Any farmer — or any small business owner, for that matter — can testify to the familiar adage that marketing and sales make up at least 50 percent of the time spent running a business. Between emails, social media posts, print ads, phone calls, and farmers markets, farmers can be left with barely enough time to grow what they’re trying so hard to sell. Streamlining this process is integral to operating a successful farm. Consolidating sales to a few prodigious points will allow you to find more time for the job you intended. Consolidation can come in various forms, including selling wholesale to a store, selling to a larger distributor, or selling directly to restaurants. Each of these options has its own particular benefits and drawbacks, but selling directly to restaurants arguably offers the most compelling advantages.
Selling locally grown meat directly to customers requires a certain amount of knowledge. You need to be knowledgeable about the ecological and economic benefits of small farms; you need to know the diet of the animal and its resulting benefits to the customers’ health; and you need to be familiar with the animal’s anatomy — the individual cuts and how to cook them. Sirloins and chops are easy sells, but there’s a whole lot of animal left after the choice cuts are gone. No farmer wants these languishing in a freezer. Not only is it ecologically unsound, but it’s also unprofitable if you aren’t able to sell the whole animal. Fortuitously, it’s in a chef’s best fiscal interest to use every part of an animal.
A Hoof in the Door
Typically, a chef works with a monthly ingredients budget. They need to fit all of their creative and innovative ideas into the economic realities of running a restaurant. Rarely can a chef compete with individual consumers on the price per pound of a ribeye. Where they can compete is with the purchase of whole and half animals — something few individual consumers have the freezer space to warrant. If a chef can commit to the purchase of a whole hog or a half cow, for example, then you can come down on the price per pound of the animal. The chef will get the primals at a reduced cost, plus the fun stuff to play around with (the tongue, tail, and everything in between). This way, you’ll sell a whole or half animal in one go. This one transaction has the potential to eliminate dozens of other sales the same carcass would’ve required if sold piecemeal.
Cultivating a relationship with a chef takes time and work, but the payoff is a reliable and knowledgeable customer with a big appetite. The biggest hurdle will be convincing a chef to go with a local producer. Oftentimes, restaurants get pantry staples from a one-stop shop distributor that can offer conventionally grown meat, veggies, and dairy. The allure of a distributor is an understandable convenience with a price to match. Chefs are growing more conscious of and excited about locally produced meat, and the farm-to-table movement is showing no sign of waning — but competing with a distributor’s price and availability is a tall task. Farmers have the advantage of superior products, and chefs will recognize this readily. To overcome the competition of a distributor, your best tactic will be to get in with a newly opened or imminently opening restaurant. The key is to form a relationship — based on quality — with the chef before they’re seduced by the convenience and price of a distributor.
To get started, research local establishments in your area that are opening soon or coming under new management. When you find one, contact the chef or owner to congratulate them on the new venture and to inquire if they’d be open to receiving a few choice samples of meat. Then, follow up with a sample cut that best illustrates your farm’s offerings. Pork chops or sirloin are always great and decadent samples. The sample is a generosity the chef will appreciate, and a canvas on which they can experiment with your product. (Be sure to time your restaurant visit so as not to interfere with meal service.) A few days later, follow up with the chef to ask for feedback about the meat and to gauge their interest. Ideally, you’ll find common ground in a shared commitment to locally produced food. Make known the availability of the product, and, if all goes well, negotiations will follow to determine a price that works for both you and the chef.
The price per pound a chef can offer to start may be significantly lower than what you could get at a farmers market, but don’t be discouraged by this. You can consider offering the first animal at a discounted rate with the understanding that the price would go up with subsequent purchases.
Once you’ve established a relationship and made a sale, you can begin the conversation about supply and demand. A chef’s menu may change based on seasonably available vegetables, but local meat is year-round and thus becomes a staple for most restaurants. Chefs require a reliable, steady source. They have a good understanding of how long a carcass will last and when they’ll need another. You and the chef can begin to plan out the year to determine how often deliveries will be required. Restaurant storage restrictions may necessitate more frequent deliveries, and some restaurants may begin by reserving local meat for specials and then request a more gradual supply as demand increases. Abattoirs are historically busy in fall. Scheduling slaughters up to a year in advance is common practice for many livestock farmers. In a working relationship with a chef, the scheduling of such slaughters will need to be predetermined to help both the farmer and the chef ensure continuity of supply.
If an individual customer finds a pork chop too fatty, you may never know or get the chance to communicate with them about that dissatisfaction. With a chef, you can have a more natural and fluid conversation about the meat’s qualities. Check in with the chef a few days after delivery to inquire how the meat is performing and how it’s been received by the restaurant’s patrons. You’ll get valuable and specific feedback that a chef is well-suited to give. They may speak to the marbling, the leanness, and the fat content, and together you can brainstorm ways to change the meat’s composition if necessary. Value this relationship with a chef as an opportunity for truly constructive criticism.
Your Place on the Food Chain
Chefs aren’t beholden to a farmer, and while they may sign contracts with large distributors, they’re unlikely to sign one with an individual producer. This makes an interpersonal relationship integral to your success. They need to feel supported by you, as you feel supported by them. Work with the chef and restaurant owner to deepen your relationship and its mutual benefits. Some ways to do this include co-hosting special events at the restaurant or at your farm; asking the restaurant to feature your farm’s name on its menu, which will in turn lead to more business from satisfied diners; and returning the favor by making your individual customers aware of the restaurant’s new menu. As an added bonus, the chef may be willing to share with your customers a simple but delicious recipe for one of the lesser-known cuts of meat. Social media cross-promotion between your farm and the restaurant is a great tool.
Be sure to have a nuanced understanding of the relationship between the chef and the restaurant owner. The head chef is often not the owner, and chefs often move from one restaurant to another as they learn and refine their craft. It’s in your best interest to anticipate these moves. Don’t get involved in the personal business of the chef and the owner, but do remain aware of the potential for change. For this reason, it’s a good idea to develop a professional relationship with the restaurant owner too. If the chef does leave, you can potentially expand your business — by following the chef to their new restaurant as well as starting anew with the replacement chef.
In short, the relationship between chef and farmer — like any other — takes care, maintenance, and thought. If well-maintained, the bond will prove beneficial to both parties. The chef and their restaurant will endear themselves to the community with their support of locally raised food, and to their diners with higher-quality ingredients. You’ll have only one buyer when you heretofore needed multiple, and the entire animal will be consumed, wasting nothing. Everyone will win.
Kate MacLean is a mother, farmer, and writer in the hills of central Vermont. She raises wild-haired children, along with Milking Devon cattle, Ossabaw Island hogs, and a smattering of other creatures both winged and hoofed. You can find her on Instagram @LongestAcresFarm.