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How to Buy From the Little Guy

How to Buy From the Little Guy

EVERYONE LOVES A PRODUCE PARADE. (clockwise from l.) Eat ‘n Park Hospitality (Parkhurst/Cura) F&B Director Jamie Moore (l.) gets his hands dirty examining a local crop. Executive Chef John O’Shea of Brown University discusses fresh produce with a local grower at a farmers market held at the school.
Students help unload local Idaho apples destined for their school lunch program. A child digs into chili made with local ingredients made available to Madison, WI, schools by the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program.

The "one-stop-shop" was always a bit of a stretch. True, prime broadline distribution houses have generally done a good job of carrying most of the dry and frozen goods needed by onsite foodservice operators. But specialty categories (fresh produce, fresh meat and seafood, dairy, deli products, paper, equipment) often required complementary relationships with product specialists. >

Today, the one-stop-shop faces a major new challenge—the so-called "buy local" movement. By emphasizing multiple, small, scattered, limited-volume local suppliers that wreak havoc on economies of scale, this emerging phenomenon directly conflicts with modern distribution's business model.

As distributors struggle to accommodate local sources, onsite operators wishing to menu locally-produced food have often found themselves having to develop, nurture and maintain their own local supply relationships in parallel with their existing supply channel.

This is a major undertaking. Local product is often more expensive than conventional alternatives and the supply inconsistent, seasonal and sometimes inadequate to meet typical volume demands. Also, local producers often lack logistical/administrative capabilities like warehouses, delivery trucks and automated ordering and invoicing systems.

Time and Space
Given these obstacles, it's astonishing to see how many onsite operations are willing to take them on.

According to the Community Food Security Coalition, which tracks farm-to-school and farm-to-college programs, more than 400 school districts and 200 colleges had local buying programs last year, a number that has undoubtedly grown since. They join an expanding roster of high-end B&I operations, entertainment/arts facilities and private academies, and even some high-volume mid-level B&I, hospitals and eldercare facilities, that are starting local purchase programs.

Perhaps most crucially, the contract management sector has now also jumped on the bandwagon, a development that—given the purchasing power and broad market presence it represents—may spur more mainline distributors to devote attention to establishing reliable and efficient local-purchase programs.

"From a corporate perspective, we're trying to map out how we think we should best approach sustainability on a nationwide basis, since each market is going to be unique," explains Aramark Regional Manager Dave Shamel. His responsibilities include working with Yale University's high-profile Food Sustainability Project to procure local ingredients (Aramark manages Yale's dining operations).

"To manage that, we're working with Sysco and its operating companies to identify local suppliers and consolidate their products. We also work with a secondary supply channel. For example, there's a local producer in Connecticut called Fowler & Huntting that utilizes some 130 New England farmers. They bring their product to F&H's distribution center, where it's staged and then sent out to our customers. So rather than 130 farmers trying to deliver to all these sites, we have one."

Aramark's perspective is national. Smaller, regional contractors like Parkhurst Dining Services and Cura Hospitality often work more informally. Jamie Moore, director of food & beverage for the Eat 'n Park Hospitality Group, which includes Parkhurst and Cura, manages the company's FarmSource local procurement initiative and he often gets personally involved in locating local Farm-Source suppliers.

Moore cultivates local grower contracts through state and local agricultural organizations (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, the NY Dept. of Agriculture, etc.) and passes them to Eat 'n Park distributors. "For example, if I'm looking for tomatoes in Western Pennsylvania because the grower we use can't supply all of our needs," he says, "I may give a name to our produce distributor and say, 'Here's another grower.' So I'm sort of behind the scenes, pushing farmer names and saying, 'Give these guys a call!'"

Looking for a Few Good Farmers...
In expanding its Sustainability Project across all campus dining halls this fall, Yale has the benefit of lessons learned over the past three years at its pilot site.

Among the lessons: a flexible definition of local. "We don't want to draw a circle around the campus and say we won't buy anything outside of a 150 mile radius," says Dining Services Director Don McQuarrie says. "You want to be able to deal with folks who may be a little further-away as long as they support sound ranching or farming practices and you minimize the fuels used to get product to you."

Still, supply reliability remains a challenge. For instance, recently the grower supplying local tomatoes for a signature salsa had a crop shortfall due to excess rain, forcing a resort to alternate— California, in this case—channels. "But that's just part of the game when you're dealing with a project like this—you have to stay flexible and nimble," McQuarrie comments.

"Flexible and nimble" also applies to logistics. Mc-Quarrie cites one small spices/flavoring supplier. "He can't really make 11 stops around campus, but we have another supplier that repacks and delivers his products to our different sites along with its own product."

On a more modest scale, "We find suppliers through word of mouth" says Louella Hill, the "local foods ambassador" who works with Brown University to tap local food sources. "The word on the farm-street is that Brown is interested in buying."

Hill concedes that part of the reason Brown's program has had the success it has had—this fall it was using local apples, peaches, milk, eggs, honey, tomatoes and green beans and had just inked a contract with a processor to process Rhode Island potatoes—is that it is small enough to benefit from the efforts and enthusiasm of people like her. Hill is a recent Brown graduate who meets with farmers, organizes events and even takes a hand at loading and unloading trucks. Right now, the local product "basically complements the bulk of the meal, which is supplied by large, mainstream suppliers," she says.

Operations with more modest foodservice programs than a major university have had greater success in deriving more of their total food orders from local sources. The Unquowa School in Fairfield, CT, decided a year a go to commit to local purchasing as much as possible, and its charmingly Capra-esque catalog of suppliers illustrates the ad hoc nature of local sourcing.

In place of the major prime distributor it used in the past, it now uses a small local food purveyor that gets its produce from local farmers, says School Head Sharon Lauer. "We also have a relationship with the Farmer's Cow for dairy, with Stuart Family Farms Beef and we get our eggs from a farmer right up the road. There's also now an organic farm up the road, and they provide us with greens and other items in the fall and spring.

Good Things in Small Packages...
In public schools, bid requirements, growing seasons in counter-alignment with school years and tight finances make sizeable commitments to local purchasing difficult. Still, many districts are taking at least small steps toward some local procurement.

In Wisconsin, a program initiated by a group called Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch works with a grocery coop's central processing kitchen to chop and deliver locally grown green peppers, onions, potatoes and carrots to middle and high schools in the Madison district, where they are used to make soups.

"The orders are placed by the schools to the coop, which in turn contacts its local farmer suppliers" says Wisconsin Homegrown Project Coordinator Doug Wubben. "If an item isn't available locally, the co-op orders it from its distributor and gets it through their normal channels, just like for their retail stores."

Larger institutions are also beginning to experiment with local products, but, like the contractors, most prefer to work with major distributors because of volume demands. In California, the Kaiser Permanente hospital chain recently initiated a program to incorporate local product into patient meals through an agreement with distributor Lee-Ray Tarantino, a regional Sysco-owned fresh produce specialist. Local growers contract directly with Kaiser and work through the traditional packing houses that have supply relationships with Tarantino. The consolidated orders are then delivered by Tarantino to a central kitchen where Kaiser's patient meals are produced.

It's hardly a finely tuned machine, but those involved in farm-to-kitchen programs say their efforts are helping prepare for a more efficient system down the line.

"Once these things take root, they have a way of growing exponentially," says Chief Business Officer Dave McConnell of Kenyon College in Gambier, OH, where about a fifth of the dining hall menu—including dairy and meat as well as fresh produce—now comes from local sources. "Its just getting past those two or three years until you figure out the system."

Going Whole Hog, Steer

Robin Gaines, support services vp at the Bartels Lutheran Retirement Community, greets one of her many local suppliers.

Robin Gaines has a beef with a local rancher. Actually two. Each month.

Gaines, who is vice president of support services for the Bartels Lutheran Retirement Community in Waverly, IA, purchases two full head of cattle each month from a local farmer. They are then slaughtered and processed at a local meat locker.

"It doesn't cost any more money than if I'd buy it from a regular vendor," Gaines says, "because I get the whole animal at a single price per pound. So while I'm paying more for hamburger I'm paying less for stew meat, roast, minute steaks and those kinds of things. And I'm paying way below market value on prime rib and filet. So it's a wash. We use the expensive cuts for special meals because we can afford to do it. For example, today everyone in the house will be having prime rib. At $2.11 a pound I can afford to feed prime rib to all 200 people and staff."

In addition to the beef, Gaines also buys milk and cheese from a local producer who runs both a dairy herd and a dairy, and "lots and lots of produce" from local growers."This summer we got almost all our fresh produce from local farmers," she notes.

Even in the winter, Gaines will still source as much produce locally as she can—hydroponic tomatoes, onions, potatoes and winter squash. She also extends seasonal bounties, thanks to a 440-sq.ft. freezer. "This year, for example, we froze sweet corn, so in January we'll have fresh corn," she says. Commercial produce purchases are limited to must-have commodities like chopped lettuce and carrots, as well as two to three lugs a week of grapes, a resident favorite that doesn't grow in Iowa.

"People ask, 'What do you do in the wintertime,' and I say 'What did we do in the wintertime before we had all this?' We had the squash, we had potatoes and we had carrots. I think maybe that is something we need to turn around and get back to."

Gaines claims price differences between local and national vendors are "not a factor" in her purchase decisions, and the relationships she has built up with the local producers ensure vendor loyalty. Gaines initiated the local purchase program with help from the Local Food Project at the University of Northern Iowa, which connects institutional food buyers with local farmers and processors.

Initially,"we were buying from everybody, but it was horribly confusing," she says. "By our third year we'd focused in on relationships with a core group of four growers, plus some specialists for crops like strawberries and asparagus. Every once in a while we'll also get somebody with an overabundance of something that we buy."

The relationships are small-town informal. "Our buyer knows the two farms we buy most of our produce from," Gaines says. "Often, she'll see them at the Tuesday night farmer's market and they'll just sit down and agree on an order right there."

It also helps that Bartels has close ties to the surrounding farms. The sweet corn grower is a neighbor of her parents, says Gaines, and the rancher supplying the beef not only lives a scant five miles away but has his in-laws as residents at Bartels.


National and Local

Delmar Crim, director of culinary operations for Bon Appetit at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, inspects maple syrup being showcased at a local farmers market.

Perhaps no entity in the onsite foodservice world has done more to publicize the value of purchasing local ingredients than Bon Appetit Management Co. Bon Appetit's commitment to sustainability principles dates back to 1999, before its acquisition by current corporate parent Compass Group, when company co-founder (and current CEO) Fedele Bauccio initiated the company's Farm to Fork local sourcing imperative.

Today, Farm to Fork accounts for about 20 percent of total fresh produce purchases by Bon Appetit operations. In total, the company spends about $30 million annually with local farmers and artisans, and supports some 350 local farmers nationwide through its purchase commitments. The policy is part of an intricate balancing act in which local purchasing is integrated with the understandable corporate imperative to realize the cost efficiencies of buying in bulk through Compass's in-house purchase arm, FoodBuy.

"Each account is essentially on its own, we're very decentralized," is how Marc Zammit, Bon Appetit's director of culinary support & development, describes the dynamic."We give our chefs our 17 corporate food standards, and we give them a blank piece of paper, and we say,'write the menu.' Obviously, there is a budget requirement they have to comply with, but beyond that they're on their own. Major categories are bought through FoodBuy to maximize purchasing power, but after that chefs can source locally how they want and with who they want, and to menu as they want." That "who they want" means each unit is responsible for developing local relationships."There's no official corporate process to finding vendors," Zammit says."We ask our district managers and general managers to go to the farm, talk to the farmer and evaluate the operation." He likens it to "the old days, when restaurants were dealing directly with farms."

The company does extend information and research resources to unit managers on request. It can for example confirm what constitutes " sustainable seafood" or "natural pork" in order to validate the claims of potential local suppliers.

Logistics are remarkably haphazard, according to Zammit."We have some relationships with some vendors who will deliver locally, but they are few and far apart," he says."Most of the time we go direct. In fact, sometimes our chefs actually go to the farm and pick it up." But, he acknowledges, "because we represent such volume, typically it's worth it for a farmer to come out. Basically, farmers who are big enough or who do farmers markets do have delivery capability."

Bon Appetit chefs and managers also try deal with coops, which tend to command more logistical resources.

A prominent recent example: in the Los Angeles Basin, where the logistics involved with driving the city's notoriously clogged freeways makes deliveries from local farms ruinously time consuming, Bon Appetit has joined with the California Association of Family Farmers to found the for profit Growers Collaborative, in which Bon Appetit is an investor.The Collaborative will consolidate and deliver fresh produce from 30 different small area farmers to all of Bon Appetit's 30 Southern California college and B&I accounts.

"They are now learning the distribution business and it has been a great relationship," Zammit says."We're very excited about it because we'll be able to get great fresh produce into the LA units in a way that we've never been able to before. There will be one bill, one insurance policy, one place to order, one person to call to resolve customer service and customer issues, and, best of all, we're supporting small farmers."

Gleaned Product

Reduces Purchasing Costs

Miguel Villarreal (r.), FSD of seven Marin County school districts, greets the driver delivering locally grown organic produce to Villarreal's school kitchens.

At the Novato and San Rafael (CA) School Districts, they serve some 7,000 meals a day, and all of them have some sort of organic or locally produced component. During the height of the growing season, the district will spend around $2,000 a week on local organic produce, says Miguel Villarreal, director of food & nutrition services for Novato and San Rafael as well as five other districts in California's Marin County.

"How much we buy depends on availability and the season," he says."At the height of the season, more than 50 percent of our purchases are local." Villarreal is able to pull this off thanks to a relationship with a local organic farm cooperative called the Marin Organic Group.

The relationship began about four years ago when Villarreal was looking for a way to leverage the bounty of the local fields in his cafeterias by establishing a connection with farmers. Meanwhile, Marin Organic, which to that point had not tapped the commercial market, saw an opportunity to promote its organic program."They were trying to reach into a different market," Villarreal explains."They saw what a good resource the schools could be."

Marin Organic made a major commitment by going into the distribution business, purchasing a delivery truck that picks produce up from the several dozen different participating farms and delivers to the central kitchens preparing meals for the schools. Novato and San Rafael, Villarreal's biggest districts, have three drop points serving 33 school sites.

"Like any vendor, we get the order form on Friday the week before in which they tell us the availability and the price," Villarreal explains."We place the order on Monday and they deliver on Tuesday." The only invoice is with Marin Organic.

Obviously, the organic product is more expensive than bulk purchases from traditional suppliers, but Marin Organic remains competitive in the bidding because of a special service it is willing to render. After each harvest, the cooperative sends volunteers to glean member fields, gathering up the leftover product (according to Marin Organic's website, as much as a fifth of a crop's yield can be left unpicked because it fails to meet the aesthetic requirements of traditional customers, even though it is perfectly edible).

Villarreal gets first dibs on this product, and because it is free (there isn't even a charge for delivery), it helps defray the cost of the organic product he does purchase. To date, Villarreal's schools have received about 5,000 pounds of gleaned certified organic produce through the program, including potatoes, winter squash, spinach, leeks, beets, carrots, arugula and lettuces.

"Usually I get about a week's lead time," he explains."A farmer will call and tell us,''I will be going out to glean the field.'"

The short notice means kitchens have to be flexible."For example, we recently got a load of zucchini," notes Villarreal."We hadn't planned on menuing zucchini, but we simply sliced them and served them fresh with Ranch dressing."

Sometimes, there is more gleaned product than the schools can use, so the department washes and sacks the excess product, complete with a recipe and a note from Marin Organic describing where the product originated. These are then given away at mini farmers markets set up in district schools as a community service and promotional event for both the nutrition services department and Marin Organic.


a Really Local Source

A student fills one of the five-gallon bags in which fresh milk is delivered from MTSU's dairy to its dining halls.

Onsite operators looking to purchase milk and other dairy products from local sources have to research what's available. But at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, there's no need even to stray off campus.That's because the university—uniquely in the state and among very few nationally—manages its own dairy herd and dairy processing operation as part of its Farm Laboratories academic program.

In operation since the 1950s and updated three years ago with the additions like a separator, homogenizer, temperature control and a computerized monitoring system, MTSU's dairy farm sits about seven miles from the 23,000-student campus. Managed by students with faculty advisors as part of a program to learn about agricultural production, it delivers more than 800 gallons of milk and cream each week to the campus cafeteria and catering operations.The milk is delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays by the farm's transport truck in five-gallon plastic bags and served by the glass.

When classes are not is session or whenever there's excess production, the raw milk is sold to a dairy cooperative, but otherwise its only market is the MTSU campus.

"We've had requests from the outside but we're here to teach the students," says Tim Redd, Farm Laboratories director."If you start taking it out to the marketplace, you're taking taxpayer dollars and using them to compete against the community."

Redd does say that he would like to see the MTSU dairy install bottling equipment so that the milk could be delivered in portioned containers rather than simply in bulk. It would not only open retail sale opportunities but would provide a real-world example for students to learn about business issues like marketing and merchandising.

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