There is a lot of talk about local sourcing of products these days in the restaurant world. And for good reason: diners demand and expect to know where their food comes from. On a local level, it may seem to be an easy and straightforward enterprise to integrate fresh and local products into your menu.
But what happens when you throw in a large supply chain? And what about if your different locations are divided by states lines? No doubt there are challenges of economy that need to be addressed as well as affordability and proximity. Is it economically feasible or even wise for a chain restaurant to go after the local angle? And in some cases, it is a matter of semantics and how the word “local” is defined.
To answer these questions, let’s look at some chain restaurants that utilize seasonal /local products successfully:
Seasons 52 – the very philosophy of this Darden-held restaurant resonates with the spirit of the farmer’s market. With a commitment to serve only the freshest and ripest produce, Seasons 52 has dubbed itself a “change” restaurant as opposed to a chain restaurant because they believe change and innovation to be core to their success. They have also landed themselves on the ’50 Breakout Brands’ list composed by NRN.com. While they do not tout themselves as local, they do showcase produce to their advantage.
Sweetgreen – started by 3 Millennials in 2007, the company has made a commitment to source local and to source organic if it cannot source local. They build their salads around what is in season as well. With already 13 units in operation, their model is one for other up and coming brands to watch, as they do very well with the Millennial crowds.
Chipotle – with a commitment to purchase as much locally grown and organic produce and meat as possible, Chipotle is the model that many other chains are mimicking. They have over 1400 units, so their success is a testament to the vision of the founder. Yet they make it clear that they only buy local and organic when it’s feasible, which seems to be rather open for interpretation. Their definition of local is within 350 miles and that includes predominantly peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, and avocados.
Tender Greens – a LA based chain of 13 restaurants, with a philosophy of ‘Slow food done fast’, their commitment to locally sourcing all ingredients is highly ambitious. Because of this commitment, the menus between the different locations are seasonally driven and chef-crafted by some of the best chefs in the industry. Time will tell if their expansion beyond the boundaries of California will be successful. Currently 90% of the products served at their establishments are produced in California. With the first location outside of California slated for opening in Chicago, it could prove challenging due to shorter growing seasons and droughts in the area. One way that Tender Greens hopes to accomplish this is through their partnerships with local farmers, a strategy they plan to use in Chicago as well.
Farm Burger – with 4 locations in the Southeast, Farm Burger showcases locally grown, grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic free beef and pork products from partner farms. Each restaurant is partnered with a farm to supply their products. It is a win-win for everyone. They even offer a veggie-quinoa burger for the vegan types. The number 5 with locally grown butternut squash chutney, goat cheese, and wilted chard is among the more interesting offerings.
Elevation Burger – touting the same message as Farm Burger, Elevation Burger’s motto is: Ingredients Matter. With 30 national and 9 international locations, Elevation Burger seems to be hitting their stride. They offer organic, grass-fed, free-range beef as well as a grain-free veggie burger and a grain-based veggie burger. Although they are focused on sustainability, they are not as transparent regarding their supply chain as some of the previously mentioned chains.
So is it truly possible to be local if you are a chain restaurant? Sort of. In the respect that you can be local as much as possible, Tender Greens is doing the most to provide local ingredients. This is due to their slightly different model of allowing the in-store chef creative license to create what he/she wants for the menu. They have set aside the need for consistency among locations and instead focus on showcasing fresh produce in the best light possible. With increase in scale, comes logistical challenges, so it will be interesting to watch how Tender Greens manages to make the leap from a California-based chain to a national one.
Chipotle is recognized and appreciated for consistency across the country and as a trailblazer in the locally sourced movement, and they as well partner with local farms, among them, the infamous Niman Ranch. Chipotle has more challenges than Tender Greens due to sheer size of the operation, but they are nonetheless committed to providing local products where able, while providing a stable menu.
Whether you define it as free-range, organic, or grass-fed, quality is what matters. Local is important but quality wins every time.