The Fresh-To-Table Fuss

A desire to help support local economies by keeping dollars in the community, along with the trend toward healthier eating and increased emphasis on food safety, have resulted in the
fresh-to-table movement exploding in recent years.

Reflecting this shift, restaurants and foodservice operations from all over the country continue to showcase the use of local ingredients on their menus. For example, 82 percent of the chefs surveyed for the National Restaurant Association's What's Hot 2013 Chef Survey identified locally sourced meat and seafood as a hot trend. And 81 percent of the 1,800 chefs surveyed cited locally sourced produce as a top trend. In addition, local sourcing played a more significant role on limited-service menus this past year.

The NRA's 2012 National Household Survey reported that 71 percent of adults were more likely to visit a restaurant that uses locally produced ingredients. Full-service restaurants are at the forefront of this trend, with 78 percent of fine-dining operators and 64 percent of casual-dining operators reporting that their customers were more interested in locally sourced menu items in 2012 than they were two years ago.

To satisfy increased consumer demand, many operators offer locally sourced food items. Eighty-eight
percent of fine-dining operators offer locally sourced produce, while 80 percent offer locally sourced meat or seafood, according to NRA's survey. In addition, 28 percent of fine-dining operators said they offer food items from an on-site garden.

"I have definitely seen more foodservice operators sourcing locally, and see more of these ingredients on menus," says Jennifer Adams, owner of Fresh Thymes Café, a five-year-old farm-to-table-oriented restaurant in Wilmington, Del. "The trend toward locally sourced foods will continue to grow."

Adams' previous experience working for independent natural food stores in the area helped her develop relationships with local farmers. "Our principle is that we try to source as much of our food as possible from local farmers," she says. "I don't source anything out of a 60-mile radius."

For Fresh Thymes Café's customers, the ethical treatment of animals is important, as is sourcing from local farmers who focus on safe farming practices with minimal pesticides. "I think the biggest drive with the farm-to-table movement is that people want to know where food is coming from, where it's being grown and how it's being raised," Adams says.

Indeed, few industry observers would dispute that consumers appear to have a growing interest in learning about the origins of their food. "More people are looking for food with a good story behind it," says John Turenne, manager and president of Sustainable Food Systems LLC, located in New Haven, Conn. The chef/foodservice consultant helps institutional operators bridge the gap from conventional to sustainable food.

For those operators focusing on the fresh-to-table movement, getting to know the farmers is an important step. "Any type of foodservice operation that can plug into supporting more local farm food will address what a growing clientele is interested in," Turenne says.

As simple as the concept may seem, sourcing locally produced ingredients can introduce many challenges. For example, some smaller farmers continue to struggle with supply and demand issues. "There is a shrinking number of small, local farms, so if the demand for locally farmed food continues to grow, there is a question of whether there are enough farms to provide product," Turenne says.

Restaurants like Adams' that rely on the availability of local ingredients, need to be both flexible when food shortages arise and well connected to farms that can fill in the gaps. For example, due to large amounts of rain on the East Coast, local farmers faced tomato shortages last year.

Because the Fresh Thymes Café is small — it has only seven tables — supply shortages don't impact the restaurant as they would a chain or larger operation. The good news is that an increasing number of local farmers now seek exclusive arrangements with local restaurants to supply their produce. With these arrangements, farms grow only the ingredients the contracted restaurants need.

To help deal with weather and seasonal restrictions, a growing number of farmers have built greenhouses to protect some of their crops from the elements. This also helps increase the availability of more ingredients during the winter months.

Some foodservice professionals are concerned that the Food Safety Modernization Act will negatively impact the availability of locally grown food. This is because federal regulations will require farms to enhance, upgrade and change monitoring methods. "The smaller farmers are concerned with this act," Turenne says. "If it favors big agriculture, the smaller guys will suffer. There can be a significant impact on the farm-to-table segment, unless there are stipulations included for small farmers."

Distribution for the larger chains and institutions in the fresh-to-table segment continues to be a challenge. The good news is more midsize distributors now provide locally sourced ingredients. "These distributors have become middlemen for the farmers and are able to bring multiple deliveries to operators," Turenne says. "There are larger operations that maintain direct relationships with farmers, which is important."

Fortunately, when operators source ingredients directly from farmers, their ingredients usually have a longer shelf life because the items tend to have been picked more recently. "Because produce is local, it is very fresh, and there is less waste," Adams says. "I can leave my local tomatoes sitting out all week long, and they won't go bad."

Operational Considerations for Fresh-to-Table

Operators running farm-to-table operations also need to consider the labor, storage space and additional prep needed, since produce arrives in a raw state. For example, staff will need to wash, peel and chop items in a soup base, such as carrots, onions and celery. "Unprocessed produce takes time and labor to prepare, which costs money," Turenne says.

As a result, some operators embracing the fresh-to-table movement look to prep equipment, including blenders and food processors, to reduce labor. In addition to purchasing prep equipment suitable for their menus, foodservice operators need to invest in staff training to ensure proper use of these important kitchen tools.

With more perishable product comes the need for additional refrigeration. "Farm-to-table operations require more refrigerated storage and less freezer space," says Turenne. "Ideally, an operation can incorporate a unit that acts as both a refrigerator and a freezer to keep up with menu needs."

Also, cooking lines in fresh-to-table foodservice operations will require stovetops, kettles and tilting skillets — versatile items that can prepare fresh produce and numerous other ingredients. After prepping the ingredients, staff will require food-safe containers to hold these items to reduce the risk of spoilage and help ensure maximum use.

Those involved in the fresh-to-table movement predict it will become more prevalent in the years ahead. "Customers will demand where we go from here, and the next generation will take a closer look at food's impact on everything around them, including themselves," Turenne says. "Society will start expecting better food, and local food is better than anything else."