Local restaurants can be one of the best markets for growers who sell high-quality fresh produce such as salad greens, micro greens, herbs, mushrooms and specialty produce like ethnic or heirloom vegetables. Chefs are willing to pay a premium price if the quality is there.
That’s a lesson learned by Dean Okimoto, owner of Nalo Farms in Hawaii. He sells salad greens and herbs to restaurants and hotels, and his premium salad blend, “Nalo Greens,” is even featured on the menu at several top restaurants in the Honolulu area. Dean claims there are only 3 secrets to successfully selling to restaurants and hotels:
- Top quality
- customer service.
At Nalo Farms, salad greens are cut in the morning, packed mid-day, delivered in the afternoon and on the customer’s plate that same night. Dean says,
” Our Nalo Greens may cost twice as much as other mixes, but being same-day fresh, when you plate it up, it will come out to the same price. Ours is fresher, so it has more “fluff.” You don’t have to use as much. Then when they taste it, it sells itself.”
When you’re starting out, your first step should be to locate the restaurants within your “delivery zone” that may be prospects for your fresh grown food. As most restaurant chefs need deliveries two or three times a week, you must consider how far you are willing to drive to handle those orders. You should also remember that a single restaurant will not need as much produce as a grocery store or a farmer’s market stand, so factor in your time and overhead to make sure you can make money at the prices you’ve set.
Ideally, your goal should be a “mini-route” of restaurants, so when you make your delivery rounds, there are several stops that will cut down the overall delivery time to each restaurant. Look for hotels that also have a restaurant, and upscale restaurants. Don’t bother with the national chain restaurants, as they are almost always required to purchase through a centralized purchasing department.
After you’ve made a list of all the possible restaurants in your area, it’s time to contact the chef. Call the restaurant and ask who the chef is and the best time to reach him or her. For most chefs, the best time to call is between 9 A.M. and 10:30 A.M. or from 2 P.M. and 3:30 P.M. During the busy lunch and dinner times, chefs will be “on the line” preparing meals and too busy to chat.
Explain to each chef that you are a grower, and would like to bring in samples of your produce. Most chefs will say yes, but some will say they are too busy or not interested. Put those on a follow-up list to contact in a month or two. At that time, mention that chef ABC, at ABC restaurant, has been happy with your produce and service, and offer free samples again. Most chefs will say yes the second time around.
When you talk to the chefs, be sure to mention the following important points:
- Your produce is fresh-picked, and delivered within XX hours of picking.
- Growing organic? That’s a positive you should mention as well.
- Competitive prices.
- High quality local produce, in any quantity he or she needs.
After you’ve talked to the chef, ask for his or her business! If he says no, ask what it would take to start using your produce on a trial basis. This allows you to address objections, such as pricing or delivery.
A recent report found that produce from mega-farms, which grow 80% of the produce in the U.S, travels 1,500 miles on average from farm to point-of-sale, while locally grown produce travels only 56 miles. Rather than fund 5 mega-corporations that control the bulk of the food industry, we should be buying local. The “Buy Local” movement is growing like wildfire, and you can participate as a grower simply by selling your fresh food direct to local chefs, who are overwhelmingly supportive of the movement. They too can taste the difference between fresh-picked and “tired” produce, and guess which they prefer!
This article is one of 50 free and low-cost ways to market your crops found in our new book, Selling Your Harvest, available free with the purchase of any of our growing guides.