigorous quality control program,” he said. “The market is supplied with products from a 150-mile radius, give or take. 

“All these vendors get set up as Sysco vendors, which means they have to have the right level of insurance,” he added. Food suppliers require several million dollars of liability insurance, he said.

“If you’re selling food to the public without being held accountable to the basic health code violations, you should be arrested,” Schimoler said. “It’s not some hippie with five acres who’s growing whatever he wants.

“It’s been three years, and we’re just coming out of the beta test,” he said. “But a very successful beta test.” 

The program is scheduled to launch next in Cincinnati. The advantage for restaurant buyers, Schimoler claimed, is that they can buy local as well as purchase the full range of the distributor’s products and receive one bill. 

“Now, instead of being at the farmers market at 6 a.m.,” Schimoler said, chefs “are drinking coffee in their underwear and going online.”

Contact Pamela Parseghian at [email protected].

Bret Thorn contributed to this report.

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