How Chain Operators Can Source Food Locally


The chef-driven trend isn't confined to small independents.

Today's farm-to-table “locavore” movement has spread like a prairie fire across the restaurant environment. Many single-unit, chef-driven restaurants promote ever-changing menus that incorporate produce and herbs from their own rooftop gardens and feature meat and poultry from local farmers. Some chefs even partner with farmer-suppliers to hold farm-to-table dinners in the fields, and hire buses to transport their mostly urban and suburban customers to the country.

Obviously, such extremes aren't feasible for multi-unit restaurant chains, but there are many ways for them to profit from one of the fastest-growing trends in foodservice. Chains can benefit from local sourcing with careful planning and coordination.

If you are willing to invest the resources to source some of your menu locally, you can capitalize on the locavore movement. First, you have to take a hard look at the financial and staffing resources it will take.

Before you do anything else, you should meet with your distributors to find out how they are sourcing within a geographic area. Then you need to learn how to duplicate that model in all of the geographic areas you serve. For example, if you want to include local cheeses in your menu, be aware that cheeses will vary from region to region. It may be necessary to have different specifications in different geographic areas. You will have to let go of strict consistency to some degree if you are moving toward local sourcing. Relaxing your specs a little is warranted.

My suggestion is to focus your efforts on products where consistency is less important. It’s an advantage to emphasize local foods such as cheeses, sausages, craft beers, and some produce. Maybe a couple of appetizers and entrees can be made with local ingredients, and local bakeries can provide some interesting breads, rolls, and desserts. This would appeal to your more adventuresome guests who enjoy trying new menu items and who stay in tune with dining trends, while still satisfying those who return to your restaurant expecting long-time favorites.

Local sourcing also may provide opportunities to tap into another hot trend that can be challenging for chains: organics. Offering guests a small number of locally produced, organic items will allow you to update your menu and market positioning, without making a complete move to organics — which would be extremely difficult and costly.

Of course, you need to do your usual due diligence to be sure these smaller suppliers can meet the standards of regional and national chains. You may be able to find a local source, only to realize that your source cannot produce enough supply. You may need to invest in growing the source’s business. Also, validating food safety with local suppliers is critical. These types of suppliers often do not have as many control points in place or technology as precise as the larger manufacturers do.

Costs may be higher because local producers don’t have the efficiencies of larger companies. It seems, however, that many customers who prefer locally raised products are less price-conscious and willing to spend a little more money on dining out, so you have some room to raise your menu prices a bit.

Also on the positive side, you may offset some of the higher sourcing costs with freight savings. Consider your total landed cost in the equation.

With seasonal local products, flexibility is key. Historically, chains have offered guests the same menu year-round with only a few annual updates, due to high reprint costs. Be prepared to change your menu four or five times a year. As challenging as this is, the frequent updates can drive the pace of menu innovation, ultimately improving your competitive position.

You can use your Limited Time Offers to promote locally grown items, as well. This gives you the flexibility of adjusting to the growing seasons while not affecting your base menus. Those who are using electronic menus or menu boards have the ability to respond to supply variations immediately.

One of the biggest requirements is an integration of marketing, research and development, purchasing, and regional management. Company-wide planning is vital, and you need a focused approach with clear objectives. With a strategy in place, you can then decide which parts of your menu are best suited to local sourcing.

The marketing department must communicate that by offering locally produced food where possible, you’re supporting the local economy, reducing your carbon footprint, and promoting sustainability of the food supply. Both new and current guests, particularly the young adult demographic, will appreciate your efforts and show it by dining with you more often.

Maryanne Rose

Maryanne Rose is President and CEO of SpenDifference, a third-party purchasing organization that primarily serves medium-sized restaurants chains. She has more than 25 years of experience in all facets of the foodservice industry, including supply chain, operations, and training. She has held management and executive positions with Rock Bottom Restaurants, VICORP, CA1 Services, and Sky Chefs. She is also a member of the Institute for Supply Management and the Women’s Foodservice Forum. You can visit the SpenDifference website at

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