Achieving more than one revenue stream should be your goal as a market gardener newbie. In my last article, I talked about selling your vegetables at the farmer’s market. Here, I talk about CSA programs. This article is all about selling your veggies to chefs and restaurants.
You want to have a selection of different market streams that you can sell through.
There is only one style of selling that is most relevant to small-scale farmers, and that’s direct consumer marketing, selling right to the end-user, without anybody in the middle.
In areas where there are high-end restaurants, customers assume that they are using local products in their dishes. If you are operating your farm with a hip, high-end local scene, selling to them is a must!
We will be getting some tips and tricks of the trade from The Urban Farmer himself, Curtis Stone.
Research Possible Restaurants
The first step is doing some research.
How many restaurants are advertising the use of local produce or seasonal menus?
Make a list of all the places that are offering those things.
From there, dig a little deeper to see:
- how big they are (how many seats there are)
- what kind of food they serve
- where their price points are
- where they are located
- their operating times
- who the chef is
Once you have a list of possible restaurants that you’d be interested in supplying, make some phone calls to those restaurants and ask if they use local or organic products and where they buy from.
You can pretend to be an overzealous customer at this point if you want.
The best restaurants to start with are the small ones, as you get more experience you can go bigger.
After you’ve established a comprehensive list of potential customers to approach, it’s time to stop in and talk to the chef.
It’s generally better to arrange a time to drop by if possible. Go in whenever it is not the lunch or dinner rush.
If they’re a breakfast place, go in the afternoon; if they’re busy for lunch, go in after the lunch rush.
Never go into a restaurant in the evening to talk business. If you’re a customer in the restaurant and it happens naturally, that’s an exception.
When you drop in, bring a business card, a fresh sheet (list of produce with prices), and some sample product, about a $10-$20 sample of what you grow.
Only bring in items that you are producing consistently and in abundance.
Don’t bring in samples of things that are in short supply, because the chef may want a lot of that item. You don’t want to be short when you’re establishing a new relationship.
Once you establish a working relationship with a chef, you can start to offer more items and one-off, special things.
You need to be speaking directly to the chef when you visit the restaurant. Be friendly and brief. Tell the chef what you do and what you grow, and try not to take too much of their time.
Ask them about what kinds of products they’re interested in, and if they have a local supplier already. If they do, ask if they’re happy with the quality and cost of the products they are getting.
If there are some things they’re not finding anywhere else, perhaps there’s a niche to fill.
Ask what’s on their menu during each season and if you can get a sample of their menu, and past menus. This info can often be found on their website as well.
Always be open and honest about everything with the chefs. Let them know right off the bat that you are just starting out and that you will do your best to always meet their needs.
Be careful not to make too many promises or guarantees when you are starting. You don’t want to make promises that you’re not sure you can keep.
At the beginning of each week, Curtis sends the chefs he is working with a list of all the products he offers, prices, and volume of the packages.
At the top of the sheet, there are a few updates about what’s happening on the farm or any new products available that week. He makes this form mobile friendly as many chefs like to use their smartphones for ordering, and will text their order.
For restaurants that are focused on using local, the seasonality of vegetables is the framework they use to design their menus.
Every winter, Curtis meets up with some of his best restaurant customers to discuss what they’re looking to do the following season, and they’re looking to hear about what kind of new things Curtis might be trying as well.
For the most part, chefs are willing to work with what grows best in the season, and they will always have lots of questions about what that looks like throughout the year.
In cities with a lot of tourism, the high season for a restaurant is usually the height of summer, so you can expect to sell a lot more volume, it’s good to be prepared.
Staying Up To Date
If restaurants become one of your main market streams, it’s a good idea to stay up to date with food trends.
You can do this by following chefs on social media, reading food magazines and blogs, and constantly talking to your chefs about what’s coming up.
Food trends always change, so you need to be constantly looking ahead to see what may be coming down the line.
You want to have a record of what chefs ordered each week, and what they received. These can be different because you might have been short on some items they ordered.
This is common as restaurants approach their high season, and you need to record this information so that next season you can be better prepared to meet their demand as often as possible.
This means more sales for you in the end. Mark the common times of peak demand on your calendar, so that you can have as much as possible during that period.
Many farmers that sell to restaurants will be short during this time, and if you are prepared, it’s a good time to pick up more customers by coming in with products when others are in short supply.
Be prepared and honest when approaching chefs for the first time.
I know it’s not easy selling your produce, and it can be especially intimidating selling to chefs. Try to break out of your comfort zone and just do it! This is your livelihood and selling to restaurants can be a great revenue stream for your market garden.
We plan on approaching chefs this year with our produce when we have it. Luckily, we know a few chefs in our area already, so they will be our first stops! I will definitely document our experience and let you know how it goes in a future article.
Hopefully, the tips provided in this article will help you feel a little more confident approaching chefs in your area as well.
Do you currently sell or plan to sell your produce to restaurants in your area? Let us know about your experience in the comments below.
Kathy & Jon
your friendly neighbourhood growers