Throughout October, OpenTable is celebrating Vegetarian Awareness Month by spotlighting chefs, restaurateurs, trends and innovations in the world of plant-based dining. Follow along here.
In conversations about vegetarian and vegan dining, topics often turn to sourcing. Restaurants need high-quality, delicious ingredients to fill their menus, and more and more chefs prize local products above all else.
“If something hasn’t been processed to be able to make a long journey, and it’s showing up at the restaurant 48 hours after it was in the field or on the farm, it’s going to taste better. Chefs are judged on taste. So all things being equal, generally they would prefer local.”
That’s David Ross, co-founder and CEO of the two-year-old tech startup FarmersWeb. The company connects small- to mid-sized farms with restaurants and other food service entities (schools, corporate kitchens, caterers, retail shops) in their area — helping buyers source better food and farms grow their businesses. We sat down with David to learn the story behind FarmersWeb and how they’re changing the landscape for locavores.
David’s background is in angel investing in the startup space, and several years ago he grew interested in eating locally and knowing where his food comes from. He identified that, apart from walking to the farmers’ market, there way no way for chefs to know where farms were located and what they had available. He and a friend (his FarmersWeb co-founder) started thinking about ideas to enable farms and buyers to work together more effectively.
Initially, they launched FarmersWeb to help farmers and chefs connect and transact online. They realized quickly that both sides — buyers and farms — needed a comprehensive software solution to work together in the most successful way possible.
Currently, most farms working with wholesale buyers have to repeat administrative tasks involved in transactions over and over again, with every individual buyer on every order. That’s inefficient, and it limits the number of buyers that farms are able to work with. FarmersWeb software allows farms to streamline those operations so they can work with more buyers more easily.
Farmers can create free profiles, similar to a Facebook page that includes information about their farm, growing method, location and history, with pictures and logos. Some use the profile as their main website, so they don’t have to host a site of their own. The platform helps boost their online presence and be in a place where buyers look to discover new farms.
Beyond the profile page, premium FarmersWeb plans allow farms to accept and manage online orders, work directly with buyers, and send invoices and receipts. They can update availability of ingredients in real time and manage all the operational aspects of deliveries and payments.
On the flip side, buyers have access to information about the farms, including insight into availability, and can order online. They also have access to invoices and online records — all for free. David says buyers love that their dollars are staying in the community and many communicate that to diners.
“They’re saying, here are the farms that these items are coming from and where they are. More and more, that’s what the diner is looking for — it has that connotation of quality, freshness and better taste.”
The Use Cases
“No question: local has, even in the past few years, become what restaurants are looking for,” says David.
Buyers new to local sourcing have discovered farms in their area via FarmersWeb, so it’s an easy way in for restaurants looking to source more local products. But restaurants that already have those relationships in place also benefit from the features outlined above.
As a chef, it’s essential to go to the market from time to time and see, touch and smell the ingredients you’re working with. Farms can still use the software to manage orders made at the market, and that makes reordering online easy. Plus, “it’s hard to come back from the market with several bushels of apples,” David laughs. He says relationships that develop between farms and restaurants tend to stick — if buyers are happy with the quality and ease of working with a farmer, they’ll come back for more.
One notable early adopter of the software is sweetgreen, the fast-casual chain dedicated to healthy, local, organic ingredients. When the company expanded from Washington D.C. to New York, they turned to FarmersWeb to find local sources for their menu items since they didn’t have existing relationships in place. On the whole, buyers range from small mom-and-pop restaurants to multi-location restaurants and chains.
The Way Forward
“There are over two million farms in the U.S., and 90 percent are small- to mid-sized and family-owned,” says David. “The food system in this country has a ways to go in terms of getting there where local is as easy as anything else. We don’t pretend to solve all of that immediately, but we’re an important part of it.”
Right now there are 300+ farms on FarmersWeb, in 31 states, but his goal is to grow so that more farms can access interested buyers. With more education about who the farmers are and where they’re located, and access to those farms, the locavore movement can continue to expand and evolve.