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Finding the right ingredients is one of the most important jobs that a restaurant chef has – especially if your restaurant changes its menu regularly based on what’s in season. Building relationships with farmers, foragers, and purveyors is the best way to get the right product, but it can be hard to figure out how to get started. That’s why we’ve put together this list of tips to help you find the best sources in your community for local, fresh food.
The Benefits of having a local food source
Before we get into the how, we can't ignore the why. Sure, there may be big companies that offer cheaper options than local suppliers, but there are many perks and benefits for your business if you're willing to put in the extra work to establish local connections.
Fresh High-Quality Ingredient
When you purchase ingredients from local sources, you are likely to receive fresh, high-quality ingredients that are in season. This helps to ensure that your dishes are always at their best and that your customers receive the best possible dining experience.
Supporting Your Local Economy
By purchasing ingredients from local sources, you are supporting your local community and economy. This helps to create a sustainable food system and strengthens the local food network.
Better Control Over Ingredients
When you work directly with local suppliers, you have more control over the ingredients that you receive. This helps to ensure that you are serving ingredients that meet your standards and are in line with your restaurant's philosophy.
Stronger Relationships With Customers
When you use local ingredients, you have an opportunity to share this information with your customers. This helps to build stronger relationships with customers, who are often interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it was produced.
How to connect with local food sources
You've created a list of local suppliers you'd like to reach out to, but what's the best way to approach them? You can make cold calls or drop by, but there are other ways to connect through the community around you.
Join a CSA
This can be a little tricky for restaurant chefs, because you never know what you’re going to get in your weekly box. But, it can help introduce you to local farmers, and will give you a peek into the type of product they produce for future reference.
Hit the Farmer's Market
If you’re not checking out your local Farmer's Market on a weekly basis, you’re missing out. Even if you only pick up a few things to help accent your dishes (a couple bunches of fresh herbs, a few bushels of local strawberries, or some local ramps, for instance), you’ll be helping to support small local businesses. Nothing completes a dish (and gives you the opportunity to add a few more dollars to the final cost) like a few ‘locally-sourced’ ingredients.
Join the Club
Really great restaurant chefs know that they can find product in lots of different places, and that’s why it’s important to keep your eyes peeled all the time. Check out local gardening, hunting, and mushroom foraging clubs to meet people who source food in different ways. You never know when you might find someone with a passion for finding truffles, and is willing to give you a great price on them.
Maintaining relationships with suppliers
Walk the Walk
Many small farms will offer discounted produce in exchange for work. If understanding where your food comes from is important to you, it might be worth your time to get your hands dirty. You’ll be able to save some money for your restaurant and build relationships with the farmers who provide you with your food. In turn, they might give you the heads up when something special comes around that they think you’ll love.
Have a mutually beneficial contract
Once you have established a relationship with a local supplier, it's time to negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement. This might involve a regular delivery schedule, a commitment to purchase a certain amount of ingredients each month, or other terms that work for both parties. Be sure to discuss any specific requirements or preferences you have, such as specific packaging or delivery times.
Build a strong long-term relationship
All relationships take work, and relationships with suppliers are no different. Maintaining a strong relationship with your local suppliers requires ongoing communication and collaboration. Be sure to keep in touch regularly, ask for feedback, and be open to making changes to your agreement if needed. Happy supplier - happy diners
Restaurant owners who ensure that they are serving high-quality ingredients to their customers aren't just supporting their own business but the community around them. We hope this little guide helps you to build strong and beneficial relationships with local food sources to help grow your food service business!