Selling to Chefs: Overcoming the Logistic Challenges
By Adrienne Cohen
Whether you call it farm to table, locally sourced food, or a hyper-local food revolution, today’s hot trend is toward buying ingredients that are produced closer to the point of consumption. We have seen the growth of craft beers and local wineries, the explosion in popularity of local farmers markets and regionally-produced cheeses, pick-your-own orchards and vegetable farms. Numerous pop-up dining venues and eateries with limited menus feature only seasonally-available options, and their numbers increase every day.
It’s not only television chefs and fine-dining establishments that embrace the flavor, nutritional value and seasonal variety of foodstuffs and ingredients produced close to home; it’s also homemakers who frequent weekly farmers markets for organic produce and natural foods. It’s anyone who helps support a sustainable environment by buying from local farmers. And it’s the taste appeal of artisan bread, homemade jams and pickles, and local salad greens.
Reasons are diverse, ranging from distrust directed at big producers, recent food scares, flavor, freshness, GMOs and environmental concerns.
A Creative Collaboration
One-of-a-kind cafe owners, Mom and Pop proprietors, trendy food truck cooks and chefs who know the importance of fresh, tasty, natural ingredients have discovered the value of seasonal menu options. They recognize even more value in developing personal relationships with the people who grow and produce the food.
Rather than simply placing orders for ingredients that must be transported an average of 1,500 miles from farm to table, they get to know their suppliers by name and forge bonds that lead in innovative directions. They even suggest new crops on occasion, to the delight of growers who love to experiment.
Farmers who sell directly to restaurant chefs gain an understanding of the creative process of recipe testing and menu development. Not only is there a financial advantage for both, but the corresponding boost in respect becomes clear and well-defined.
The Logistics of Delivery
Delivering the goods, however, can represent a major stumbling block. Crop scheduling, farm recordkeeping and production management are tedious and time-consuming chores for a small farmer. Add time away from the farm to make deliveries and the business model can become untenable. Chefs, for their part, traditionally require a guaranteed order delivered on a regular timetable, a need that can be torpedoed occasionally by weather or pest infestation. Mutual understanding is key.
Almost 50 chefs throughout Dallas and Collin Counties now constitute a core group of food professionals who have taken the “seed to plate” concept way past the experimental stage. Profound Microfarms, a family-run farm in Lucas, Texas, a suburb approximately 25 miles north of the Dallas core, was the innovative catalyst. Jeff Bednar’s greenhouse hydroponics farm produces a variety of leafy greens, herbs and edible flowers, and during a past several years, since starting his farm, he forged relationships with a number of local chefs and restaurateurs. “We speak chef,” he says, noting that he enjoys learning from the chefs and responding to their requests for unusual produce, including edible flowers.
In April of 2018, Bednar and Nelson Carter of Cartermere Farms in nearby Celina teamed up to form Profound Foods, a farmers distribution company that now delivers products from about a dozen different farmers to chefs across a two-county swath of North Texas. The deliveries, made on Tuesday and Thursday, include a variety of different proteins, including beef, lamb, pork, chicken and eggs, cheeses, greens and other vegetables, herbs and edible flowers.
Goals and Long-Term Plans
“We want to raise awareness for local food,” according to Bednar. Across the country, there is ongoing interest in a variety of unique models for food hubs and farmer-directed coops to expand the availability of locally-grown food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture endorses the effort; Profound Foods is the recipient of a $495,000 USDA grant that will allow the venture to grow during the next three years. The plan is to add new farms, attract new restaurants, expand the delivery territory to nearby Fort Worth, purchase equipment, including computers and refrigerated trucks, and hire a full-time driver. The fledgling company has already brought on board a staff director of farmer relations. The future is bright, says Bednar.
While it may be rare these days for a chef to visit the field to select fresh produce or to personally pick a side of beef, restaurants throughout the country are partnering with small-to-medium size producers to satisfy customer demand for fresh, nutritious food. The details may differ from one region to the next, but a powerful collaboration is being driven by innovative growers and food producers who market and deliver directly to enthusiastic chefs and local restaurateurs.
We all become winners when the collaboration is successful.
It’s possible to taste the difference when the lettuce and tomato on your burger was picked that same morning, and conversation seems to flow more naturally at the local coffee shop when both chef and customer can greet a farmer who deliver eggs and bacon to the back door. If that was once the norm in small-town America, it may again become the standard for market farming in the modern age.
Adrienne Cohen is a full-time freelance writer with a passion for travel, good food, urban agriculture, school gardens, and architecture and design. She writes about them all and is happiest when her travel plans allow her to visit with farmers and educators, restaurant owners and chefs in far-flung places. Although her forebears were farmers, she claims to struggle with her own garden, but loves plucking fresh flowers from their stems and harvesting fresh herbs to use in new recipes. She is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, maintains a couple of personal blogs and contributes to travel, agricultural and lifestyle magazines, both online and for print versions.