The restaurant industry is far from immune when it comes to flash-in-the-pan buzzwords and the ebb and flow of industry trends. However, the rise in popularity of the ‘Farm to Table’ sourcing and dining concept has proven to possess real staying power. Indeed, customers across the globe are awakening to both the importance of sustainable dining practices and embracing the uptick in quality and taste sensations it provides.
When adopted alongside the winning combination of authenticity, integrity, talent, and vision, the farm-to-table revolution in the hospitality industry has the potential to bolster a restaurant’s reputation. Not to mention win the affection of an increasingly savvy customer base. While it may require a serious overhaul of menu pricing practice — among other aspects of running a hospitality business — the rewards of farm-to-table approaches have been shown to be many and lasting.
However, what exactly is farm-to-table, where does the concept come from, and how can a restaurant get in on the scene? We’re going to be digging deep into this ever-growing trend and tackling these questions one by one.
What Does Farm to Table Mean?
Your kitchen team invariably deals with farm-grown produce. From a farm basket full of potatoes to steaks and everything in between, farming is the root of the food industry we all play our part in. As such, you might be forgiven for thinking that farm-to-table refers to produce that starts off on a farm and ends up on your customers’ tables. That is — almost — all of it.
Naturally, the concept is not quite so simple or straightforward… so let’s be honest. As is the case with so many restaurant industry buzzwords, there’s no formalized or centralized definition to the farm-to-table meaning. Unlike ‘organic’ or ‘biodynamic,’ which come with a handful of strict criteria that must be met, farm-to-table is a looser and more nebulous concept. Despite this, it is one that has captured the public’s imagination.
It suggests a trusting, mutually-beneficial relationship between respectable and reputable producers. They could be CSA members, vegetable farmers, livestock producers, fishermen, arable crop growers, or smallholders, etc - and restaurants, which allows for transparency and traceability of all ingredients used. The idea is that by cutting out middlemen, slashing waste and food mileage, and removing the possibility of commercial chemical intervention, restaurants are able to provide their guests with significantly higher quality dishes that fulfill various ethical and environmental wishlists.
In an age when customer demands of “green” credentials are ever-increasing, it’s perhaps no surprise that farm-to-table practices haven’t become yet another passing healthy food trend that restaurants are eager to jump on board with. Rather, they’ve encouraged business owners to rethink their entire operations and have been factored into yield management as a key marketing tool, showcasing a restaurant’s viability in the 21st-century food scene.
Where Did Farm to Table Begin?
It’s been notoriously difficult for food and restaurant analysts and historians to pinpoint exactly where the farm-to-table movement began. Most would agree it has taken its role alongside a number of parallel movements and trends.
Most notably, the meteoric rise in organic and ‘natural’ foods that gained real traction in the late ‘90s and Carlo Perini’s Slow Food movement that arose in Italy in 1986. To celebrate its food scene and state agriculture, Sacramento, California, declared itself America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital in 2012, replacing its original moniker of the City of Trees.
Like these examples, farm-to-table is a movement that exists as a counterpoint to fast food, disposable culture, and globalization. This concept argues that quality, flavor, and seasonal production are fundamentally intertwined. Eating locally grown foods that are ethically sourced is top of mind.
While restaurants that wholeheartedly embrace farm-to-table principles from top to bottom remain in the minority, ignoring these principles completely is rapidly becoming an industry faux pas, alongside a number of other common restaurant management errors. Given the monumental shift in practices and supply chain management, the absolute adoption of farm-to-table requires consideration.
Make no mistake, your customer base is growing more knowledgeable by the day, and they want to see local producers supported and represented. Perhaps most pertinently, your customers want to eat great food — and their concept of what great food should be is rapidly evolving.
How To Become a Farm-to-Table Restaurant
Want to become a farm-to-table restaurant? You’re far from alone. Across the country and much of the developed world, restaurants are switching to farm-to-table principles in order to satisfy their customers with organically leaning, and great-tasting fresh food. Also, it demonstrates a clear willingness to champion sustainable food trends.
Some restaurants start by supporting CSA farms or Community Supported Agriculture farms. The CSA movement has been growing since introduced in the 1980s. While CSA farmers align with one of four CSA structures to set up cooperatives and supply their plentiful produce and products to customers through restaurants, farmers markets, groceries and more.
However, becoming a farm-to-table restaurant isn’t something that can simply happen overnight. It may require your business to undergo fairly radical changes — some of which may not be cheap. Identifying customer market segmentation for your restaurant is key to understanding your patrons’ needs and expectations. Thankfully, statistics consistently show that customers are willing to pay extra for restaurant experiences. Especially those that reflect their values and serve creative, seasonal, local, and eco-conscious dishes, helping to keep profit margins at a healthy level.
While the actual process of becoming a farm-to-table restaurant will depend significantly on location, local culture, and specifics of your target audience (and a number of different factors), we’ve identified five points to bear in mind that are pretty much universal.
1. Cut Out Commercial Middlemen
Cutting out commerical middlemen is something that’s fundamental to the heart of the farm-to-table ethos.
Most restaurants rely on wholesalers and middlemen of varying types. Why? They’re affordable, they’re efficient, and they help cut corners that may otherwise slow down service. However, farm-to-table is all about going to the source of the best local ingredients and letting those ingredients shine on the plate.
Making this switch isn’t going to be easy for a lot of restaurant businesses, but it’s one which can make the most potent and impressive difference.
2. Seek Out Partnerships with Local Producers
No matter where you are in the world, there are always people around you producing their own food and serving their own communities. From lobster trappers to goatherds, beekeepers to apple growers, millers to cabbage farmers, and everything in between, the sheer variety of small-scale producers on your doorstep may just surprise you.
Farm-to-table restaurants specialize in building trusted and lasting relationships with these producers and their markets, benefiting from the rates a long-time connection brings alongside their expertise and your shared commitment to quality. These relationships can also feed into the storytelling aspect of your business.
Most recently, Jeremy Clarkson tried to open his Clarkson’s Farm restaurant to support his farm and others in the area causing a reinvigorated interest in the topic. Customers today take a keen interest in how and where their food is sourced and overall food preparation. They will love being brought into those stories as they enjoy your culinary offerings.
3. Become More Flexible
Farm-to-table restaurants need to be agile and flexible. By cutting out wholesalers and middlemen, an element of unpredictability enters your business like never before. With the right kitchen team, this can be a hugely positive attribute that can put your restaurant on the map.
Take fish, for example. Farm-to-table restaurants won’t have a freezer full of cod fillets from a huge fishing conglomerate. They’ll have close contact with a fishing boat, which will bring in the best of their catch every day or two for you to pick from. While this might mean serving up king crab and mackerel every day for three weeks, it might just as well mean having something different on your menu every single day.
Less experienced or adventurous chefs may struggle to make the best of this. Get it right when hiring chefs, however, and customers will hugely value your commitment to local, seasonal, and fresh produce and will reward you accordingly.
Farm-to-table restaurants use their menus wisely, highlighting their dedication to the movement and deepening their storytelling through the customer journey. Pivoting to this ethos will require significant menu redesign, not just in this respect but also reflecting the seasonal and often unpredictable nature of how your ingredients will be sourced.
We’re not saying you’ll have to get rid of your tried-and-tested customer favorites, however. Designing your menu to reflect your farm-to-table principles might mean that you start listing seasonal variations. Instead of specifics on vegetables, meat, and fish, change the language to say “seasonal varietals of vegetables” or “fish will be the catch of the day.” Rely on your service staff to relay the daily specials about whichever meat course is planned for the evening.
We’d also recommend adding your produce source to your menus. Customers love seeing that their burger is made from organic beef from a farm a few miles from where they’re sitting or that the fish they’re about to tuck into was caught from the beach they visit on the weekends.
5. Rethink Time Management and Pricing
Let’s not mess around — transforming a restaurant into a farm-to-table business requires a lot of reinvention, not least when it comes to time management and pricing.
Simply switching over to more organic and natural food will dramatically slash your products’ shelf life. Using fresh meat and fish instead of frozen ingredients or anything pumped full of preservatives by commercial producers changes procedures. Learning to make the most of leftover products and cutting waste is also part of the farm-to-table journey and one which can help look after your bottom line, too.
The same goes for pricing. You’ll know from visiting farmers’ markets that quality local produce doesn’t come cheap, but your customers know this too. Farm-to-table restaurants champion small and independent fellow businesses and play a key role in local economies and the local food ecosystem. As such, pricing is almost invariably higher in order to reflect fair and sustainable relationships with producers. However, businesses can make deals with producers since they will be buying in bulk for restaurant usage.
While some business owners might balk at the notion of ratcheting up their price list and potentially losing customers, their fears are likely misplaced. Audiences are (on the whole) sympathetic to the cost of quality, and most farm-to-table restaurants will report an uptick in custom and profit as a result of their shift.
Farm to Table: A Foodie Trend With an Environmental Impact
There’s little doubt about the fact that the farm-to-table trend in the restaurant business has far from peaked. Eateries across the globe are pivoting their practices to meet audience expectations and deliver sustainability and great taste sensations.
You will often find contemporary casual restaurants selling this type of cuisine as one of the most popular types of restaurants in the US. Indeed, recent statistics have shown that 66% of Americans would be more likely to dine at a restaurant knowing it sources its food locally. Sales of organic and sustainably sourced ingredients have leaped up by 13% over the past few years.
With mainly Millennial and Generation Z audiences driving transformation in the US restaurant sector - a demographic that spends 33% of its weekly food budget on eating out - this trend clearly has some serious longevity at its core. While the fickle winds of change may blow other foodie trends from one extreme to another, the farm-to-table movement very much looks as though it’s here to stay, bringing positive transformation to an ever-evolving industry.
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