Farm-to-table is a food philosophy and social movement that encourages sourcing food directly from local farms and then serving those ingredients in their freshest state. Farm-to-table restaurants purchase supplies from farms within a certain radius around their location, which, depending on the density of nearby farms, may range from 50 to 200 miles.
Farm-to-table is also sometimes referred to as “farm to plate” or “farm to fork.” Some farm-to-table restaurants begin as farms and then add a dining room. Others begin as traditional restaurants, then update their vendor list to include local farms. A third type of farm-to-table restaurant combines farm-purchased products with items that are grown on the restaurant’s property. The concept embraces more than fruits and vegetables; meats, dairy products, and eggs are included in most farm-to-table operations.
How Farm-to-Table Works
The relationship between a farm-to-table business and local farms can take many different forms. Some farms prefer to deal directly with restaurants. Others pool their products with multiple neighboring farms creating a farm cooperative. These co-ops increase the variety of products a farm-to-table business can purchase from a single vendor.
Delivery of goods also varies from farm to farm. Some deliver directly to restaurants, while others prepare orders for chefs to pick up at a local farmers market on a set day each week. Depending on the availability of space, some farm-to-table restaurants also opt to grow their own limited produce.
A Brief History of Farm-to-Table
The farm-to-table movement in the United States began with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring,” which discussed the negative impacts of pesticides on health and the environment. Nine years later, chef Alice Waters opened the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse with a group of locavore minded cooks.
Throughout the 1970s, American chefs across the country built high-end restaurants based around relationships with farmers. Without the benefit of the internet and easy Google searches, these early vendor lists of farmers and foragers were valuable, closely-guarded assets to the restaurants that developed them.
Since the ‘70s, the farm-to-table movement has steadily grown in the US. Today, even fast food concepts like Shake Shack tout ingredient origins on their menus. New plant-focused quick-service concepts like Sweetgreen and Dig Inn have designed their entire concept around locally sourced ingredients.
Types of Farm-to-Table Operations
The definition of farm-to-table simply requires the use of local, seasonal ingredients. So the philosophy can be applied to various food and beverage businesses from breakfast-only cafes to coffee shops, full-service restaurants, and even bars. Businesses that sell directly to consumers, like bakeries, can also add an additional revenue stream by selling value-added products made from local ingredients to other restaurants.
Full-service restaurants were the first businesses to embrace the farm-to-table model. These restaurants tend to have more expansive menus than the quick service counterparts and, thus, more opportunities to feature farm products. If a certain item runs out during a busy service, these restaurants have several other options to avoid disappointing hungry customers. Diners also tend to see seasonal and ever-changing menus in full-service restaurants as a sign of authenticity and refinement.
Fine Dining farm-to-table Restaurants
Fine dining restaurants are a great fit for a farm-to-table model. Small fine dining restaurants like Oklahoma City’s Nonesuch or Los Angeles’ Orsa & Winston, benefit from introducing diners to new, hard-to-find ingredients. Larger, high volume fine-dining restaurants are a great fit for farmers because they have the ability to place large orders that can make it worthwhile for farmers to grow new crops.
High Volume farm-to-table Restaurants
If your restaurant does a high volume of sales and you wish to embrace a farm-to-table operation, forging direct relationships with nearby farms is the best strategy. High volume restaurants can use invoices from past orders to create a wish list of items to give to local farms. If a farmer knows he or she has a buyer for a crop, they will be more likely to grow it.
High volume restaurants can also grow some items themselves. The Los Angeles-based fast casual farm-to-table chain Tender Greens actually grows most of its lettuce hydroponically in a warehouse.
Limited Service Restaurants
The seasonal, locally sourced ethos of the farm-to-table philosophy can be applied to smaller operations with or without kitchens. Increasingly, limited service operations like bakeries, bars, and coffee shops are getting into the farm-to-table game.
Quick Service Farm-to-Table Restaurants
Quick service restaurants like burger joints, taco stands, and build your own salad franchises are increasingly embracing farm-to-table methods to diversify their operations. However, this type of restaurant should be mindful of customer expectations of a consistent menu. For this reason, quick service restaurants can benefit from designing a core menu with components that rarely change, then supplementing that menu with daily or seasonal specials.
Bakeries have a unique position in the farm-to-table movement. In addition to buying grain and other ingredients to sell directly to consumers, they can pitch prepared products to restaurant customers. Flour and Salt Bakery in Hamilton, New York, is a great example of this strategy. They sell a huge assortment of bagels and breads to the public while also supplying nearby hotels and restaurants with bread products that can be labeled as local.
Farm-to-Table Coffee Shops
Coffee shops and cafes have long attracted customers with products with single-origin and fair trade certified labels. Patrons that are interested in those labels are also likely to be more interested in local food products, making farm-to-table an excellent business strategy. Coffee shop fare lends itself well to a farm-to-table model, as the shelf life of farm-fresh produce can be extended when featured in popular coffee shop foods like pastries, scones, and breakfast sandwiches. Local milk is also easy to feature in a farm-to-table coffee shop.
Also referred to as “farm to glass,” this is just what it sounds like—a bar that focuses on local, seasonal ingredients. These are popular in areas that are well-known for a specific beverage, like California’s wine country. A farm-to-table bar prominently features locally distilled spirits, beer or wine and mixes cocktails with seasonal fruits and garnishes. If foods are offered, they are usually platters of local cheeses and cured meats garnished with honey or locally made preserves.
Farm-to-Table Juiceries & Smoothie Shops
Juice presses and smoothie shops are a natural fit for the farm-to-table model. They already tout the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. The only shift required to make a juicery farm-to-table is featuring local produce rather than main line suppliers. Since they go through a large quantity of fruits and vegetables, businesses like smoothie shops and fresh-pressed juiceries are well positioned to request farmers grow a specific crop for them.
Popularity of Farm-to-Table Operations
Recent studies have shown that 67% of consumers are attracted to foods carrying the locally sourced label. Likewise, a survey of local food studies finds that consumers believe local food is healthier and more environmentally friendly than food products that have traveled from a great distance. Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has also shown that the development of local food systems increases employment and income in a community.
The farm-to-table ethos intersects with other social movements as well. Customers who seek to support small community businesses, reduce carbon emissions, and eat fresh foods that are farmed with fewer pesticides all tend to support the farm-to-table model.
Farm-to-table restaurants are faced with unique challenges and a business owner considering this shift should be prepared to find creative solutions. In some locations, farm-to-table restaurants will need to build their entire supply chain from scratch. This task may be simpler in the age of internet searches, but it can still be involved. Many restaurateurs begin this task a year before they plan to open.
Covering Higher Costs
Freshly farmed products usually cost more than items purchased from mainline vendors like Sysco. Sometimes this price difference can be as high as 30%. Produce that is allowed to ripen in the field may be more vibrantly flavored but it can also have a shorter shelf life. To remain profitable farm-to-table restaurants must use these ingredients before they spoil. Sometimes this means buying a glut of strawberries when they are in season, then preserving them in jams and sauces to use during the winter months.
When growing your own produce, there are equipment and labor costs associated with setting up the operation. There will also be labor costs associated with maintaining your crops. Once you calculate labor, cost of supplies, and losses that may result from weather or pests, you may find that some products are more expensive to grow than purchase.
Maintaining Supplies & Inventory
Farming is seasonal and can be impacted positively or negatively by weather events. As a result, there may be times when your restaurant runs out of a special raspberry dessert and is unable to source more berries until the next harvest. Farm-to-table restaurants change their menus more frequently to adjust to these conditions, which requires reprinting menus and consistently training service staff on new dishes.
It is not uncommon for farm-to-table restaurants—particularly high volume ones—to run out of an ingredient (or several) on a busy weekend. Chefs must be able to make adjustments on the fly and managers should be prepared to communicate last-minute menu changes to the entire service staff.
Beyond educating staff about the farm ingredients on the menu, farm-to-table restaurants may need to define the approach to their customers. It is important to illustrate the value of the farm-to-table ethos to customers because farm-to-table ingredients can cost more than conventional products.
In high-profile dining markets like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, the clientele likely understands the cost of farm-to-table ingredients. However, if you’re opening the first farm-to-table restaurant in your small town, you may need to explain to customers how your $9.00 tomato salad is a better value than the $2.00 hamburger up the road. In a close-knit community, the idea that using local ingredients creates jobs and income for local residents can go a long way to encouraging customers to support your business.
By definition, farm-to-table is simply the goal of sourcing food products from local farms and serving those ingredients in their freshest state. It has been a popular US food and beverage model since the 1970s. Any type of food operation can adopt a farm-to-table ethos, but owners should expect to build relationships with farmers as well as manage additional costs associated with using perishable, fully ripe ingredients.