Farm-to-Table fare brings new challenges to restaurateurs. Those armed with the right back-office systems can thrive
Restaurant trends come and go. Remember blackened Cajun everything in the 1980s? How about truffle oil in the 1990s? Witness today’s kale, avocado toast and poke obsessions. Yet one industry trend that began more than 40 years ago is still holding strong. The farm-to-table trend isn’t going anywhere. California restaurant Chez Panisse generally gets the credit for pioneering the movement focused on local, seasonal foods. Over the past four decades, American palates and attitudes about food and dining out have also evolved. Merriam-Webster’s American English dictionary even had to add a word in 2005 to describe an adherent to the movement – “locavore.” The words “locally grown” now carry as much cache as the word “imported.”
Today, American eaters demand more-localized experiences. They want to eat foods grown nearer to them for health, political, economic, environmental or epicurean reasons. Some 66 percent of American consumers say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally sourced foods. In 2017, the National Restaurant Association reported 84 percent of fine dining establishments had locally sourced produce on the menu and another 77 percent had locally sourced meat or seafood. Majorities of family dining, casual dining and fast-casual segments also offered locally sourced produce.
Farm-to-Table and “locally sourced” imply fresher, better tasting and healthier foods, though these implications aren’t necessarily true. For foodies, Farm-to-Table establishments offer a chance to eat something unique to an area such as scrapple in Pennsylvania, boudin in Louisiana or goetta in Ohio. As an offshoot, American consumers seek local foods as part of cultural experience, tourism and entertainment.
The movement is so pervasive, some airlines—those bastions of stereotypically awful food—now offer Farm-to-Table dining options. For example, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines partnered with Chef Linton Hopkins to serve organic produce and meats from Georgia’s Riverview Farms, which about 90 miles away from Delta’s headquarters.
Running a Farm-to-Table establishment isn’t as simple as it sounds. Buying and sourcing from local farms creates back-office challenges for restaurant operators as food cost management gets more complicated. At-source or on-site shortages can create an operational, financial and logistical nightmare. However, the right technology can be deployed to automate back-office processes and reduce complexity, enabling an operator to focus on customer service.
For example, when operators work from a purchase-to-pay and inventory management system, all data is input only once and act as a single version of the truth. This “master database” is automatically updated if anything changes, including product catalogs, price lists, low or no item availability, cost fluctuations and par-levels. The technology also provides an accurate audit trail and eliminates duplication, which influences accurate reporting on ordering, recipe costing, calculating inventory value, actual cost of goods sold, sales and purchasing.
Farm-to-Table operators are particularly at the mercy of changing weather. If a site’s area has a drought, for example, the cost to buy local produce rises as availability decreases. Menu options are suddenly limited. So inventory and menu changes must be managed in accordance to weather cost spikes.
Tracking the impact of local weather fluctuations on food costs and availability is a must. Fixed pricing agreements (even weekly) can help. But having a system in place to manage purchasing and flag inconsistencies always reduces overall cost, enabling the business to cope better with genuinely unavoidable cost fluctuations. Operators must understand the cost of each ingredient and how it contributes to theoretical gross profit. That makes it easy to see the impact on the actual gross profit if vendor or ingredient changes need to be made.
Having all the information in one place also has a positive impact on customer service. When a menu item or ingredient changes, that change is updated automatically for customers on store websites and on in-store menu boards. This helps manage customer expectations.
If an operator spends more on local produce, they need to get the most bang for the buck out of that investment. Wastage must be captured at all levels of the product life cycle, from the ingredient level through recipe creation and day-to-day operational wastage. The right technology can simplify and automate this complex process at every stage, from sourcing to the guest experience.
Wastage tracking technology uses just one single set of accurate data for precise comparisons and fosters better decisions. It also:
So for example, operators who only source local seafood will have to deal with seasonality, availability and local quotas. They need purchasing and inventory management solutions that include the ability to show product origins as well as the latest product updates, such as availability, to enable quick, good decisions on alternatives before running out of goods.
Operators serving strictly local foods are also forced to deal and communicate with more suppliers than most restaurants using a big distributor must. That means more accounting work that could and should be handled via automated processes. Whether it’s for one site or 1,000, this process includes catalogs and pricing, raising orders and receiving and reconciling invoices. The right technology will enable an operator to export all accounts payable information to their finance system with a single click.
Finally, the costs to run a Farm-to-Table establishment are higher than those in a standard restaurant that uses a large distributor. Locally sourced ingredients are simply more expensive because they require more labor. Recipe and menu engineering software with a “sandbox” function shows during the menu item creation process whether the costs of all the ingredients in a dish meet minimum profit targets. This provides target selling price calculators and shows potential opportunities for savings.
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