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On the trail of local and sustainable food

On the trail of local and sustainable food

Chains across the industry adjust their operations, menus to keep up with growing trend. Brought to you by TABASCO® Foodservice.

Following the initiative of the industry’s bellwether fast-casual Mexican brand and some visionary chefs, restaurant chains of various stripes are bringing local and sustainable food to a widening swath of the American dining public.

Locally sourced meats and seafood and locally grown produce have ranked as the top trends in the National Restaurant Association’s annual What’s Hot Chef’s Survey for the last five years. Branding local food on the menu is a way for operators to show support for local agriculture and a commitment to freshness and flavor, a marketing approach that resonates with consumers.

Restaurant operators who ignore the local food trend “will be left behind, in my opinion,” writes Erik Oberholtzer, co-founder of Tender Greens, a Los Angeles-based chain of “fine-fast” restaurants, in an email.

All of the beef, chicken and fish the 14 Tender Greens restaurants use is locally and sustainably raised and 90 percent of its produce is sustainably grown “and we're working to get that to 100 percent,” Oberholtzer says.

“We hope to help lead this movement along with others who have come before us, like Whole Foods, great revolutionary chefs like Alice Waters who started this movement and restaurant companies like Chipotle that now provide greater access,” Oberholtzer adds.

Until recent years, the most likely places to find local and sustainable food were high-end restaurants. The fact that it is surfacing in all business segments is due in large part to the pioneering efforts of Chipotle Mexican Grill. Over the past two decades, the Denver-based, fast-casual Mexican chain has proven that working with local food suppliers is a viable business model for chain growth. This year Chipotle announced plans to purchase more than 20 million pounds of locally grown produce for its more than 1,650 restaurants. It also claims to serve more meat from animals that are raised humanely and never given antibiotics or added hormones than any other restaurant company in the United States.

Although no other chain matches Chipotle’s tonnage, many players are following in its footsteps with a local, sustainable approach to food.

For example, the 13 Tom Douglas Restaurants in Seattle get the majority of their summer tomatoes, eggplants and peppers from Prosser Farm in eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley. Jackie Cross, the business partner and spouse of owner Tom Douglas, owns and manages the property, which has about six acres planted with organic crops.

“Our customers love knowing that we are really involved with the food we put onto their plates, and that it matters to us,” Cross says.

The company’s chefs also are big fans of the farm. They regularly ask Cross to grow produce for them, such as the peppers for Brave Horse Tavern’s house-made pickled peppers.

Although Prosser Farm is a big hit in terms of food quality, the cost of sustainable agriculture makes it a break-even financial proposition, Cross says.

“Everything is hand-planted, hand-harvested, hand-packed and hand-driven across the pass,” Cross says. “There is a high labor cost, but the quality is far superior.”

In Phoenix, Fox Restaurant Concepts officials are happy with the initial performance of Flower Child, a 3-month-old fast-casual concept there. The theme is local, natural, healthful foods, such as chicken fed an all-vegetarian diet and given no antibiotics, beef that is grass-fed and free-range, and steelhead that is sustainably raised. Arizona producers supply melons, tomatoes, herbs, peaches, greens, squash, eggs, cheeses, nuts and honey.

“We are getting great feedback from customers,” says Clint Woods, vice president of culinary for Fox, which operates 41 restaurants. “They love how fresh everything is and how fast everything is.”

Woods says that coping with high food cost is the venture’s main challenge in the early stages.

“We haven’t made it work yet,” Woods says. “But our priority is the quality of the ingredients, and we’ll figure out the rest.”

For Bread and Butter Concepts, a five-unit, Kansas City, Mo.-based restaurant group, the Go Local KC Week promotion celebrates Missouri and Kansas foods and connects with the community.

“Local produce is a big deal for consumers now, the economy being one of the reasons, so we’re helping to support the local farmer,” says Bradley Gilmore, executive chef of Gram & Dun, a gastropub in the group.

One of Gram & Dun’s specialties during the promotion is lamb with zucchini-mint puree, herb-roasted potatoes and bread-and-butter zucchini pickles, all ingredients locally sourced.

“We are hoping if this week goes well, we can do it several times a year and provide consumers with even more local products,” Gilmore says.       

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