It all begins with a phone call. While the path to purchasing and stocking a restaurant with fresh, seasonal product continues to evolve and gain complexity, sometimes it’s the simple, old-fashioned methods that work best.
As the manager of food purchasing at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, I’ve had the unique task of procuring everything that’s not meat, fish, or alcohol for the college’s five public restaurants and 42 teaching kitchens over the past five years. Working in such a specialized environment presents its own benefits and unique challenges, but the foundation is the same as the smallest restaurant hoping to get its operation off the ground: relationships.
I was lucky enough to piggyback off the CIA’s longstanding network of local suppliers. But for the operator just starting out, here’s my suggestion: Pick up the phone and start calling producers who could be ideal partners in this always-challenging supply chain equation. Set up face-to-face meetings to sample and test product, and to see if it fits the vision of the restaurant. An operator could also call another restaurant, or even a nearby school, and establish a line of communication that can supply and support the restaurant for decades.
This can help in a multitude of ways. For starters, having a close relationship with a supplier will create a certain level of confidence in the product. Discussions can take place over what crops are available, either currently or in the future, and in what amounts. And ask questions: Will it work for the restaurant? Am I comfortable with the growing practices? These are invaluable questions to ask given the sensitive nature of the industry. Operators need to be as specific with suppliers as possible, especially when it comes to costs, quantity, and, of course, food safety.
At the CIA, one of the first courses students take involves product knowledge. They’re exposed to all the produce, what the proper quality should be, where it grows, and how it grows. And they’re encouraged to come to the loading dock every day to check it out. That’s a talent that develops over time, and should be nurtured during the course of a career.
When it comes to costing, a smaller operation can frequently engage in product bids. It’s typically going to cost more to purchase local, but you have to weigh other factors. For instance, quality local product that was in the field yesterday but costs 20 percent more will have a longer shelf life than product making a cross-country trip. And, considering the chance it spoils, food waste is a major factor in the bottom line. There’s also a monetary value in plating items with local ties, as consumers’ demands are shifting to the farm-to-table focus. It doesn’t hurt that it usually tastes better, too.
Lastly, always be conscious of what’s going on the menu. At the CIA, we have a great track record with food waste because of the campus’ many outlets. We’ll always find a use for the product somewhere. For a restaurant, make sure the offerings reflect the market and focus on ingredients that are sensible for the season. The produce market is really complicated at times, based on weather conditions and the overall state of the industry. It helps to pay attention, have a solid base of knowledge, and lean on others to help simplify the complicated and crucial process.