The world’s community of agronomists and other scientists agree that growing cities and urban regions need to become more self-reliant, focusing on local and regional food systems. That change is well underway. Local and sustainable have topped the list of restaurant-menu trends on annual chef surveys for a decade now and many globally inspired menus often combine authentic seasonings in a sensible fusion with local proteins and produce.
As a result, farm-to-table suppliers, emerging urban-agriculture operations and, increasingly, the industry’s go-to distributors are collaborating with producers, chefs and operators to transform the anything-from-anywhere-at-anytime model to a regional one that’s more reliable and resilient.
It’s a gross simplification to say restaurants fall into one of two categories: those with fewer than five suppliers and those with more than 20. Wide-ranging concepts and operating styles demand as many combinations of food and service suppliers as there are fish in the sea.
Still, it’s mostly true that operators with global menus can more easily stock their walk-ins with an order sheet from a broadline supplier, plus a few extras, while those with menus focused on local, organic or artisanal flavours will usually need to spend more time and effort coordinating a much longer list of deliveries to the kitchen door. With future demand and need for more resilient, regionally based supply lines expected to grow substantially, it would certainly simplify things to get more local ingredients, suppliers and buyers on the same page.
At his office in downtown Vancouver, chef-restaurateur David Hawksworth wishes his local fresh sheets included more day-boat-caught fish and seafood, but is no stranger to doing his own legwork.
“If I want the best-available products because I want to have the best restaurant in town, that’s part of the work,” he says. “In our restaurants, a great tableside story about a unique product or source adds real value to the customer’s taste experience.”
Hawksworth is well aware of the fine line between helping to grow local supply and protecting the needs of his business. “It’s a bit like one investment firm talking to another, not wanting to forfeit any advantage to a competitor,” he says. “But when you factor in the social and environmental impact on our communities, we do need to share as much as we’re able.”
On that front, his colleague Vikram Vij likes to reset the conversation with a reminder that “the idea of ‘local’ is nothing new,” citing the example of rural villagers in India bartering for home-grown ingredients to feed their families. “It’s just common sense and it makes ethical sense,” he says, stating his preference for a community-based approach compared to the cost-driven broadline model. “And when you exchange products and ideas with growers and producers, you often each learn something.”
Customer expectations for local menu content still require a reality check, according to a long-time champion of local purchasing, chef-restaurateur Andrea Carlson (Burdock & Co., Harvest Community Foods). “When a customer pays $3.99 for a bunch of carrots at the farmers’ market, they need to know I’m paying the same and running a business, because I share the same commitment to the local grower,” she says, noting access to products is steadily improving. “We’re having an impact, but there’s still a tremendous amount of ‘we’re local’ greenwashing going on, which is very disappointing.”
Chef Chris Whittaker (formerly of Forage) adds another spin relevant to that issue. “We have an interesting situation in British Columbia, because not only do more local chefs want our local products, but chefs across Canada and beyond want them, too,” he says, adding he’s not in favour of export policies promoting products that local diners identify as genuine local flavours. “We’ve helped elevate these products…and then have to pay premium market prices due to export demand,” he says. “Sure, it’s easier to pack it up and send it to Europe or Japan, but is it right? Not as far as our long-term future is concerned.”
At Prairie Box, the start-up meal-subscription service, Winnipeg chef-entrepreneur Lewis Glassey would have appreciated the convenience of a single broadline supplier of local products, but didn’t expect to find it. “Businesses at our level are too small for them and ‘the juice ain’t worth the squeeze,’” he says. “It’ll take many more companies at our scale making the ask for local to get them truly interested.”
Before his career path took him to combi-oven maker, Rational, chef Tyler Schwarz worked in sales at Sysco Vancouver. “I had a love-hate relationship with that job,” he says. “I did my best for the smaller clients to ‘fix’ their cost and supply issues, but volume wins the day.”
Schwarz saw first-hand the challenges in the ‘local angle’ for international logistics systems such as Sysco. “There’s a lot of work and cost in managing product lines from small farms, especially when you add concerns for consistent supply, food safety, packaging and such,” he says, “and that’s why the single, reliable, high-volume source, like farms in California, is always the preferred and low-cost one.”
In Schwarz’s experience, if the industry wants the shift to local and regional growers to accelerate, it’ll be up to the larger full-service chains to take the lead to improve the system (and lower the cost) for everybody. “The best scenario would see the chains collaborate, rather than compete, on purchasing policies,” he says. “However, that’s a big ask.”
Back in Winnipeg, WOW! Hospitality president Doug Stephen notes that, given his company’s growing need for premium seasonal products to suit its multiple and diverse full-service and fine-dining concepts, its primary supplier (Sysco) can’t react quickly enough or find what it wants. “They’d love to be a one-stop shop for us, but we need our preferred protein, seafood and greenhouse suppliers,” he says. “However, if farm-to-table becomes the new normal, we have to avoid building a parallel local-only system…because that’s not sustainable either.”
Stewardship is defined as “an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources.” That can easily apply to jobs and tasks in most every field of endeavour, but it’s particularly apt in describing the role of a chef. If you doubt that, just ask one.
Although Mary Mackay’s business card tells you she’s the director of Product Innovation and Development at Terra Breads, Vancouver’s original bakery-café, with four locations across the city, she’s still very much the restaurant chef she set out to become more than 30 years ago.
The evidence is seen on the menu at Mary’s cafés and in the many collaborative initiatives she regularly undertakes with chef colleagues in the region. “A better future for our food system needs more decisions about its stewardship to be regionally driven,” she says, “and all the local suppliers, particularly the broadlines, need to have more chefs leading those decisions, with consistent and high-volume demand to enable a shift to regional producers.”
The Role of the Multi-Unit Operator
Vancouver-based White Spot Limited is recognized among the Interbrand 150 list of iconic Canadian brands and one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies. It’s clearly doing a lot of things right.
One of those is its subtle, yet substantial, support of a wide variety of local growers and specialty producers. President Warren Erhart and his team believe large-scale companies such as theirs have a serious role to play in the future of local and regional food systems. “We need to take a stronger role in the stewardship of the whole system, field to fork, and make more demands of our producers and distribution partners,” he says. “It’s not bullying to insist we secure the source and reliable supply of the kinds of products our guests are asking for…it’s simply the responsible thing to do.”
Brendan Ladner has some White Spot-scale aspirations for SMAK, his made-from-scratch quick-service concept with two Vancouver locations. Where most concepts in his category might have two or three suppliers delivering to its stores, SMAK currently has approximately 25. “If you want to be truly local, as we do, and keep money circulating in your region, it’s positively exhausting and high maintenance,” he says. “That said, I don’t know how we can scale up without broadline distribution.
Though he’s clearly not prepared to give them his business yet, Ladner expects the broadline distributors to do much more in the local and regional markets and believes only they will be able to be successful doing it. “You need to be able to make deliveries at essentially no cost, which requires volume,” he says. For now, SMAK’s expansion into other urban markets, Ladner says, will include a big ask of his franchisees. “They’ll need to recreate our multiple-source, local supply chain in their region…at least the core items, and fill in the rest from conventional sources,” he says. “That’s the only acceptable model.”
Although it’s been at the leading-edge of local food systems and farmer-to-chef connections for decades, Metro Vancouver has yet to sustain a reliable go-between. Ambitious people at companies such as Biovia, Ello and Urban Digs Farm have all parked their trucks and clipboards after giving it a sincere go.
In recent years, Darren Stott, a principal at Greenchain Consulting, has been helping communities in B.C. and beyond to develop food hubs and other field-to-fork channels. He’s also very familiar with the local challenges — three by his count: “Low-volume, high-costs and, frankly, risk-averse customers. Restaurant chefs and buyers are typically less ‘all-in’ in their commitment here than down south.” And, due to their default entrepreneurial spirit, the United States is “way ahead,” claims Stott, with hundreds of successfully sustainable farm-direct operations, “and in formats tailored to suit the particulars of the customer base, regional products and competition.”
All things being equal (for the moment), Stott and his colleagues believe the ideal Lower Mainland farm-direct model is one with a 50-50 split between non-profit and for-profit. “Because as you build volume, you can do more than ‘bootstrap’; you can supplement with grants, volunteers, et cetera, to get through the bumps of the first few years,” he says. “Dealing with many small farms and small restaurants — you need time to get all those players in the game.”
Michael Ableman notes that, in his pioneering farm-direct experience, a collaborative producer-chef co-operative model can also deliver real, practical benefits. “There, too, you need exceptional leadership, because more co-operatives have failed than succeeded,” he adds. “But, in terms of consistency and diversity of supply, the co-op is a better model for chefs, with fewer calls to make and fewer trucks at the kitchen door.”
Frank Geier is a vice-president at Vancouver’s Northland Properties, managing various hospitality and foodservice operations; he’s also the former president of GFS Canada, the broadline distributor making the most substantial foray into the local and regional fresh markets. He offers another trio of factors needed for a sustainable farm-direct model: “Fewer delivery trucks is a given, along with a nimble and responsive co-op food hub, where local farm products flow into one place and then out to restaurants — point A to B to C.”
Geier is also certain that broadline distributors will keep moving to the regional model, “because, with core logistics already in place, it’s really a simple fix,” noting the third element of the trio is the real key to making it rock steady.
The Role of Technology
If the small-scale start-ups in the farm-direct market have any advantage at this stage, it could very well be on the tech side. Innovative, all-in-one cloud-based platforms enable them to perform like a major distributor, says Stott. “They can manage inventory, distribution, promotions and pricing — even allow farmers to input their own pricing and marketing pages. There’s genuine transparency and it’s impressive.”
A mobile app lets chefs place orders and track delivery in real time. Says Stott, “Chefs have no excuse for not getting to know the farmers, because they can text and chat with them while working the cook line.” For example, a platform called Local Food Marketplace, which has all these features and more, supports Vancouver Farmers Mar- kets’ VFM Direct program, which is aiming to add more restaurant customers, more farmers and more trucks to its fleet.
“We do want to be that reliable ‘connector,’” says VFM Direct manager Roberta LaQuaglia. “We’re keenly aware that foodservice supply is a complex system with a lot of hustle and sometimes we do feel like naive schoolgirls, selling fancy zucchini from our [farmer friends], wondering how the other guy can sell them for half the price.”
Not surprisingly, VFM Direct draws on its established relationships with market farmers for boutique or unique products, adding larger families of growers for the basics such as potatoes, onions and carrots. Ensuring a season-long supply remains one of its greatest challenges, says LaQuaglia. “Many chefs ask for consistent supply from May to October before they’ll commit to us,” she says. “Is that a realistic ask of a regional supplier? Perhaps not, but it’s what many are used to and can expect from the conventional supply chain.”
The other key to sustainable growth? “You can’t say it often enough: shared values and commitment are what change things, not talk and the occasional splurge,” says LaQuaglia. Beyond her organization’s own ambitions, LaQuaglia believes real growth requires the collaboration of all stakeholders (read “eaters”) of local food. “We need to move the whole system to scale somehow, and take out the competition that hampers that effort.”
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André LaRivière is a sustainable-foodservice consultant, former CBC Radio producer, New York–trained chef, restaurant trade journalist, food critic and social entrepreneur. LaRivière also co-founded the Green Table Network, a non-profit enterprise to foster sustainability in the foodservice industry. Currently, he is a principal with Fish+River, a progressive foodservice consultancy.