OTTAWA – Chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, micro-processors, retailers, and various other members of Ottawa’s food industry, gathered at the National Arts Centre yesterday, November 2, for the fourth annual Savour Ottawa Networking Summit. More than 100 attendees were on hand to celebrate the successes of the organization (a recent finalist in the Ontario Culinary Tourism Awards) and discuss how to best shepherd it into the future.
Jantine Van Kregten of Ottawa Tourism opened the event, detailing the myriad ways Savour Ottawa has helped the local food industry by connecting farmers with chefs and introducing visitors and the community at large to the bounty of incredible food in the region. According to Van Kregten, there are more farms in the Ottawa region than in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver combined. “Savour Ottawa is always part of the story we’re telling,” she said. ‘We are attracting journalists from around the world.” There are currently 125 Savour Ottawa members, which is up from 75 last year.
Christine Rector of Savour Ontario and Rebecca LeHeup of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance also took the dais to discuss how food is integral to the marketing of the many different regions of the province, bolstering the business of restaurateurs and farmers alike. “We need to increase consumer awareness so we can increase consumer demand,” said Rector. She noted that Ontario’s foodservice industry generates $22 billion a year, and it accounts for 324,000 jobs. In its tracking study of the past year, Savour Ontario found that the number of people who stated they’re concerned about buying Ontario food is up 10 per cent from last year, and 80 per cent believed that serving local food was important for restaurants. “Every restaurant has a story to tell and consumers love to hear it. It impacts their buying habits as well,” said Rector.
Savour Ottawa coordinator Heather Hossie then discussed the innovative programs that have been created to increase the exposure of local farmers. The organization launched a series of Savour Ottawa posters and ‘trading cards’ that feature each of its member farmers, including candid photos and short bios, information about what foods they grow, their production practices and where consumers can purchase their goods. The posters are visible at producer’s booths at the ByWard Market and the Ottawa Farmer’s Market, alerting consumers that their goods are indeed local-verified. A booklet containing all of the cards was also recently created for use in restaurants. After customers order meals at any Savour Ottawa member restaurant, they’ll soon be able to flip through the booklet to learn a bit more about some of the Savour Ottawa farmers who are mentioned on the menus. For instance, at Murrary Street Kitchen — recently named the fifth-best new restaurant in Canada by enRoute magazine; Ottawa’s Atelier was fourth — diners can read about Barbara Schaefer’s Heritage Black Pig, an incredibly flavourful breed that’s prominently featured on chef Steve Mitton’s menu.
The organization is also exploring ways to help farmers unload their inventory easier and alert chefs as to what’s available. The Savour Ottawa Product Inventory System is still in the planning stages, but the goal is to have a regularly updated online portal where producers input data on what inventory they have available for buyers/chefs to review. Chefs can also search the database by product or producer category, and they can get all the contact and background info they need just by clicking on the producer’s name. The new inventory system is the first of its kind.
During lively breakout sessions, chefs and producers discussed some of the prominent issues the organization still faces, including its verification procedures and “local-washing” and distribution problems. Savour Ottawa’s current membership guidelines were also debated. Right now, restaurants must prove that a minimum of 15 per cent of their purchases or $25,000 a year come from Savour Ottawa member producers, which chefs find challenging for a variety of reasons.
“The question of supply is a huge issue,” said Caroline Ishii of Zen Kitchen, a new vegan restaurant in Ottawa that’s soon to be the subject of a culinary TV series on the W Network. “I want to buy from Savour Ottawa farmers, but they’re often sold out.”
Keeping track of purchases is also a problem for some chefs, and that can make it difficult for them to prove that they’re meeting the guidelines. But, regardless of the challenges, each member is committed to the organization and to growing it in the future.
In closing, the message organizers left was loud and clear. “Savour Ottawa can only supply the tools,” said beef producer Dan O’Brien. “What you do with them is up to you.”
Savour Ottawa develops and promotes the Ottawa region as a year-round culinary destination for locals and visitors alike. The Savour Ottawa brand provides members with instant recognition for local agricultural products. When consumers see the Savour Ottawa logo at farmers’s markets, butcheries, retail grocery stores and more, they know that each product or establishment with the logo has undergone a verification process to ensure they’re using local food in their products or are a local producer. For more info, click here.