So no doubt you’ve heard quite a bit about the whole “local movement” by now. It’s referred to in various ways: going local, buying local, becoming a locavore, etc.
We’re big fans of buying local here at Dig Inn for the common reasons:
- It allows us to support the local community.
- It reduces food miles, which we’ve previously discussed here.
- Small, local farmers tend to grow their crops in more organic and traditional ways, which leads to higher quality fruits & vegetables that are better for you than their industrial counterparts.
- Small farmers also tend to farm in more environmentally responsible ways, minimizing their use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and using modern techniques like drip irrigation and integrated pest management.
- We like working directly with farmers – they’re good people.
So for these reasons, we try to source our ingredients locally as much as possible.
However, as a 5 store restaurant chain, going local is a lot more difficult for us than it is for consumers because local is very difficult to scale.
While buying local does take more work for a regular consumer, all that’s really required is organizing your shopping habits around your local farmers market’s peak hours. And this is getting easier all the time as more and more farmers markets pop up and cities like Philadelphia and New York City do cool things like subsidizing farmers market purchases for food stamp users (thereby making the farmers market cheaper than your local grocery store).
But when you’re a restaurant company with multiple locations that serve thousands of customers per day, buying local becomes much more of a challenge. Below we discuss some of the biggest challenges we’ve been facing as we try to source more and more of our menu locally.
This is by far the biggest challenge for us – it’s really difficult to find local farms who can provide the kinds of volumes we require. Take our brussel sprouts, for instance. We require more than 3,000 lbs per week, which is a huge amount for a local farmer. So when we bring the brussel sprouts back this fall, we’ll be sourcing them from 3 different farms, and it took A LOT of work to find these three farms – these relationships have been more than a year in the making.
It’s really tough for us to coordinate these types of arrangements for all of our produce. We have a very small corporate team, and we only have so much time to invest in developing relationships with local farmers.
Not only that, but in many cases, farms that grow the crops we want to serve in fairly large volumes don’t exist here in the New York region. So even if we had all the time in the world for sourcing, it’s an impossible problem to solve.
Simply put, it’s really difficult to find local farms who can support the kind of volumes we require. Farming in more responsible ways tends to be very labor intensive, which keeps these farms small. Therefore, if we want to buy locally, we have to source the same crop from multiple farms (like we’ll be doing with our brussel sprouts), which brings us to the next challenge.
The more local farms we have to work with to support our volumes, the more difficult the logistics become. We’re all about freshness here at Dig Inn so we typically receive multiple produce shipments each week. It’s really difficult to get this from small, local farms.
The farms themselves tend not to have refrigerated trucks that are big enough (if they even have refrigerated trucks), and they can’t afford to be making long trips from their farms to the city several times a week. We also can’t expect our distribution company to be making trips to each of these farms on a daily basis – there simply isn’t enough time in the day.
So what we often have to do is find a larger local farm who can receive and store crops from other, smaller farms (we call these larger farms “hubs”). Hubs do exist, but there aren’t many of them, and if we’re establishing a hub ourselves, it takes a long time to get all the logistics worked out.
So for these reasons, the logistics of sourcing crops locally tend to be very complicated.
When you’re growing crops in more responsible ways, product quality tends to be a lot more erratic – this is the nature of the beast, and it’s actually why local farming is great. When crops are grown in more natural ways, they just don’t come out looking or tasting as uniformly as they do at larger, more industrial farms.
Also, since these local farms are producing smaller volumes and have less sophisticated farming operations in general, throwing out the bad stuff is a lot more difficult. They just don’t produce the kind of volumes that allow them to absorb these losses, and they can’t afford the labor required to weed out the bad stuff. They just pull it off the vine and ship it.
But if only half of what we get is usable, then we need double the volume, which effectively doubles our cost. Thus, we run into the volume issue again, and we also run into the cost issue, which we discuss next.
We love farmers markets, and we really hope they continue to grow and flourish in the ensuing decades. But they’re actually making it more difficult for us to source products locally, not less. This is because selling directly to consumers will always be the most profitable way for farmers to sell their crops. It takes more work (they have to buy a truck, load it up with fresh produce a few times a week, and then market themselves to consumers amidst their peers), but farmers are able to command higher prices at farmers markets – prices that we can’t afford to pay because we have to resell the products to consumers ourselves (after investing additional funds in the labor required to produce our recipes).
And this is really how local farms work these days – they grow smaller volumes of crops using more responsible, less industrial farming methods, and then they sell these crops for a premium via a local farmers market or community supported agriculture (CSA) share program.
In short, a local ecosystem has yet to develop here in the Northeast that supports large volumes of local produce. This is changing, but it’s happening very slowly. And until it’s further developed, sourcing locally will continue to be a major challenge for multi-unit restaurant companies like ourselves.
This doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing it, and we’ll continue to do everything in our power to aid in the development of this local ecosystem, but it’s going to take time. So for the time being, we’ll do our best to source produce locally, and sometimes we’ll just have to accept the fact that it can’t be done for certain crops.
As our customers, we just ask you to be understanding about this and to appreciate the fact that we’re doing the best we can. You can rest assured that it’s not due to a lack of effort!
Have any other questions about local sourcing? Please let us know in the comments below. We’ve become quite the experts…