On Earth Day, a Look at Local Sourcing During the Pandemic

Daisies store interior
When the local farmers market closed, Daisies offered its space to vendors. Photo: Neil Burger.

Industry experts look at sustainability and sourcing more than a year since COVID-19’s onset.

The Chicago Tribune recently posted its new 2020 Readers’ Choice Takeout Awards, inviting readers to vote on their favorite takeout from local restaurants. The winner of the Best Meal Kit, Daisies, had an interesting back story. When Chicago’s Logan Square farmers’ market was canceled, Daisies offered its space to vendors, many of them the same vendors the restaurant bought from every day. That meant, according to the Trib, that guests had access to all the same ingredients used in Daisies’ kitchen. The logical next step was for the restaurant to assemble the ingredients into meal kits. Very good meal kits, considering the win.

When we look at the restaurant industry, it’s typically through a pre- and present day ‘pandemic lens’, especially when it comes to sustainability and local sourcing.

Before COVID-19 changed everything, including how we do business, many consumers dined out to eat great food in an engaging environment, and the story behind the dishes enriched the experience. Guests interested in sustainability and sourcing wanted to know how the ingredients in their orders were grown or raised, and even how far they traveled before being served.

How things have changed

Eating farm-to-fork foods was and still is popular, especially among millennial and Gen Z guests, but things are a bit different today in the way those items are made available. Because of the pandemic, restaurateurs have had to re-engineer menus to accommodate fewer on-premises customers and fill more off-premises needs, reduce food costs, and adjust to smaller crews.

Still, there are customers who want locally sourced products, and the demand is continuing to grow. And restaurants want to offer them—where and when possible—to the guests that crave them.

A new survey from digital food purchasing network Buyer’s Edge Platform supports this theory. It found that 41% of consumers said they ordered more food from independent restaurants since the pandemic began, and 35% claimed finding restaurants that offer locally sourced foods is very important to them. Among the 500 respondents, supporting their local, independent restaurants remains essential.

Explaining the popularity of ‘local’

“Everyone has a hot button in terms of what they care about,” says Larry Reinstein, president and CEO of LJR Hospitality Ventures. “Consumers generally want to spend their money locally. It gives them a good psychological feeling. They’re helping take care of the local community; that’s No. 1. They also want to know where products are coming from; that’s No. 2.

“There’s an association that goes with buying a craft beer and knowing it came from a small local brewer as opposed to some large facility far away. Or it’s something as simple as eating a dessert made from apples that came from the local orchard. Customers relate to the fact that it’s a local business, and, quite honestly, that it’s better for the environment. The product didn’t travel thousands of miles, and a lot of people are interested in creating a smaller carbon footprint.”

Reasons for support

Dan Simons, co-owner of Farmers Restaurant Group, which owns and operates the Washington, D.C.-based Founding Farmers restaurants, also thinks the number of diners interested in local sourcing is on the rise—for several reasons.

“Some folks worry about the safety and quality of internationally sourced foods, while others are inclined to buy American to support America,” he says, “and some care about the environment, so there are diverse motivations. When I speak [virtually] on panels, I find there’s a lot of engagement from diners who want to support a more resilient supply chain, and ask how their purchasing decisions could support local jobs.”

Neil Russell, senior vice president of Corporate Affairs and Chief Communications Officer for broadline foodservice distributor Sysco says the company expects the trend toward local sourcing will continue, benefitting restaurateurs and their guests.

“Sourcing local products has many advantages, including providing artisan products that result in menu innovation,” he says. “As more people want to know where their food comes from, we’ll continue to evolve our local sourcing programs.”

He notes Sysco seeks to reduce environmental impact by partnering with more local producers and suppliers across the country to decrease the number of miles chefs and restaurateurs have to travel to purchase local goods at various farmers’ markets and other businesses.

Supply vs. demand

Reinstein says in many cases consumers are willing to pay more for products they can identify as local, that have a smaller carbon footprint, or that support community businesses. It’s also been effective in helping operators deal with pandemic-related shortages, when demand’s been high, but supply short.

“Besides labor, the biggest problem facing the industry is getting product,” he says. “Try going to a restaurant and getting ketchup or pickles. Those and other products are hard to find. Manufacturing plants can’t keep up, neither can the truckers, and international supplies are tough. If you purchase locally, you could actually wind up with a more consistent food supply. The problem is when you’re in places like the Northeast and can’t get local produce year-round. But restaurateurs and their customers prefer to purchase local products, like honey, jams, breads, and produce, when they can get it.”

4 tips on local sourcing

Simons, whose company is known for local sourcing and sustainability, says despite the pandemic, he’s doubling down on sustainability. He also offers these four tips on how best to source locally:

  1. Build relationships with local farmers and purveyors; that’s the key
  2. Align interests and look for win-win approaches
  3. Don’t make it all about price, or any one element
  4. Collaborate

“Sustainability is more resilient and far better for our full range of stakeholders,” he says.