By: Bethany Hellmann
Purpose of this document: To inform four-season farmers and four-season incubator farms of how, where, to whom, and when to sell and market their products. The following section is on Restaurants only.
I am a Farmer who wants to Sell to Restaurants. Where do I start?
Two online resources, Realtimefarms.com and Localharvest.org, provide an excellent starting place for farmers to find local restaurants that buy local food near their farm. Realtimefarms.com allows farmers and customers to search for restaurants that buy locally, and includes the phone number, address, menu and a short description of each restaurant. Under the Eateries tab, Realtimefarms.com allows you to search for restaurants by zip code, city or restaurant name. Just click on the restaurant’s map pin and then click on the name of the restaurant to access each restaurant’s information. Some chefs even embed the Realtimefarms.com format with their restaurant’s online menu, so Realtimefarms.com information is updated in real time!
Localharvest.org provides similar information on restaurants that serve local food near your farm. You can search by city or zip code. Each restaurant listing may include the name and contact information for the chef, the address and hours of the restaurant, and a short description of the restaurant including which farms they buy from and why they use local food. Both Real Time Farms and Local Harvest are great tools that increase public awareness about where to find local restaurants that use local food! [Source 1] [Source 2] [Source 3]
Try narrowing your search to a few restaurants in your area that interest you. Find out what specific fruits, vegetables, meats and value added products the chef likes to use. This research will help you determine if your product fits with the restaurant’s menu and clientele. It may also influence what you plan to grow in the future. You may try to find chefs that frequently buy what you are already growing at your farm. [Source 4]
You may find that upscale and specialty restaurants will pay higher prices for your produce. In fact, they often pay a minimum of ten percent over wholesale prices for rare and quality produce. However, you should still consider selling to smaller food venues and eateries for additional income. Small, local bakeries and delis can be good customers, and these small businesses are more likely to suggest your farm to other local small businesses through word-of-mouth than larger restaurants.[Source 4] [Source 5]
How should I prepare for my First Meeting with a Chef/Restaurant?
After you decide which restaurant to contact, set up a time to meet with the chef, restaurant owner and/or restaurant manager. Before this first meeting, perform in depth research on the restaurant. Look at the restaurant’s website, paying special attention to the menus. You may also find additional information about the restaurant at Realtimefarms.com, Localharvest.org or Zagat.com. You may research what type of customer frequents the restaurant, and how long it has been in business. You will also want to know the name of each person you contact and how to correctly pronounce those names. You may also find out the restaurant’s price requirements and if they use “seconds,” produce with a lower appearance, but good for soups or other dishes.
Remember to bring samples of your produce and value added products to all meetings with chefs, and especially to your first meeting. Sampling gives your chef a sensory experience of your farm’s food. While the chef is sampling, you can talk about your farm. You may also bring recipes that feature your farm goods and additional information, including brochures, about your farm and your produce. Think creatively and give the chefs many ideas about how your farm goods can be used on their menus. You can leave samples for additional key people at the restaurant if they are not available for your meeting.
It is important to share the story of your farm with the chef. Make yourself and your farm real by talking about where you are from, the history of your farm, and the people and animals that live on your farm. Think about the history of your farm before the meeting, and plan out a small outline on the major aspects of your farm that you would like to share. You can enliven your stories by bringing pictures. Be sure to direct the chef to your website and invite the restaurant staff to visit your farm. You may also tell the chef about your growing season, and why your produce is the best around. Also discuss the shelf life of your farm goods.
You should provide as many specifics about your produce as possible at your first meeting. Let the chef know if your produce is organic and/or certified organic. Discuss your farming philosophy and the details of your practice. A chef may not need you to be certified organic to purchase your produce as long as you develop a trusting relationship around your organic farm practices.
It is also important to discuss logistics at this first meeting. Ask the chef when and how often they like to order. Ask about their receiving hours, the days of the week they receive, and their invoice procedures. Ask about their quality standards and additional standards for organic produce. Additionally, you may ask how your delivery boxes should be organized and labeled. Make sure you are able to produce a large enough quantity of produce so it can be included, regularly, on the menu. At your first meeting, be clear with the chef on how much produce you can provide and during which months you can provide the produce.
Decide upon a range of prices that is acceptable for your produce beforehand. Give the chef a price list of your produce so everyone involved is clear on your needs. Provide the chef with your contact information including your cell phone number. The restaurant may need to contact you at odd hours or when you are making other deliveries. Also, be flexible. Although the chef needs a rigid schedule for when produce is delivered to maintain his/her business, you, the farmer, need to be much more flexible about your schedule and providing produce. Restaurants love farmers who can provide more produce at the last minute! [Source 4]
How do I establish Long-Term Business Relationships with Local Chefs?
It can be very challenging for farmers to establish relationships with local chefs. Many chefs expect the farmer to seek out local restaurants to initiate the business relationship. You, the farmer, cannot expect the restaurants to initiate the buying of your produce. Organized sampling events are a great way for chefs and farmers to meet and discuss the type, volume and season that crops are available and how they will be delivered. These sampling events can be held at local farms to attract chefs from local restaurants. You may even consider hosting one at your farm! Larger events may include a series of all local meals at several restaurants and delis in town. If consumers enthusiastically purchase these all local meals, restaurants and grocery stores may commit to purchasing more local food.
Trust is a key component for developing a lasting relationship between chefs and farmers. Trust is built over time by maintaining a relationship of interest between the farmer and chef. You, the farmer, may ask the chef how the restaurant is doing and ask about any future plans. The farmer should also uphold all agreements made with the chef and negotiate the business details so both parties are comfortable and satisfied. Trust is also built when the farmer delivers consistently highly quality produce. The farmer should keep the chef current on his/her production practices. Keep a friendly and personal relationship by complimenting the restaurant and possibly giving periodic gifts related to your farm. Show an interest in this relationship by being available and making sure the chef is satisfied with the quality of your farm goods.
You may also consider writing a monthly newsletter that the restaurant can give to its customers. This helps the customers stay involved and connected with your farm and feel as though they belong. You can create your own mission statement to clarify your goals, and include it in the newsletter. Most importantly, stay committed to your product and your service to maintain a good working relationship with your chefs and restaurants! [Source 4] [Source 6]
How do I Communicate well with Chefs?
Farmers should meet with chefs a year in advance of the harvest, and especially during seed and crop planning season, if possible. Find a day that works best for the chef to discuss what type and quantity of produce they desire for the upcoming season. Keep diligent notes so you can always know how much produce a chef wants after each meeting. The farmer must maximize the time he/she has with chefs and restaurant owners, who are always very busy. Bring samples and recipe ideas that use your produce, especially for your first meeting with a chef. You can also design a brochure that describes your farm and farm products to give to chefs. This brochure should include a description of your farm and your farm’s produce, and may include quotes or testimonials from previously satisfied customers. You can review the chef’s upcoming menus to make sure you are growing produce that they plan to purchase. You can advise the chef on any produce that can’t be grown locally, so the chef can adjust the menu accordingly. These meetings will help you, the farmer, meet the changing needs of your chefs.
Immediately notify the chef if your order will be late, and make substitutions if necessary. Hire dependable, personable employees to deliver the produce. Make sure your delivery schedule is reliable and consistent. Restaurants need to be able to rely on regular and predictable deliveries. Always be on time. Keep your business professional by delivering professional looking produce every time and keeping excellent records. Consider using high quality packaging, and creating a logo to put on all correspondence between you and the restaurants. [Source 4] [Source 5] [Source 6]
What are Produce Availability Schedules?
A produce availability schedule is a weekly list of the type, amount and price of the produce you, the farmer, plan to harvest that week and make available to restaurants. These schedules may be sent by email, Iphone application or given in-person to the chefs to whom you plan to sell your produce. The schedule is usually sent to the chef either once or twice a week depending on how many times your farm harvests. Check with your chefs to see how and when they prefer to receive their produce availability schedule each week, and be consistent! A chef may want the produce schedule one to two weeks before the harvest. You can deliver the produce directly to the restaurant, or someone from the restaurant may pick up the order from a designated place like the farmers market or your farm. The farmer may receive the chef’s order the day before the harvest. The farmer makes sure the chef receives the requested produce the following day, on harvest day, to ensure the freshest produce possible. [Source 3] [Source 6]
Tilian’s Seeley Farm has developed lasting business relationships with local chefs, in part, by consistently providing local chefs with a weekly availability list that indicates the type, quantity and cost of produce their farm can supply that week. Busy chefs like to receive these lists quickly and efficiently. Seeley makes their produce availability list electronic and sends it directly to the chef’s smartphone, if they have one. Oftentimes it is necessary to navigate many different personalities when developing relationships with chefs. The longer you build a partnership with chefs, the more you will get a feel for when they like to receive the availability lists among other specificities. [Source 7]
Why do Chefs Buy Locally?
Chefs love to prepare the fresh, organic, locally-sourced food that keeps the customers returning for more. However, chefs also obtain additional benefits when buying locally. Some chefs really love the relationships that they build with local farmers. The information exchange between chef and farmer makes each participant smarter and more knowledgeable about their craft. Some chefs like working with young, local farmers because they exude great enthusiasm about their farm business. Chefs also like buying local to support more local farmland.
Some chefs really like the philosophy behind buying and selling locally. They strive to keep their restaurants comfortable, approachable and not overpriced while still maintaining a profit. They may be committed to using local food because it has always been a part of their lifestyle and their family’s choices. These chefs want to bring the fresh, local food experience to their customers. They don’t want to force the local issue to their customers, but rather attract customers that are looking to buy locally. They want guests to keep returning. These chefs are generally environmentally conscious in other areas of their restaurant like recycling, composting, using biodegradable items and donating compost to local farms. [Source 3]
Chefs at higher end restaurants seek out high quality, distinctive and locally grown produce that attracts the increasing number of environmentally-conscious customers. These chefs find that featuring local food brings in more customers. Also, chefs at locally-owned restaurants are much more likely to buy local food than those at franchises. Buying local produce can be more financially stable for chefs. If the chef buys on the commodities market, then as gas prices increases, the price of produce increases. Prices for local produce don’t seem to fluctuate as much as produce in the commodities market. Negative weather events are the largest risk for chefs who buy locally. [Source 3] [Source 4]
What type of Produce do Chefs like to Buy Locally?
Chefs like to buy what is fresh and available. Specifically, they may look for salad greens and spinach, mushrooms, cabbage, herbs, heirloom tomatoes and root vegetables. In general, most restaurants will have a main menu that they change once or twice a year. You, the farmer, can discuss with the chef what types of produce the restaurant will need for their more consistent menu. Additionally, a chef may offer brunch, lunch and/or dinner specials. These specials may change once or more a month. The chef may adjust his/her specials to feature specialty items or items that a farm has a lot of during a particular time of year, like shiitake mushrooms or artichokes. It is a good idea to tell your chefs when you have a surplus of a particular crop because they may choose to use it on their specialty menu. Most restaurants require fresh products, and won’t accept dried or cured farm goods. [Source 3] [Source 4]
Why do Chefs Buy from Four-Season Farmers?
Chefs enjoy buying from four-season farmers because there is, generally, a large organic selection. Especially during a mild winter, there can be a large harvest from the hoop houses. Many chefs look for four-season farmers, first, because year-round, local produce is worth a lot to restaurants. Many people in the restaurant business would love to see more four-season farming businesses arise in their area. [Source 3]
What type of farmers do Chefs buy from?
Chefs desire to buy from farmers that supply high quality and consistent produce with a very nice flavor. You can offer taste tests of your produce and/or food prepared with your produce to your chefs to demonstrate your produce’s quality. Chefs want to form lasting relationships with their farmers. You, the farmer, can promote a lasting relationship by exhibiting professionalism. Be on time with all your deliveries. If you are consistently late and do not call, a chef will look elsewhere for the needed produce, and likely will sever ties with your farm. You may also call the restaurant a few hours after your delivery to make sure the chef is satisfied with the quality of your produce. These phone calls help ensure your products’ quality and let the chef know you are committed to providing them with high quality products. Also, chefs desire consistency in produce prices so they can set fair menu prices. Restaurants look for farmers that offer daily delivery, special varieties and personal attention to detail.
Some chefs may prefer to buy from young farmers because they may be more open to selling to restaurants than more seasoned farmers. The older, more experienced farmers may have dealt with restaurants that didn’t follow through on their order. These more experienced farmers may be, therefore, less likely to sell to restaurants. This pitfall can be partially avoided if the farmer meets with the chef and they commit to doing business with one another.
Also, chefs will, likely, prefer to buy from more than one farm. This strategy brings in more diverse crops, and also allows more stability. If the crops on one farm fail, the chef can then buy more from their other farms. The number of farms a restaurant buys from will vary. A medium sized restaurant may buy from five to seven farms, on average. You, the farmer, should also try to sell to more than one restaurant. Diversifying the type of restaurant you sell to, will help you if one restaurant suddenly stops buying, or if your farm, suddenly, has a surplus of one type of crop.
Most chefs understand that the seasons and weather will affect the type and quantity of produce found locally. However, it is important to communicate when harsh weather affects your crops, so your chefs can plan accordingly. [Source 3]
What are the benefits for Farmers Selling to Restaurants?
Selling to restaurants often results in free advertising for your farm at that restaurant. Many restaurants list the farms from which they buy on their menus. A restaurant may buy 90-95% of their produce locally, during the summer, and 65-70% or more of their produce locally during the winter. The customers are, therefore, enjoying a good sample of the produce you, the farmer, harvests year round. The customers that dine at restaurants that buy locally, generally, are interested in buying locally through other venues to support their local farm community. This may result in customers buying CSA shares from your farm or making sure to visit your stall at the farmers market.
Additionally, staff members at locally sourced restaurants are often encouraged to volunteer at local farms. This is viewed as a team-building exercise as well as supporting sustainable agriculture, a cause they believe in. These volunteer groups may come to the farm a few times a month or a few times a week, depending on the circumstances, and are much more likely to volunteer at farms from which their restaurant buys its food. Selling to restaurants may yield free labor! [Source 3]
Restaurant Supported Agriculture (RSA)
Restaurant Supported Agriculture (RSA), also known as Restaurant CSAs, is becoming more popular among chefs who like to buy local produce. An RSA is based on the CSA model (see CSA Section), in that the restaurant pays upfront, either quarterly or monthly for a specified amount of produce. The farmer must be reasonable when deciding what to ask restaurants to pre-pay, since restaurants are a cash flow business. There is a direct relationship between the farmer and chef. The restaurant benefits in a RSA by receiving a steady stream of produce at a lower cost. The chef also saves a lot of time looking for specific items each week. The farmer benefits by receiving a better cash flow through upfront payments. The farmer can use this money to benefit their farm. Farmers may be able to borrow less for necessities like seeds and infrastructure. However, some chefs see RSAs as a large risk. If a negative weather event occurs or a crop fails for any reason, the restaurant will have to scramble for substitute produce and has lost the money pre-paid for that crop. [Source 3] [Source 8]
Farm to Restaurant Program
There are several farm to restaurant programs around the country that help keep local food in local restaurants. For instance, the Montana Farm to Restaurant Connection organization promotes local restaurants, strengthens the local, sustainable agricultural community, and educates consumers about the benefits of nutritious, locally grown food. Project Green Leaf’s Farm to Restaurant program in North Carolina also strives to make more local farm products available at local restaurants. Some regions have marketing programs that encourage their restaurants to buy local farm products and put the farm names on their menus. To find a similar program in your region, search online through Google or another search engine. No centralized online list of farm to restaurant programs could be currently found. [Source 9] [Source 10] [Source 4]
More Tips for Selling to Restaurants
The following tips may help farmers successfully sell to restaurants. Keep track of what the restaurant likes to serve. For instance, an organic restaurant may buy specialty organic produce like berries, mixed salad greens or heirloom tomatoes, but are less interested in basics like organic potatoes. You will likely sell more when you grow the produce that your local chefs like to use. However, you may grow other specialty crops that may interest emerging restaurants in the area. Consider sending a free shipment of one of your new or distinctive crops along with your restaurants’ normal order to entice the chef to try your other produce. If nothing else, the chef will appreciate the gesture.
Plan to grow more crops than you think you will need to cover the restaurant’s produce requests. This helps hedge against emergencies like partial crop failings, and also helps you to only send the best of the best produce to your chefs. Also, maintain relationships with many different chefs and restaurants as well as with the restaurant management. Some chefs may move out of state or may decide to change what farms they buy from. If you have not diversified your selling venues, one lost client could have greatly negative consequences for your farm. However, if you have good relationships with many people involved in running your local restaurants, the management may encourage new chefs to buy from your farm after the previous chef has left. Additionally, you can sell any leftover produce through other outlets. Diversify your farm business by selling in other outlets like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), farmers markets, grocery stores or farm stands to help grow your farm business. [Source 4] [Source 5]
Advice from an Executive Chef
Maggie Long, the General Manager and Executive Chef at the Jolly Pumpkin, in Ann Arbor, MI, is confident that there is a market out there for restaurants who buy from local farmers. She likes buying locally for her restaurant because local food has always been a part of her life. It keeps people employed locally and keeps more money in the community. She encourages more farmers to keep selling locally, and she especially likes the young, enthusiastic, and phenomenal farmers at Tilian Farm Development Center in Ann Arbor, MI. However, she also advises that young farmers may have more difficulty with the business aspect of farming, and need to work on improving their business sense. Ms. Long views her kitchen staff and servers as family and looks forward to building similar relationships with the farmers from whom she buys. Ms. Long is committed to encouraging her staff to volunteer at the farms that supply the Jolly Pumpkin and donates spent grain to the farms for livestock feed, compost and ground cover. [Source 3]
1) Real Time Farms website. Accessed March 25, 2012
2) Local Harvest website. Accessed January 30, 2012.
3) Interview with Maggie Long, General Manager and Executive Chef of the Jolly Pumpkin Café and Brewery. April 12, 2012.
4) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), USDA- National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) website. Accessed March 18, 2012.
5) About.com. How To Sell Organic Farm Goods To Local Restaurants. Accessed April 7, 2012
6) ASI Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UCDavis. Selling Directly to Restaurants and Retailers. Accessed April 15, 2012.
7) Tilian Farm Development Center, Ann Arbor, MI. Based on an interview with Alex and Mark from Seeley Farm on December 13, 2011.
8) Slow Food Utah website. Accessed April 12, 2012
9) Project Green Leaf’s Farm to Restaurant website. Accessed March 25, 2012.
10) Montana Farm to Restaurant Connection website. Accessed March 25, 2012.