Getting to the Source of Local Supply

Yankee Pot Roast at Founding Farmers.
Yankee Pot Roast at Founding Farmers. Greg Powers

How is the demand for fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients changing the way operators navigate the complicated world of supply chain dynamics?

In some ways, the supply chain dust has settled. The purported merger between foodservice titans Sysco and US Foods never happened—at a reported cost of $693 million to the former—while local sourcing, food safety, food waste, labor shortages, and government regulations continue to dish out their share of sleepless nights to operators around the country. If anything, those concerns have only sharpened, especially as the cautionary tale of fast-casual trailblazer Chipotle unfolds on a national stage. Despite the distinction in business models, full-service operators are paying close attention to the spiral, which reached public conscious in November when 42 Chipotle locations in the Pacific Northwest briefly shut down following an outbreak of E. coli. In fact, the concern hits home on very sturdy footing. Most operators agree that Chipotle’s breakdown was the result of good intentions mixed with flawed infrastructure and simple, undeniable bad luck. The same guiding principles that shook Chipotle—the ethos of offering local, sustainable, and better-for-you ingredients—isn’t an option for most full-serves; it’s an adapt-and-survive model that comes with the territory, a by-product of higher check averages, elevated consumer demand, and the onrushing momentum of the farm-to-table movement.

The question now becomes not if, but how restaurants can navigate the realm of local sourcing effectively, safely, and without sending bottom lines plummeting into the red. Meanwhile, making sure to monitor market trends, weather patterns (think California drought), changing labor rules, and the often confusing, yet crucial arrival of the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). “The amount of things you have to stay on top of is mind-boggling,” says Mark Allen, president and CEO of the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA). “But you’ve really only got one shot at food safety, and if you get tripped up in that, you could destroy your business.”

The Path from Farm to Fork

When it comes to purchasing fresh and seasonal ingredients in the supply chain, there is something appealing, Old World, and, undeniably, marketable about a chef dealing directly with a farmer. It’s the local promise at its purest level. But, weighing the risks and challenges against the reward, is it a realistic and sustainable business model? That depends on a multitude of factors, says Tejas Bhatt, the director of the Global Food Traceability Center, Institute of Food Technologists, which is headquartered in Chicago. “Local sourcing has its advantages, but when you fail to deliver on that promise, that really has a big impact on companies,” Bhatt says. “On the one hand, you’re able to get fresh ingredients to your customers, and presumably, fresh ingredients would not only reduce your carbon footprint from a sustainability standpoint, but provide better-tasting food to your customers. That’s the good side of it. The downside is that it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to ensure consistency across the board.”

That consistency delves deeper than, say, menuing firm, ripe carrots that always present with vibrant color. For independent and small-chain operators especially, it’s important to keep the local supply chain under control, says Bruce Reinstein, the president of Consolidated Concepts, a partner for more than 20,000 restaurants in the U.S. “The answer is: Everybody wants local. Everybody would like to be able to use environmentally friendly products. That’s a lot of wishes,” Reinstein says, adding there are many questions to be addressed. “Are you going to be paying more than you can really afford, is the consumer going to give you credit for it, and is it worth the risk in regards to food safety and traceability on local product? That is part of what happened with Chipotle. They used a lot of local farms, and the food traceability in those products is negligible. Can restaurants take those chances in today’s world?”


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