Michelle Frain, on the research staff at The Rodale
Institute, has been working with small family farmers
in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland to assist them
in their direct marketing efforts. Many have asked her:
"How do I break into the lucrative restaurant market?"
"What kind of restaurant is interested in local produce?"
"Where do I start?" "How do I expand?" So she looked
into it, and prepared this fact sheet for us.
In preparing the fact sheet, she spoke to many farmers
and consulted with several industry professionals, including:
Martin Brill, an international trade specialist at
the Small Business Development Center, Kutztown University.
Jim Cochran, former restaurant owner and founder of
The Culinary Network, a group dedicated to bringing
good food to large numbers of people.
Drew Keegan, Program Director, Pennsylvania Preferred.,
a PA Department of Agriculture-funded program to promote
Do you have your own story of breaking into the restaurant
market? Tell us about it, and we'll share it with other
In the future, we'll offer more resources and contacts
for those interested in the restaurant market. If you'd
like to receive an update on this issue, click here.
As with farming in general,
there is no recipe for success, so to speak, when cultivating
the restaurant market. It represents a huge area of opportunity,
and one that is full of risk--but only for the farmer who
does not do his or her homework. With a little self-questioning
and a little bit of research, it can offer tremendous financial
rewards for the right farm.
For the farmer who is not currently marketing to restaurants,
and for the farmer who would like to improve his or her success
rate at marketing to restaurants, one of the keys to success
is understanding what the restaurateur needs and wantswhat
is most important to chefs and restaurant owners when buying
produce, meat and other products from farmers.
What's important to restaurants?
- Quality and consistency: Quality
of product is paramount. This means the product needs
to taste good, look good, and be good consistently.
For example, as one professional told me "The corn needs
to look the same every time it is delivered. Cut it
to uniform size if you have to," says Martin Brill, Small
Business Consultant. People, that includes chefs and
consumers alike, do not like surprises. They want
to know that what they buy from you will be the same every
- Delivery: Delivery is the biggest
issue most farmers struggle with. Delivery needs to
be consistently on time and responsive to chef and restaurant
needs. Deliver when you say you will deliver.
Chefs want to know that when they order something, it will
be there for them to use in tonight's menu.
- Packaging: Restaurants are used
to dealing with big food suppliers with time-tested packaging
that takes into account shipping and handling, refrigeration
and shelf life, as well as user-friendliness. A chef
does not want to receive a trash bag full of snow peas,
for example. It will not store well, and it is too
cumbersome to deal with.
- Product: Product needs to be different,
better, more dazzling than what is offered by the big food
suppliers. Most restaurants are willing to pay a price
premium for local farm-fresh food, but only if it exceeds
the product supply or quality of what the mainstream vendors
offer. They also want the convenience of "one stop
shopping," meaning they want to buy all of their food from
one supplier. They do not want to buy corn from one
farm, pear tomatoes from another.
There are two major paths you can choose:
- working with a middleman, an organization that can help
you establish the relationship with a restaurant
- cutting out the middleman, and establishing the relationship
Many farmers without the money, time or inclination for the
communication requirements opt for the middleman. The
advantage? Fewer headaches in communicating and following
up with restaurants. The disadvantage? Less profit.
For those who opt to go direct, communication, ingenuity,
and relationship-building will be key to success. It
is more work, but the financial rewards can be tremendous.
11 tips for success
- Evaluate. Ask yourself, "Do I have the
resources -- time, energy, labor, employees, money, equipment
(truck) -- to venture into this? Look realistically
at your books, your personal life, and the situation, both
current and future, of the farm.
- Evaluate, part 2: Ask yourself, "Do I
like to deal with people? Am I ready to deal with people?"
Communication and follow up will be critical to marketing
to restaurants. Be sure you are ready, personally,
for this type of thing.
- Network. Learn who is selling to whom,
what their experience has been, what packaging they use,
where they have demand they can't meet, where you could
complement their operation for a win-win-win situation to
expand markets or create greater customer satisfaction.
- Find yourself a niche. What products
are the big suppliers not offering? Are there specialty,
ethnic, organic or other products you can grow that will
improve your chances at marketing to restaurants?
- Look for solutions. Chefs will pay a
premium price for produce that's ready to go, doesn't interrupt
the flow of their fast-paced kitchens, saves them steps,
or eliminates cutting. So find out what chefs' issues are
and finding solutions to those problems: clean and bag spinach,
peel snow peas, chop carrots, shuck corn
- Research. Make a list of restaurants
you would like to market to, visit them, take a menu, study
it, see what ingredients they use. Know the restaurant
before you try to market to them. Look on the internet,
find resources that will help you market. Go to Google
or some other search engine and try searching on marketing
or restaurant marketing. Read local newspapers and
food reviews to get a better idea of what is doing on in
the dining community. (Stay tuned for more internet and
institutional resources in future articles on newfarm.org.)
- Communicate! Talk to restaurant
owners, sit with them, offer them samples of your product,
make them lunch, explain who you are and why they should
buy from you. Sell your farm and your way of life.
Relationship building is probably the single most important
key to success.
- Promote: Promote yourself with
fliers or business cards. These do not have to be
fancy. A simple one-page sheet explaining your product,
prices, and who you are is all that is needed. Always
have a business card or small piece of paper that has your
contact information, for the chef's easy reference later.
Take pictures of your farm and your family, and include
them in the materials you use.
- Keep your word: Know what you are
getting yourself into. Do not disappoint with a late
delivery or insufficient product or supply. If you
can't keep your word, communicate. Call the restaurant
and work something out.
- Keeping your word, part 2: Collaborate.
Work out arrangements in advance with other farmers to help
you out when your supplies are short. In fact, we'd recommend
going far beyond this and making cooperation on the centerpieces
of your marketing effort: Work with other to develop a collaborative
network: Get discounts on bags and labels through group
purchases. Share the investment in a delivery truck. Work
out complementary plantings that meet the needs of a wider
range of restaurants, and have a standing agreement to support
each other when supply is low. Working cooperatively can
dramatically improve your chances of successand it
may very well be a key selling point with a restaurant owner,
a guarantee that you'll be able to meet your promises.
- Timing: Most restaurants and farms
have converse hours. A chef is often going to sleep
when a farmer is waking up. Timing and schedule might
vary from restaurant to restaurant. Know the schedule,
to increase the likelihood of your success. An ill-timed
call during the busiest lunch hour can be devastating to
making the deal.