Working with Local Food Suppliers

Although it was once dismissed as a fad, it’s clear that the 100-mile diet is here to stay. Every year, the demand for organic and local foods grows up to 25 per cent, with eight out of 10 Ontario consumers indicating that they prefer to eat locally, whenever possible.

For restaurants committed to environmental sustainability, serving up local foods provides a unique way to capture this growing market. To find out more about how restaurants can work with local food suppliers, BizEnergy spoke with Paul Sawtell, co-owner of 100km Foods, an award-winning local food distribution company.

Build a relationship with your farmers

The beauty of ordering from local food suppliers is that you’re able to serve your customers the freshest produce—and you can choose exactly what farm it came from. This, says Sawtell, is key.

“Ultimately, a peach is not a peach,” he says. “It varies widely dependant on where it’s grown, how ripe it is and when it gets to the kitchen.” With more than 60,000 farms in Ontario, it’s important to know exactly what producer you’re working with.

At the New Farm, a family-run organic farm on the Niagara escarpment, they grow what some chefs in Toronto have identified as the best- tasting salad mix available. But the crème de la crop isn’t available through the big distributors—the New Farm’s salad mix is only available through local suppliers.

“With a conventional supplier, if it’s not in the terminal then they don’t necessarily have access to it,” says Sawtell. This also means that by going local, you’ll have access to products that you may have been previously unfamiliar with—such as the Northern kiwi, a fruit that’s only grown in northern climates.

Plan ahead—and plan to work with multiple suppliers

Through local distributors, produce is often harvested to order. This ensures that you’ll be serving up the freshest food, but it also means that channeling your inner A-type personality is a must.

“Chefs have to plan ahead so that they can know what they’re going to need in a day’s time,” says Sawtell. At 100km Foods, restaurants place their orders less than 48 hours in advance and receive shipments every other day.

It also may not be possible to work exclusively with one local distributor—and you may need to reach out to big distributors as well. Lemons for example, which are a restaurant staple, don’t grow in Ontario. For these citrus fruits, you’ll have to use a conventional food supplier or go directly to the Ontario Food Terminal.

Look to labels for organically grown and local foods

Restaurants who are interested in committing to serving local and sustainable foods can become partners of Local Food Plus (LFP), which is currently the gold standard for local produce in Ontario. By becoming a partner, LFP will connect your restaurant with local food suppliers.

Through a farm audit, the non-profit takes into account the production methods, labour practices and on-farm energy use before giving their “local and sustainable” seal of approval. If your supplier offers LFP or organically farmed foods, this will usually be denoted on order forms.

Farms, foodservice, and restaurants alike can also check out Ontariofresh, a site for buyers and sellers of Ontario produce and products to connect. Suppliers can list what they're selling, and buyers can post what they're looking for, ensuring that local food makes its way into restaurants, university cafeterias, hospital kitchens, and a host of other venues.

Prepare to change your menu frequently to reflect seasonal produce

Often, the biggest learning curve for restaurants that are making the switch to local is learning to identify the seasonality of foods.

 “We’ve been asked for asparagus in October. It’s an eight-week item,” says Sawtell, explaining that the crop is only available in Ontario in the Spring. “It’s what our food system has created—you can get asparagus 365 days a year, so people assume that it’s available here.” Similarly, some products, such as avocados, can’t be grown in Ontario.

For restaurateurs, frequent menu changes are key to serving up local dishes. Honing skills such as preserving will also help carry produce into the next season—and onto your next menu.

- Jessica Wynne Lockhart, Freelance writer for BizEnergy