The Challenge of the Farmer/Chef Connection

ImageThe concept of centralized farms was based on a classic supply and demand opportunity within a growing nation and the need to support the consumer’s desire for everything, anytime, anywhere.  Since climate and soil (terroir) are not the same from coats to coast, certain crops and livestock do not flourish year-round in every region of the United States.  The de-centralized farm that was the backbone of America could not support this growing demand from the consumer.

With centralized farming comes numerous other challenges, not the least of which is quality.  Impact on the environment, making large concentrations of crops susceptible to climate changes, the use of fertilizers to keep the soil productive, pesticides, genetically engineered seeds to increase yield, use of growth hormones in animals, over-use of antibiotics to keep animals free of disease, the loss of the family farm, and the list goes on and on.  We are all familiar with the issues.

The Slow Food Movement and numerous studies about the impact of these practices has influenced a change in many people’s food philosophy.  Organic is no longer a fad, buying local is becoming a national call to arms, a young cadre of energetic farmers are putting their stakes in the ground, and chefs are taking on the movement as part of their food persona.

Now the challenges.  Restaurants are money pits.  The cost of delivering a great, even a good meal is not very forgiving.  A well-run restaurant might be able to squeeze out 5% profit as long as they can control waste, theft, spoilage, and labor costs.  The reality is that many restaurants are not very good at this.  The one saving grace is the ability to find cost effective sources for the food that they use.  The major part of cost effectiveness is how the raw materials that they buy can save on labor.

Consistency is another challenge for restaurants.  Customers expect, and rightfully so, that what they buy from a restaurant today will look and taste the same when they return a month later.  The reason that so many chain restaurants are successful is that customers know what to expect. The vast majority of restaurant patrons are not willing to gamble.

Restaurants are in the “service business”.  This means that they are willing and able to adjust and respond to customers needs and are able to deliver on their promises.

Finally, we come to cost.  The restaurant business is an industry of pennies.  There is a ceiling to what we can charge for the product we serve and a major part of a chef’s job is to learn how to control costs.  Obviously, watching spoilage and waste as well as effective menu planning can help to control the cost of goods, but finding an acceptable price for the raw materials chefs buy will set the stage for profitability.

Small de-centralized producers are very challenged with all of these issues.  Consistent product quality, quantity, form, shape and size, are all very difficult for the small producer to address.  When an item is placed on the menu, there should be an expectation that the chef will be able to find the raw materials to deliver the “promise” to the guest.

The more that a chefs’ crew must do to a product to bring it up to working standards in a restaurant, the higher the cost of labor.  Trimming, sizing, cleaning, sorting, etc. in the hands of the restaurant can make the cost of delivering that item prohibitive.

If a chef cannot depend on an item being delivered at the quality expected, the quantity ordered and the day and time needed, then the promise is again broken.  In some cases in order for a chef to work with farmers they need to pick-up product rather than depend on a delivery.  There are only so many hours in a day and chefs typically work 60 plus hours as it is.

Farmers, like restaurateurs, work on small margins, thus they are not able to compete with price like the one-stop carriers can.  Farmers are unable to allow restaurants to defer payment for 30 or more days like the larger vendors, thus making it very difficult for the restaurant to purchase in this manner.

Now, I am a strong advocate for farm to fork.  I appreciate the flavor differences in local ingredients vs. those from a box supplier.  I want to give a hand to local producers and keep regional economies strong.  I am very concerned about the integrity of the food supply and the depletion of our American terroir.  I am also a restaurant person who understands how difficult it is to make money in this business.

At some point soon, farmers and chefs need to collectively build a business model that addresses all of these issues.  The farmer needs the restaurant and the restaurant needs the farmer.  There is a solution, but both parties need to understand the challenges and address them strategically.

Your thoughts?

  2 comments for “The Challenge of the Farmer/Chef Connection

  1. Jon Dutton
    August 2, 2012 at 2:55 am

    Chef- Forgive me if I ramble…but this subject touches us all and it is sometimes hard to get a clear, concise point made on the first shot. I think there has always been a need to get back in touch with where our food comes from, yet the major downside in my opinion, has been alignment and distribution from the local farmers & processors to the restaurants, as well as, expectations from customers and their needs. I will use a personal experience to explain. A few years back I opened a barbecue restaurant. Being in Connecticut, it’s a rarity to come across a true pit barbecue, with authentic meats and sides. We were a scratch kitchen, with the smokers running 24/7, and prep running about the same schedule…we opened two days before xmas, there were no local farmers knocking on our door looking to market any produce or meats; though we weren’t searching them out yet either. (We had a high-end catering company that we had run for years prior to this and we would use local farmers and seafood purveyors for odds and ends, yet in the end, we needed the big truck to pull up with the bulk of the groceries for our functions.) It was about 4 months into our restaurant adventure when we really hit our stride…as you may know, if you’ve ever been to a barbecue joint in the South (a good one, anyways) the key is to get there early..because when they’re out, they’re out. It’s a cuisine that takes a technique that is all based on time-low & slow. However, up North (at least in Connecticut) you can’t run out, can’t close up or cross it off when it’s gone; customer’s expectations is to be able to have what they want, when they want it. period. We were a small restaurant in the beginning, about 15 seats inside, 30 outside, we purchased fountain soda from a local bottler that was making soda since 1912, our produce came from a larger distributor who had been in Hartford for years and claimed to have purchased from local farmers, yet they eventually got bought out by Sysco, our rolls from an old bakery in NYC, our meats and groceries from a broadliner. Eventually we teamed up with a local farmer to grow our collards (about 3 bushels a day) corn, peppers, beans, tomatoes and onions. And then one day a customer came in and asked where our meat came from…I replied “Hormel produces all of our pork(shoulders, bacon, St. Louis ribs) and IBP packs our briskets and short ribs”..He was dissapointed that we weren’t buying local meats. I let him know, as he enjoyed his rib dinner, that there are only 2 full racks on every hog, and that in order for us to stay open, to never say we were out of anything, that a local farmer would need to slaughter at least 125 hogs every week just to get us enough ribs, that we would need about 55 steers and probably 120 chickens…not to mention the amount of USDA checklists and regulations and capital a local processor would need to get that running; costs will add up and eventually flow to the end-user.
    I think there are restaurants that can do a very good concept on farm-to-table. However, I think they still need a large broadliner in some circumstances. I also think that regionality plays a huge role in where these restaurants can be successful. There must be a happy medium to create local jobs, local goods, while still trying to be a local success yourself. I apologize for dragging on, but I thank you for what you have done, just like you did years ago in class and that’s to get our minds thinking!

  2. August 2, 2012 at 3:05 am

    Jon,

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. This is a big picture topic that will require a lot more understanding than is currently around. Customers and chefs need to communicate as clearly as you have.

    Thanks.

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