Sales to restaurants offer opportunities to livestock and dairy producers

National Restaurant Association survey demonstrates interest in locally produced meats and artisan cheeses

Livestock and dairy producers may find an opportunity to add value to their operations by marketing products to their local restaurant industry. The National Restaurant Association conducted a nationwide survey of 1,527 members of the American Culinary Federation who are restaurant chefs. This is a key group of decision makers who are responsible for planning of foods that are featured on restaurant menus. The chefs were given a list of 226 food and beverage items, cuisines, culinary themes and preparation methods and asked to rate each item.

Three trends were identified within the top 20 trends which may be of interest to livestock and dairy producers. Locally sourced meats and seafood was the number one trend—with 86% of those surveyed rating it as a hot trend. Coming in at tenth on the list of trends was farm/estate branded ingredients—rated as a hot trend by 76% of survey respondents. Rounding out the top 20 was artisan cheeses—with 68% of the chefs rating artisan cheeses as a hot trend.

These survey results parallel the growing interest of consumers in local food and their desire for food with an identity. While fresh produce has been the most commonly sourced local ingredient it appears that the restaurant industry is now recognizing the value of local meat and cheese products and is offering these foods to garner customers in the competitive market of dining out.

Chefs are interested in buying from local producers as they value quality, freshness and the ability to secure unique products that may not be available through large food service distributors. Farmers are looking for new markets for their products and selling to restaurants may be an option. While it seems like a beneficial partnership for both parties the opportunity does present some challenges.

In a study conducted by Iowa State University, farmers identified being able to produce a year-round supply of product and lack of knowledge of regulations as barriers to selling to restaurants. In another study, conducted by the Michigan Land Use Institute, growers indicated they need help in finding restaurant customers, assistance with business issues and pricing and also cited challenges with the regulatory maze.

The University of Nebraska conducted a study of Chef’s Collaborative members that identified obstacles faced when purchasing locally produced food for restaurants. Many of these barriers were classified under the heading of distribution and delivery. Impediments outlined were consistent availability and reliable supply, knowing what is locally grown and where to get it, and complicated ordering and invoicing.

A study conducted by the Food System Economic Partnership with chefs and restaurant owners in five counties in southeastern Michigan utilized both surveys and focus groups. The research was consistent with other studies around the country in identifying the same barriers. The focus group discussion however went a step further in identifying what could be done to break down the barriers. All of the solutions centered around education and networking. Two that were specifically cited were newsletters and facilitated gatherings between farmers and restaurant personnel.

Several models across the country have been established to facilitate interaction between farmers and the restaurant industry. The Vermont Fresh Network sponsors the Fresh Network Forum—an event comprised of lectures and food tasting to allow participants to learn more about local food and farming. In addition, a new logo creates brand recognition for local foods that restaurants can use on their menus and in their windows. The organization also supports a website that allows farmers to update information on available foods so it can be easily accessed by chefs.

The New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection maintains a directory of farms that will sell to restaurants as well as a list of restaurants that use local foods. They have also worked to create some creative shipping and distribution options that enable farms to deliver products to restaurants.

The opportunity exists for farmers to add value to their operations by selling food products to restaurants. Realizing this opportunity will require creative thinking, an open mind in product development and some new methods of marketing. Farmers who are interested developing new businesses or products targeted at the restaurant industry can contact the Michigan State University Product Center for assistance. Innovation counselors are located across the state to assist producers in adding value to their farm products. 

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