How chefs can make farm to table a reality
Becoming more local starts with adjusting expectations
When you see the word chef what do you think? Someone who cooks, handles your food and prepares your meals; these days even someone who grows the food themselves might be considered a chef. But what doesn’t come to mind is a logistics manager tasked with negotiating prices, building relationships with food growers and juggling transportation logistics. That’s what many of these culinary experts are forced to do in order to deliver the high-quality, locally-sourced, ethically-grown products to their customers.
There’s no denying that food is engrained in American culture. Studies show that Americans spend a total of $2.3 billion per day on eating out. Additionally, consumers are trending toward more local and ethically sourced food, particularly in Colorado. Colorado has already started making food moves toward making these healthy initiatives a reality. Back in 1999, the program Colorado Proud was launched, promising customers that the food they consume is grown, raised or processed in the state. Another report finds that nearly 70% of consumers are willing to pay more for food that is natural, ethical or sustainably-sourced.
The demand exists. What doesn’t exist is the seamless ability to deliver what consumers want.
What we face here is two problems in one community. On one hand, we have small food growers who don’t have easy access to distribution companies. On the other hand, more established restaurants use these distribution companies to get their product, but they really want a simpler and more enlightened way to get their ingredients. The food system needs more flexibility to work with the smaller producers as well as reliability and consistency to work with larger restaurants.
For some restaurants and food growers it is more efficient to shorten the supply chain entirely to one entity, a farm and table operation. However, while this is possible and an amicable mission to do it all, grow your own food and deliver it right to your customers, it’s not very realistic for most chefs or most farmers.
One of the biggest challenges a restaurant faces is transporting the product from the farm to the kitchen, and juggling logistics is not usually a restaurant’s core competency.
When a restaurant decides to commit to the values of farm-to-table they may not realize just what it requires. It means networking for the restaurants and developing relationships with a variety of producers. As heard from one farm-to-table disciple and Denver restaurateur, you can’t rely on just a few farmers in the area to provide you with everything you need, rather it means creating a community of 15 to 20 food growers, if not more depending on the size of your operation.
It’s not uncommon that a region is known for a select few crops but not much beyond that, bringing forth the challenge of crop diversity, or rather lack thereof. For example, in Delaware 88% of the crops are chicken, soy, and corn. Even beyond developing a solid relationship with multiple farms and ranches, established kitchens have still found that growers struggle to keep up with demand. It means being flexible as a chef when you hear a crop is damaged due to a hailstorm or crazy weather Colorado is known to have. This flexibility can be a luxury which many small businesses can’t afford.
It takes a lot of time to build the network of relationships you need for consistent farm-to-fork supply. Finding that time is a challenge for any food service operator.
Negotiating pricing also proves to be a pivotal factor in the success of a farm-to-table operation. It’s likely that the restaurant owner thinks of prices in units of plates of food, but the rancher or farmer think differently. Or maybe the chef is interested in base ingredients and is less concerned about the appearance of the product, which would help the farmer determine what volume they could offer. Chefs who chose to work directly with farmers do not have the buying power of a big distribution company and the farmer does not have the guarantee of sell-through when making smaller sales directly to restaurants.
So, what does this mean for food scene in Colorado? Becoming more local starts with adjusting expectations, like following the growing season patterns for Colorado. As a restaurant owner, this leads to seasonal menus, and for the consumer, it results in more variety but less predictability. And in true farm-to-table fashion it means more communication between members in a community, from the grower, to the preparer, to the consumer.
Ben Deda is the CEO of FoodMaven, a Colorado headquartered company focused on sustainable food sourcing. Deda has held senior and executive leadership roles at Vertafore, Galvanize, FullContact and TruStile. He has an MBA from the University of Denver and a BS of Mechanical Engineering from the University of Notre Dame.