Sourcing products like meat, produce, and seafood for restaurants has never been more important. Guests are informed and interested, and they understand the impact of investing in the local community. Kyle Mendenhall is the Executive Chef at The Kitchen, which has restaurants in Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins, and Chicago and is committed to serving food from a local farmers, ranchers, and purveyors. Here, he shares tips for making local sourcing sustainable, efficient, and effective for the restaurant business.
It All Starts with Relationships
That’s a model we live by. The best way to build relationships is to go to the farmers’ market. Know the farmers’ markets that go on in your area; know the farmers and what they do. A lot of smaller farms that are local have a three-tiered structure: CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), farmers’ markets, and a restaurant business. Looking for farms, ranchers, or any producer that has that structure is a good situation for a restaurateur to be in.
Ask the Right Questions
Who is it coming from? Where is it coming from? Is it in season? And most importantly, does it taste good? That’s pretty simple stuff, but in Colorado having a tomato in August or September is vastly different than having it in December or January.
We’re looking for people who share our vision and believe in what we do — how we’re trying to positively impact our community with food.
Educate Your Staff
We visit farms, because it’s very important to know how the products get from wherever they are to us. More and more, guests are wanting to know these things, too. If a server is asked where something comes from, and he shrugs and says I don’t know — that’s not acceptable anymore in America’s food system.
We love to represent our purveyors, but we don’t want to be shoving things down people’s throat when they come in. We refer to it like this: If you did a search on Google for new Toyotas and found a website about new Toyotas, and in the website there was a link to new Corollas to get more specific information about those. It’s kind of like that — we have the knowledge and build the knowledge. We have pre-service every day to talk about the food on the menu, so if a guest says, “We really like this chicken and we saw it’s from Wisdom Farm — can you tell us about the farm?” Then the servers talk about Jay and Cindy, who raise all their own birds, process their own birds, and deliver them to us once a week. It’s about having the ability to know and understand that and give the information when the link is clicked on by a guest.
Be Flexible & Seize Opportunities
The economics of sourcing locally doesn’t work if you’re not flexible. You have to be able to be flexible with the menu so you can get things when they are in season. We’re talking about perishable products — there’s a motivation for the farmer to sell 50 pounds of tomatoes today because in a week they’re not going to be worth anything.
That’s where the relationship comes into play and you can talk about those things. In the spring when spinach comes in, it goes into everything on our menu. If Anne Cure (of Cure Organic Farm) calls me up and she took 90 pounds of spinach to the farmers’ market and only sold 40, she has 50 pounds of spinach she needs to find a home for. We create space for that, but we’ll purchase it at $4 a pound. It starts with the relationship and getting to a mutually beneficial point.
Focus on What’s Realistic
We source locally whenever possible. We look to Boulder first, and if it doesn’t have what we need then we look to the Boulder-Denver areas, then to Colorado, then to the Midwest, then domestically. If it’s not available domestically, then we look outside. People can take it to extremes, but if we did that we would never have black pepper in the restaurant. Or a lemon. We want to provide our customer base and community with the food they want, but we use good guidance on the most efficient way to do that.
Start with produce. It’s seasonal but has a quick growing cycle, so you can get it in quantities large enough to support the restaurant and your needs. Look at highly perishable things that don’t travel well first. Then (from a Colorado perspective) there are lots of ranchers raising beef, pigs, lamb, and chicken, so that’s another huge area to look at. We buy steers on a weekly basis from one rancher, which is distributed to all of our restaurant.
There’s an interesting dilemma for a restaurant in Colorado and in Chicago: we’re landlocked. We’re not going down to the local fishmonger because it doesn’t exist. For seafood, we apply the same philosophy as we would with a farmer a couple of miles away, building relationships with individuals we know and trust and have visited on the coast.
The important thing is knowing that when we purchase Wisdom Farm chicken the dollars are going to Jay and Cindy Wisdom, not to two or three middle companies or to a processor or distributor. The dollars we’re spending in our community are directly impacting that community.
Top photo courtesy of Laurie Smith Photography; lower image by Ashley Davis Photography.
Now that 2015 is here, resolve to make this the best year yet for your restaurant business. Every day this month we’ll be featuring a new tip from restaurateurs, chefs, and other industry leaders to shape up your marketing, operations, hospitality, and more. Check back daily for expert advice and successful strategies to start your year off right, and see them all here.