Linking farmers to restaurants not always easyWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
On one side are local farmers, toiling from dawn to dusk, trying to compete in an increasingly globalized economy.
On the other are local restaurant owners, caught up with the myriad responsibilities of running a successful small business.
Hovering in the background is the increasingly popular belief that food grown locally should also be consumed locally.
The Buy Haywood project recently launched a new initiative that hopes to bring all three together, transforming that big picture locavore philosophy — locavore meaning someone who only eats food grown locally — into an everyday practice on both ends.
Its 20/20/20 goal aims to link up 20 local farmers with at least 20 local chefs, who will use 20 different local products, according to George Ivey, coordinator of the Buy Haywood, which has promoted products from Haywood County farms since 2007.
The goal may seem deceivingly simple. After all, how hard can it be to deliver locally grown produce a few miles down to road to restaurant chefs?
Those intimately involved in the process know the answer better than anybody else. That’s why Buy Haywood recently brought the stakeholders together to a roundtable discussion of the challenges, the solutions and the values of bringing local food directly from farm to restaurant table.
Time is money
Does a farmer want to spend precious summer hours driving a few boxes of tomatoes to Haywood restaurants? Would a chef volunteer to shop around for the best peppers from one farm and the cheapest cucumbers from another?
For both parties, time is of the essence, and convenience usually takes precedence.
Farmers often deliver loads of their produce to a single packing house, while chefs order from a major distributor who can provide products readily and reliably.
Communicating what farmers have to offer and what chefs want each week then becomes a burden that neither side wants to take on.
Dewey Gidcumb, a farmer from the White Oak community, said devoting time to marketing on top of the time he spends on the farm seems unreasonable.
“Knocking on doors is the real hold-up,” said Gidcumb.
“I’ve got more than I can do to grow all this stuff and then sit down at a telephone to call restaurants,” agreed Danny Barrett, a farmer at Ten Acre Gardens in Canton. “It’s just time consuming.”
Once, Barrett took the time to pitch a surplus of romaine lettuce to local restaurants, but he was turned down. It wasn’t because his lettuce wasn’t any good, but because he wasn’t a regular provider.
Barrett had regularly sold produce to the upscale Lomo Grill in Waynesville and other restaurants in the past, and he’s learned that restaurants would rather build consistent business relationships with farmers than sporadically buy from them here and there.
“You have to be set up to where they can depend on you,” said Barrett.
Joe Bolado, owner and chef at the Grandview Lodge in Waynesville, would like to see 100 percent of his relatively small menu offer local food. But he’s surprised that farmers aren’t more proactive in marketing their produce to him and other restaurants.
“Right now, I feel like I have to go out and find it,” said Bolado. “They’re not coming to me.”
Mike Graham, who owns Jukebox Junction Restaurant & Soda Shoppe in Bethel, said it’s difficult for him to know what’s available when, what the quality of the product will be, and what the best prices are without taking the time to drive out to local farms.
Graham, like many others who attended Buy Haywood’s workshop, agreed that communication between farmers and chefs is crucial for farm to table success.
Even with nearly 40 people the Buy Haywood workshop, there was unanimous agreement among farmers, restaurants and distributors that frequent market updates would be immensely helpful. In these emails, farmers would let everyone know their offerings, while chefs would update farmers on how much of what item they needed that week.
Of course, as simple as that sounds, the effort would still take much cooperation from all parties to keep the reports as up to date as possible.
“The farmers just don’t have time,” said Tonya Bennert of Blue Ridge Food Ventures, a distributor in Candler. “Their mindset is not in marketing.”
Those who are serious about farm to table will just have to ease their way into a different mindset to succeed.
“Farmers are going to have to get more involved in marketing their product,” said Barrett.
Eugene Christopher, of Christopher Farms in Waynesville, has successfully made the transition. His farm sells all kinds of produce but is also one of the major food distributors in the area, serving 120 different vendors. That kind of result stems from a great deal of communication with his clients.
“Half of my time is on the phone, answering people’s questions,” said Christopher, who advises farmers to also diversify their offerings and work tailgate markets as much as possible.
A two-sided story
Farmers and restaurant owners are constantly experiencing the push and pull of the locavore movement.
Its advantages are widely known: support of the local economy, less impact on the environment, and fresher, healthier food.
“It’s gathered today and delivered today,” said Christopher.
“It’s going to have more flavor than something that’s picked two weeks early and shipped over here and still not ripe,” said Bolado.
On the downside, chefs don’t have a world of produce to choose from. What Haywood County farmers can provide is obviously limited by Western North Carolina’s climate.
“Restaurants are always going to need things like kiwis and bananas, “ said Ivey. “Things we simply aren’t going to have in Haywood County.”
Denny Trantham, executive chef at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, said his company spends more than $6 million a year on groceries.
“I go through 250 pounds of tomatoes a week, not just in July, but also in January,” said Trantham. “...I don’t think there’s anybody that can give me 1,000 lbs of lettuce in January here.”
Not every farm will be able to meet the demands of local restaurants, but not every restaurant will meet the demands of local farms. Some farmers produce so much that they can’t move all they grow to restaurants here.
Peter Marks, program director of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, said that’s where Buy Haywood will come in. Project managers will see where appropriate matches can be made between local farms and restaurants.
“People mistakenly assume that just because someone has a product and somebody else wants a product, that’s a match,” said Marks, whose organization is a regional version of Buy Haywood. “There are so many other factors, the ripeness, the uniqueness, the packaging.”
But the rewards for those farmers who do find a way to market their produce can be many. Locally grown food has been identified as a top trend in restaurants for the past few years and shows no signs of deteriorating in popularity.
“If you pass the cost on to the customer, I’m living testimony, they’ll pay it,” said Trantham, adding though that not every kind of restaurant could pull off the higher charges.
Regardless, Trantham would like to see chefs use more local produce in the summer at the very least.
“It’s here, it’s readily available,” said Trantham. “We’ve got to be stewards of our own house.”
Searching for efficiency
Local farmers usually don’t compete with each other as much as they compete with unseen farmers thousands of miles away. Buy Haywood invited farmers from surrounding counties in recognition of that fact.
“It seems pretty difficult for anybody locally to be able to match prices from large-scale distributors,” said Paul Denkenberger of Café 50 in Waynesville. “They’re huge.”
John Sealander, of Blue Ribbon Eggs in Franklin, agreed that it’s just easier for restaurants to go to a major distributor. “I’ve repeatedly gotten blown off, and I think part of it is the convenience of ordering from the central place.”
One proposal brought up at the workshop was to create a co-op, but only half the participants supported the plan. Though a co-op would provide a one-stop shop for producers and buyers, it would also add significant cost.
“It requires a business plan, marketing expertise, sales expertise,” said Marks. “Somebody has to be paid to run it well. Like any business, it can succeed and fail.”
Ivey wasn’t too enthused about the idea of a co-op though he is not taking a side in the debate.
“Creating a new entity or new organization might be redundant as well as expensive,” said Ivey.
Marks has seen two kinds of success stories in Western North Carolina, neither of which involve a co-op.
One is the creative and entrepreneurial farmer who actively seeks out customers. The other has farmers cooperating with existing distributors to deliver more local products to restaurants.
“I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel,” Marks said.