How to Find Restaurants to Partner with for Farm-to-Table Contracts
There’s not a small farmer or market grower in the country who hasn’t heard of the booming farm-to-table movement, but that doesn’t mean everyone feels equally comfortable diving into the world of selling directly to restaurants. It’s true, contacting restaurants with Michelin stars and month-long waiting lists for reservations is intimidating to someone who only has experience selling directly to farmer’s market customers or through an impersonal wholesale contract. However, taking the plunge with a smart plan of attack could help turn a struggling farm into a thriving one.
Identifying Your Zone
First, start by determining how far you’re willing to travel for deliveries. Most restaurants want produce dropped off a few times a week to maximize freshness and reduce storage costs, so don’t start with a restaurant that’s 150 miles away without considering the additional costs of fuel and wear and tear on your delivery vehicle. Too many newcomers to farm to table commit to deliveries that cost almost as much as they’re making off the contract. Once you know your zone, look for restaurants that:
- Can pay your prices – growers usually charge 5% to 25%more than vendors, so high end establishments can afford more pricey produce than local burger joints
- Already focus on premium ingredients – chefs that already order Wagyu beef and Himalayan sea salt are more likely to understand the marketing value that comes with a farm to table label. The Keywords Are Rarity and Quality
A restaurant that can order the same exact onions you’re offering at half the price is unlikely to choose you as a supplier just to earn that coveted farm to table marketing slogan. Focus on:
- Finding rare and trendy ingredients that thrive in your particular climate, such as prickly pear, pea shoots, or heirloom varieties of common vegetables like tomatoes and corn
- Providing higher quality and greater consistency than the big vendors can offer, which can be tricky for organic farms that have limited options for preventing pest and disease damage
- Handling prep work for the restaurants to dramatically cut down on kitchen labor costs, such as shucking corn, shelling peas, or providing washed and ready to eat lettuce
- Building a set of complementary ingredients you can offer together, such as everything needed to go into a unique salad. Network with the Competition
Not sure what chefs are buying in your area or who’s already supplying it? Spend a little time networking with your fellow market growers and farmers to find out who’s already doing well in this area, then ask them what they’re not supplying. For example, if you discover a nearby farm is providing local restaurants with all the lettuce they need but nothing else, you can complement their efforts by focusing on other specialty salad ingredients. This is one of the fastest forms of market research for farm to table sales because it immediately helps you figure out what to grow, who’s likely to buy it, and how you can avoid competing with other local growers. Teaming up with other farm to table growers also helps you create partnerships that increase your profits for all the farmers involved, in addition to creating buying groups so you can all save money on packaging and labels too. Finding farms to partner with can make your group much more attractive to restaurants because you’re increasing the stability of supplies. If you can create a coalition of local farms that are capable of growing all the vegetables a restaurant needs, you can all profit without anyone overextending themselves.
Know what you’re going to offer and which restaurants to start with? Then you’re ready to reach out. Call and make an appointment to sit down with the head chef at each establishment during a time when they’re not busy. Dress professionally, but save the suit and tie for another occasion so you still look like you know your dirt. Bring along a small packet of information, or a brochure if you have the resources for designing and printing one, to highlight your products – and your farm. Chefs love to see where the food is coming from, not just how good each tomatillo looks. Highlight your experiences in expanding your operations if you’re interested in growing different products specifically to their requests.
Did you find a few restaurants in your area that would love a chance to go farm to table? Before you deliver your first shipment, have a lawyer draft a contract for you that stipulates the nitty gritty details of payments, delivery times and dates, the process for ending your relationship, and so on. Signing a contract drafted by the restaurant can also work, but you should have it looked over first by your own lawyer. While paying lawyer fees might not sound appetizing, it’s worth it to prevent issues with late payments, refused shipments, and similar issues.
About: Jessica grew up eating homegrown tomatoes and showing rabbits at livestock shows, so it’s no wonder she has her own 3 acre organic hobby farm today that will soon be home to a small licensed nursery for valuable trees and native shrubs. When she’s not busy with her own gardens and chickens, she enjoys helping build greenhouses and weed the blueberry fields at her friend’s 30 acre organic fruit and vegetable plant farm.