It has been nearly 10 years since my husband and I began selling our excess produce to restaurants and retail establishments within our community. This small leap of faith took us from backyard gardeners to full time farmers at our current farm, Tierra Garden Organics. Oftentimes, on-farm enterprises take root because there is an excess of abundance above and beyond the gardener’s own personal needs. Once the deep freeze is overflowing, the canning is done and the dehydrator is full to the brim, it is time to consider finding a market for your extra produce. Sometimes, you may only have an excess of one or two crops. In this situation, jumping through the hoops of joining a local farmers market does not really make sense; especially if your bounty is ephemeral in nature (like an excess of beans or peas). However, many local restaurants are keen to start exploring the option of buying local and your overproduction may be the windfall that they are searching for. Working with restaurants can be tricky for the uninitiated. If you haven’t worked in a production kitchen, you may not be familiar with the pressures or pace of a busy restaurant. Understanding these constraints will ultimately put you a leg ahead when diving into the world of farm-to-table.
Here are a few tips to building a strong relationship with your local restaurants:
Don’t Sell Shake– First and foremost, it is important that the produce you are looking to sell is high quality. This translates into a crop that has been harvested at the correct time of day, has been kept properly hydrated, is relatively blemish free, is of consistent size and color and is as fresh as possible. If you have picked too many beans and are looking for a home for the extra, the time to start calling restaurants is immediately after harvest, not a week after they have been sitting in the fridge. This can take some practice, but it is possible to ‘cruise’ your garden pre-harvest and begin to determine which crops are producing in excess. If you can see ahead of time that you are going to be harvesting way too many zucchini, start calling ahead before the zucchini are ready to be picked and begin to make connections with restaurants that may be interested in purchasing your excess.
Keep It Clean– Busy chefs do not have time to wash away your garden dirt. Properly clean your produce before delivering. Some items are best left unwashed to maintain freshness. Be sure to communicate this with the kitchen ahead of time to see if they have a preference for how the product is delivered. Salad mix and cut greens should be triple-washed and free of weeds. Root crops should be topped and power-washed to remove excess soil. Spent blossoms should be removed from squashes and cucumbers. All items should be put into a clean container for delivery. Delivering a dirty, raw product is the easiest way to prematurely end a budding farmer-to-chef relationship.
Price Accordingly– If you aren’t a high-end boutique specialty farm, then don’t price your produce like you are. Ultimately, you are looking to form a long-term relationship with another business. Mutual respect is key. Ask for pricing guidance. Many restaurants are willing to share their price sheets from large distributors. Do your best to match or beat the pricing they are receiving until you have established a relationship where the quality of your produce is no longer in question. By contacting a restaurant, you are asking a busy business owner to go out of their way to work directly with you rather than placing a wholesale order through a major distributor. It is up to you to prove to them that the effort is worth their time.
Deliver in a Timely Manner– If you say you are going to deliver Friday morning, then deliver Friday morning. If you are going to be late then call ahead and give the kitchen a heads-up. For the sake of other local growers who are also looking to establish farm-to-table relationships, it is up to you to set a good example and prove to your client that you can be reliable. Oftentimes, restaurants have planned meals based off of your delivery promises. If you don’t deliver on time, they cannot prepare your produce as part of their menu.
Be Prompt With Invoices– Whether you like it or not, selling produce is a business transaction. The restaurant you are working with will need an invoice for their taxes. Use a numbered receipt book to track and itemize the produce you have delivered. All restaurants have a different style when it comes to payment; some pay on delivery, some pay weekly, every two weeks or monthly. Your job is to be sure you create a proper invoice so that you can be reimbursed for your products. If your restaurant client accidentally loses your invoice in the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, it will be up to you to produce a replacement.
Working with local restaurants is one of the most rewarding parts of growing produce. It has always been exciting for me to see how the food we grow can be turned into culinary masterpieces to be enjoyed by others within our community. Local food culture starts by incubating this trust relationship between growers (both backyard and professional) and consumers. Farm-to-Table is the keystone to building a strong, local food economy.
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