Mediator or Meat Processor?
Working with small farmers and chefs
Sometimes I feel more like a mediator than a meat processor. Since choosing to work on the slaughter side of the meat industry, in order to create better access to quality processing services for regional farmers, I’ve been a connection between the food production sector and the food service sector.
And not just figuratively, but literally: I’d go from working with farmers on their cut lists and dropping off their animals, to delivering a sack of meat to the back door of the brewery on my way home. Chefs would call and tell me, “I need X number of X cuts of meat in X size.” My job was to work with my beef growers to make sure that they could provide that. And vice versa: Some chefs welcomed phone calls from me saying "I have short ribs on sale". They'd say, "that would make a great special." Although farmers and chefs are two of the most difficult customers I work with, I love it. It’s a challenge, and so much more satisfying than I even had anticipated in the beginning.
Having worked in food service, whether at the snack bar at age 16 to Manhattan fine dining, I understand working with cooks/chefs. Sometimes I see a sentiment from farmers that chefs are demanding. Sometimes, that’s true. But mostly, chefs are just like any other business person: they are just trying to do the best job they can, and serve the best food they can, in a way that is sustainable for their business. Likewise, farmers aren’t grumpy, they are just trying to do the best job they can, and grow the best product they can, in a way that is sustainable for their business. When all parties are emotionally invested in their own product and service, it is easy to forget that we all share this common ground.
My senior thesis in Anthropology at Fort Lewis was a study looking at the barriers that were preventing local restaurants from buying more local products. The results of the study showed four main challenges to overcome: consistency, quality, volume, and price. Even when all of these factors could be addressed, there was an inertia of habit, or hesitancy, still blocking the two parties from coming together. Building trust is going to be the best way to overcome this hesitancy. We should be all working together, where we can and when it makes sense.
Consistency: Chefs want to know that their product is going to be at their back door when they need it. They don’t always have the time to go to the market and go shopping for one item at a time. They want to have it at least a few months in a row, consistently, if not all year round. If they are going to invest in this product by making it part of a regular menu item and not just a special, they don’t want to have to say “oh, we’re all out of the goat cheese salad” three times a week.
Quality: You will hear me say “just because it’s local doesn’t make it automatically better.” This is true, and I’ll dedicate a whole post to it later. First and foremost, a product has to be excellent. Then, you can worry about where you are going to sell it. Chefs are looking for a reason why your product is better than others. Give them that reason, and if it is, show them how.
Volume: There is a reason why most restaurants that serve local food limit it to mostly the specials or ingredients that have long shelf lives and are not deeply involved in each menu item (eg. using local pepperoni on one pizza vs. using local tomatoes on all the pizzas). If they cannot get the volume they need, consistently, without sacrificing quality, specials will likely remain the extent of their local food commitments. If a chef can be flexible and can work with a farmer who is flexible, and can commit to attempting a certain volume, this may be a way to start to get more items onto a regular menu.
Price: We’re all trying to run businesses, and let’s face it: small farmers cannot reach the economies of scale that large farms can. It’s going to be difficult to match the dirt cheap prices of a large food supplier. However, many chefs are willing to pay for quality, so if you can show them that, you will win them over. Also, chefs should not underestimate what their customers are willing to pay for high quality, either.
In each of these categories, there are sacrifices each party may have to make to work with one another. Chefs may have to pay a higher price, which still may not be the price that the farmer wants or needs. Farmers want a commitment from a chef before they take a risk by growing for that one customer. Will each party stay with the other through good times and bad, for better or for worse? If we can all work with one another, there are advantages to kindling this relationship.
The advantages to chefs buying locally from small farmers
- Better customer service. If a chef wants a certain heirloom cherry tomato for a salad, your farmer may be happy to grow those and to set those aside for you. A large distribution supplier, however, you will simply be picking out of a catalog. Your farmer may end up being more flexible than a warehouse.
- Insane quality and distinctive taste. Durango is a great example of this. There are only 2 or 3 major food suppliers that reach every restaurant in town. The ones that aren’t using local products and are relying solely on the food supplier, all their food kind of... tastes the same. It’s the same tomatoes, the same baby mixed greens, the same sack of potatoes reaching each door. In the restaurants using local products, however, you can taste more freshness, unique qualities, and memorable flavors. It actually becomes a meal that I want to spend money on.
- Creativity and authenticity. My mother in law goes with the “When in Rome” philosophy when she’s traveling and out to eat. Take advantage of regional crops that frame the culture of your region. Give visitors and locals alike a reason to taste and be impressed with flavors that reflect the traditions and heritage of your area.
The advantages to farmers selling locally to chefs
- Get a better price for your product. Chefs are willing to pay for quality, if the quality is there. You won’t have to worry if your fancy shmancy new thing won't sell at the farmer’s market, because you’ll already have a buyer. Plus, if you are delivering once a week to a restaurant, you won’t have to worry about the farmers market hustle and your CSA being your only source of income.
- Have a consistent buyer. if you can be flexible to work with their requests you will start to form a trusting relationship. You will be able to mold your growing season to your customer. Having the knowledge of 1. what you are growing, 2. how much you are growing, and 3. what the price is and for what customer, you will be able to better predict and prepare for your growing season, and focus on growing a better product.
- Marketing. Increase your customer base by engaging directly with your customer through the restaurant. When a diner eats your product, prepared perfectly by a chef, they will be able to connect with your farm through this meal, and they will remember your name.
And for both groups...
- Support your community. There are many studies around the country, though with varying results, showing the same general findings: a dollar spent locally circulates more and has more of an economic impact than a dollar spent at an absentee retailer. With restaurants, this figure could be even higher.