While ‘farm-to-fork’ dining was something that humans did naturally for millennia, the concept as we know it today was spurred largely by the enormous innovations in food processing and storage in the first half of the 20th century. With the advent of canned foods and other developments, processed food became ubiquitous and continued to reign supreme until the 1970s.
The farm-to-fork movement first took root in California, when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971. Driven by a desire to bring a more sustainable ethos back into the food system, Waters began advocating for the deliberate sourcing of local foods. In 1986, Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food Organisation in Italy, formalising ideas around choosing local, sustainable agriculture and bringing them back to the European table.
Today, the concept of farm-to-fork (or farm-to-table) eating continues to gain traction, with many younger adults considerably more aware of where their food comes from than preceding generations. In fact, according to the National Restaurant Association, 38% of adults say the availability of locally sourced food would make them more likely to choose one restaurant over another; 20% of adults responded similarly about locally sourced beer, wine and spirits. This sentiment was most common among Millennial and Gen Z consumers.
There are plenty of compelling reasons to choose ingredients sourced from local suppliers:
1. Local is on trend
According to a study by ThoughtWorks in late 2021, 39% of consumers reported that they now consider supporting local farmers when buying food, a considerable jump compared with 27% in 2018. Food provenance has also grown in importance, with 40% of respondents saying that knowing where their food comes from is an important issue for them. With significant demand from consumers — and an increased level of urgency introduced by the pandemic and now compounded by the war on Ukraine — provenance will continue to be a key trend for the foreseeable future.
2. It tells a story
Telling the story behind your brand has never been more important and helps to differentiate your business from your competitors. Since it’s increasingly desirable in the eyes of consumers, a focus on local sourcing is an ideal theme to include on your menu. Adding a local flavour helps to connect your customers with the food on their plate, as well as your brand. When your menu tells a story, every dining experience becomes more memorable.
Consider the difference:
- ‘Pork ribs with sticky apple honey glaze’ vs. ‘Redford Farm rare breed pork ribs glazed with Hillside Orchard apples and heather honey from the Wicklow hills’
- ‘Mussels with cider cream and dillisk’ vs. ‘Sweeneys Harbour mussels, cider and Rogers’ Organic cream sauce, foraged Long Strand dillisk.”
It’s not just locals who love to see local food on the menu, either; if your restaurant is in an area that’s popular with tourists, having locally sourced food on the menu will appeal to those in search of an authentic food tourism experience.
3. Supports your local economy
Choosing to source your ingredients from local suppliers helps to support your local and national economies. By supporting local trade, you are helping to nurture small businesses, boost employment rates and strengthen communities. With multiple studies showing that a bigger chunk of money spent locally stays local, your decision will ultimately ensure that your future customers have more money to spend.
4. Reduces carbon footprint
Because local food doesn’t have far to travel, switching to nearby suppliers can drastically reduce your business’s carbon footprint. Not only is this the right move from a moral standpoint, but it touches on another story that customers want to hear — that of sustainable business practices.
5. Cuts costs
Buying locally can cut costs. The cost of transport itself is vastly reduced when food has little distance to travel. Furthermore, food travelling shorter distances has less opportunity to spoil or be damaged, minimising food waste and associated costs.
6. Offers fresher ingredients
It’s likely that food purchased locally will be fresher, since it’s been harvested and/or packaged more recently and doesn’t require preservatives to keep it in good shape through a long trip. The use of fresher ingredients often means better quality finished dishes, improving the customer experience.
7. Embraces seasonality
Buying local forces you to forge a deeper connection with what’s in season. Working with seasonal food means that you’re showcasing produce when it’s at its absolute best, and is often cost-effective, too. Not only does this offer a further point of interest for your customers, but it offers inspiration for creating menus that evolve with the seasons, adding a degree of time-sensitive temptation — if your customers know that a particular dish will only be available for a few weeks, it’s easy to drum up excitement around it. You could even run social media campaigns that focus on seasonality: highlight the beginning of oyster season, for example, or build anticipation for produce of shorter durations, such as asparagus.
8. Connects you to your community
Building connections within your community is a crucial aspect of success for many businesses — especially small and medium ones. Buying directly from local suppliers allows your business to put down strong roots and brings a number of mutual benefits, such as cross-recommending customers to drive additional business for each other, potentially sharing costs where applicable and becoming more involved in your local community. Nurturing these relationships may also lead to additional future opportunities for your restaurant.
9. Protects local food systems
Without adequate commercial support, smaller farmers, producers and suppliers often find it impossible to compete in the face of big business. Choosing to buy from small-scale businesses in your area means that you’re playing your part in ensuring the longevity of these local food systems.
10. Encourages connection with food
Finally, choosing to buy from local producers encourages a greater understanding of where food comes from, amongst both staff and customers. While this may not be of immediate or direct benefit to your business, fostering and maintaining this understanding will help to create a better, more sustainable food system for future generations.