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The Tricks of selling Your Products to Restaurants

By Julie Stafffer


“Oven-roasted filet of salmon, new potato and baby vegetable ‘hodge podge’ and Cape Breton mustard pickles” reads one item on the summer menu at Chives Canadian Bistro in Halifax.

Searching for a new market? It could be as close as the nearest restaurant. Chefs want the peak freshness that local growers can offer, coupled with interesting or unusual varieties and the savings that come from cutting out the middleman.
“We try to buy from local farmers whenever we can,” says Craig Flinn, the chef and owner of Chives. “Let’s face it—a pint of strawberries right now tastes ten times better and is a third the price of ugly strawberries from California in February.” That means chefs are very open to a phone call or a knock on the back door, especially if the prices you offer are as good or better than they would get from wholesalers.

“Food localism is a very sexy topic right now,” says Peter Katona, Executive Director of Foodlink Waterloo Region, which brings together chefs and farmers at an annual Taste Local! Taste Fresh! event.

Mark Gerber, a beef farmer in the Waterloo region, struck a deal with the chef of Benjamin’s restaurant to provide one of his drug-free, grass-fed Black Angus cows each month. “It’s win–win for both sides,” Gerber says. “What we can offer him is a consistent product. He always has animals from the same place, consistent quality, farm fresh. He can promote it as a local product.”

Selling to restaurants is not without its challenges, of course. For one thing, it can mean several deliveries a week that generate more paperwork and take you away from the farm.

Glorious Organics Co-operative delivers salad greens, garnishes and specialty vegetables to 30 Vancouver restaurants twice a week from their seven-acre operation in the Fraser Valley.

They offer two different kinds of salad (see box): Celebration Mix which sells for $51/kg and contains thirty or more ingredients that vary with the season; and Valley Mix which contains several varieties of lettuce, green kales, and arugula which retails for $22.00 – $26.50 depending on the number of kilos ordered for delivery. Co-owner Susan Davidson sets a minimum order of $150 to make it worthwhile.

There’s a challenge in meeting standing orders when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. “We work very closely with another farm that’s about 45 acres,” says Davidson. “If we don’t have enough product, they’ll often back us up.”
But the rewards are clear. Selling directly to chefs offers a steady, reliable market that can earn you a premium over selling to wholesalers. Plus there’s the satisfaction of seeing your products listed on a mouth-watering menu. “It gives the farmer obviously a bit of pride knowing that his animals are being served at a local restaurant,” says Gerber.

Here’s how to go about it.
Go high end. Restaurants that offer fine dining are most likely to be interested in buying locally — and may be able to pay a premium for freshness and quality. Look for restaurants that change their menus frequently, offer in-season produce, or advertise local products.
Market yourself. Farmers have to be just as savvy selling as they are hoeing, says Katona. Pull together some price sheets, a brochure describing your products and your farm, and some top-quality samples, and then start knocking on doors. Once you’ve established a relationship, let chefs know about new products as they become available.
Agree on terms. Make sure you can supply the volumes the restaurant will need. Agree on the frequency of delivery and payment terms. Check whether the chef would like you to do any preparation, such as pre-washing salad greens.
Offer top quality. “What I’m looking for is to show of the integrity of local ingredients,” says Flinn. That means supplying goods with impeccable flavour and appearance. Did your baby squash get too large? Did insects nibble on your rainbow chard? Warn the chef ahead of time, and offer a discount.
Think new and interesting. Chefs are looking for new textures, colours and flavours to add to their palette, so they’re often willing to take a gamble on something new, whether it’s venison or Asian veg. “If you could have a purple tomato, they wanted it yesterday,” says Davidson.
Make it convenient. Buying from a dozen local farmers creates more work for chefs than getting it all from one or two wholesalers, so keep the process as simple as possible for them. Fax over price lists each week, and put a check box next to each item so the chef can simply tick off what he wants and fax it back.
Time it right. Early morning or mid-afternoon are the best times to call or make deliveries. Don’t arrive during the lunchtime rush from 11:00 to 1:30, and don’t walk through the dining hall in your muddy boots — use the back door.
Communicate. If you can’t deliver what you’ve promised for any reason — whether the delivery truck has broken down or the strawberries got hit by hail — get on the phone to the chef right away to let her know.

We Asked:
Mark Gerber
Oakridge Acres, Ayr, Ontario
Sells a 600 to 700 lb Angus steer beef each month to Nick Benninger, head chef of Benjamin’s Restaurant and Inn in St. Jacob’s, Ontario
Q: What are the advantages to selling to a restaurant?
A: Benjamin’s buys the complete animal. Nick has found a way that he can serve that entire animal through the course of a month. What you tend to get dealing with the retail population, people want specific cuts—they want a T-bone steak. Well, you only have so many T-bone steaks out of one animal.
Q: What are restaurants looking for?
A: Consistency in a product—they always want to have consistent quality. From time to time Benjamin’s will ask for some specific cuts to be trimmed different or prepared a little different, but we’re flexible on that. We touch base with Nick there every month and say OK, the animal’s due to be prepared in a month—any changes?
Q: What advice do you have for a farmer who wants to approach a restaurant?
A: I think the biggest thing is just to sit down with the chef and talk your product: see what the chef requires for his restaurant, see how close you can supply his needs.

We Asked
Susan Davidson
Glorious Organics Co-operative, Aldergrove, BC
Sells salad greens, garnishes, edible flowers and specialty vegetables to 30 Vancouver restaurants. In 2005, Glorious Organics Co-operative marketed 5400 kgs of salad mixes to restaurants and farmers markets, grossing $275,000.
Q: Are restaurants fairly good about paying promptly?
A: We give them 30 days, which really stretches into 45. Sometimes we’ve had challenges with the smaller restaurants. I just say if I don’t have the payment at this point in time, we will come in our farming clothes with placards that say “the farmers have not been paid for your food — do you think you should pay for your meal?”
Q: What makes a chef/farmer relationship work well?
A: Mutual respect. I have a lot of respect for what they do, and I try to give them enough reason to respect me. If there’s ever any concern about our quality, it’s either a credit or a replacement, there’s no discussion about it. If we’re ever in a position where we can’t for some reason keep an agreement, they know immediately.”
Q: What advice would you give a farmer who’s approaching restaurants for the first time?
A: Start small and don’t promise what you don’t have. I don’t even call people anymore in the spring until I have something to deliver.

The Mix
What was in Glorious Organics Co-operative’s July Celebration Mix?

  • Wild greens: chickweed, ox-eye daisy, purslane and lambs quarters
  • Herbs: anise hyssop, chervil, Italian parsley, lemon balm, nasturtium leaves and buds, dill, several kinds of sorrel and methi (an East Indian green)
  • Cultivated Greens: beet tops, chards, coloured kales, mizuna leaves and flowering tips, purple orach, New Zealand spinach, arugula leaves and tips, shingiku, fava tips, pea tips, tatsoi, and magenta spreen ( a selected lambs quarters)
  • Edible Flowers, a petal mix of: bachelor buttons, calendulas, carnations, and roses.

Glorious Organics Co-operative also produces a popular Valley Mix. Ingredients vary with the season but can include:

  • Valley Mix
  • several varieties of lettuces
  • tatsoi
  • fava tip
  • beets
  • chards
  • green kales
  • mizuna
  • arugula