Farmers and Chefs: Working Together

Last week I attended a farmer to farmer conference put on by the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project.  During the lunch break, I listened in on a conversation between two farmers discussing the challenges of selling to restaurants.

Given that my background is in restaurants, I understand the challenges of the chef.  It is certainly easier to purchase meats and produce from just a few vendors (like Russo’s for produce and Kinnealey for meats) rather than sourcing from individual farmers.  Farmers typically don’t have a sales person to answer phone calls, answer questions and take orders.  And the farmer cannot always guarantee they will have enough produce to fill the order completely.

Despite the challenges, chefs still want to buy from small local farmers because they want to support the local economy, the environment, and most importantly, they know the quality will be superior.

Here are several ways chefs can approach farmers to create a more sustainable vendor- relationship:

  • Know that availability of any given product is never guaranteed. Write flexibility into your menus.
  • Both farmers and restaurateurs work within very thin margins.   Farmers cannot always afford to give price breaks.   If discounted pricing is important, ask for “seconds.” Typically these are vegetables that have some blemishes to them.
  • If uniformity in the vegetables is important, let the farmer know.
  • Farmers are willing to grow specialty crops for loyal customers.  Let them know in January what you would like for the spring and summer menus so they have time to plan.  Be prepared to purchase the entire harvest in order to foster the relationship.
  • Understand what is seasonal for your region.  For example, tomatoes don’t come onto the market until mid- to late- July and strawberries are available in the spring.

Similarly, farmers need to understand the constraints of the chef:

  • If you are unable to fulfill an order, let the chef know as soon as possible, and be prepared with alternative options.
  • Understand how to prepare and cook your vegetables, so when you have an unusual crop, you can offer suggestions to the chefs.
  • Sort crops into #1s and #2s.  For the chef that needs picture-perfect vegetables, you can offer the better looking crops at a higher price.  For the chef that needs a better price, you can offer the less pristine looking vegetables that may require more creative uses, prep and/or trimming.

What strategies have you used to enhance relationships between farmers and their customers?

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