Over the past decade, there has been a surge in consumer interest in locally grown food products, especially fresh produce. The gourmet restaurant sector has long been a stalwart niche of the greater market, and yet in Nevada ties between local producers and chefs are just emerging, leaving an open opportunity for continued growth and development due to the varied tourism destinations in Nevada. Entering this market requires consideration of the mixed benefits and costs associated with producing for this high quality specialty market, from the potential for increased profits to the need to adjust and absorb differing aspects of the supply chain. Once the decision has been made to enter this market, how might producers ensure success?
This fact sheet will outline suggestions for contacting and building partnerships with chef clients, present product issues that concern chefs and provide tips producers may use to assist them in building effective ties with gourmet chefs. This fact sheet will also stress the importance of forming relationships with chefs and restaurateurs from first contact to maintaining strong partnerships. Background information on market presence, as well as data from a recent chef survey about contact and purchasing preferences, will also be discussed.
How to Make the First Contact
Like entering any new market, making consumers aware of one’s presence and the availability of high-quality produce can be challenging. When entering the fine dining market, this can be an even greater challenge as contact must typically be direct, with no middle-men holding contacts and very few promotional options at hand. Chefs at top restaurants are busy professionals just like the farmers who supply them. In light of this, targeted and respectful contact is key to informing these potential customers of all one’s enterprise has to offer.
In the summer of 2009, a survey of 31 gourmet chefs in Nevada sought to determine their preferences on what they consider to be “local,” how they prefer to be contacted by farmers offering local foods and which food product characteristics are important to them in general and in terms of making direct-farm purchases (see the tables on this page).
Importance of Product Characteristics to Chefs
|Uniqueness of Product
*On a 1-to-5 scale, 5 being "extremely important"*
Forty-one percent of surveyed chefs considered “local” to be within 150 miles of the restaurant, while another 22 percent thought that anywhere in Nevada constituted “local.” When asked how they’d prefer to be contacted by farmers interested in supplying them with local products, 51.6 percent said they preferred being contacted by phone, 29 percent preferred e-mail contact and 19.4 percent would rather have in-person visits. The majority specified that mid- to-late morning is the best time for them to be contacted.
Before contact is made, information about the particular cuisine and background of the restaurant should be gathered so that the message can be succinct and targeted. As one grower from Delaware states, “the high quality and uniqueness of your products should be emphasized” (Russell, 2005). Some chefs may wish to sample produce before purchasing and others may wish to learn more about the specific production practices implemented, including a possible visit to the farm. While a call or e-mail may be the initial contact, a sales meeting should be offered as a next step. Further, be prepared for chef’s concerns, including consistency of delivery, minimum order size, seasonality and pricing structure.
Importance of Product Characteristics When Making Direct-Farm Purchases
|Consistency of Quality
|Information on Seasonal Availability
*On a 1-to-5 scale, 5 being "extremely important"*
Where to Make the First Contact
A majority of the chef survey respondents, 71 percent, said that they preferred to source fresh produce directly from a farmer or a farmers group representative (such as a cooperative manager). Other respondents preferred to purchase from a food broker (19.4 percent) or at a farmers market (9.7 percent). Considering these responses, direct contact by a farmer or cooperative manager might provide the best option for initiating a successful working relationship with Nevada chefs. Effective communication skills and advanced preparation will be key in relaying the opportunities the proposed farm-restaurant partnership can have for the chef’s cuisine and business.
Keeping Chef Customers “in the know”
A significant hurdle for farmers entering the Nevada gourmet restaurant market will likely be the introduction of chefs to the regional availability of produce. Many chefs come to Nevada with the perception that agriculture in the high desert climate is limited or of low quality (Taylor, 2009). Additionally, chefs may not be familiar with the local growing seasons and product availability.
Growers should be aware of, and communicate, what produce performs well in the region, as well as the impacts local conditions may have on flavor, quality, appearance and yields. When working with chefs who have limited experience with this particular region, such information will be an asset.
Once relationships are established, maintaining communication about specialty and seasonal crops is essential. E-mail appears to be the most effective method of informing chefs of seasonal, monthly or weekly availability, with 69 percent of surveyed chefs indicating this as their preferred method of contact. Another 26.2 percent indicated they would prefer to consult a Web site to receive such information, while the remaining 4.8 percent would prefer a phone call.
Consistent communication regarding top-quality produce ready for use is the key to success with chefs. With their largest concerns being taste, flavor and freshness, they will in most cases prefer to purchase items at their peak and adapt menus from there. Further, farmers who are honest about the quality of their produce can increase the rapport and trust they build with chefs; key aspects to partnership building and continued patronage.
From Customer to Partner
Cultivating supplier-customer relationships may bring opportunities for more direct and involved partnerships. Top chefs are serious about their food and about building a reputation of quality and consistency, forming close partnership may offer additional opportunity for growth and success. The same is true for growers, who benefit from the security of the chef providing a guaranteed market, reduced risk, higher prices and even extended marketing opportunities. Growing such relationships can take several years, but the benefits are likely to fully repay the investment (Burt et al., 2008).
Quick Reference: Working with Chefs
- "Grow what you know"
- Know the costs of each aspect of production
- Know regional wholesale and retail prices for your products
- Offer a summary of product line which includes prices, quantities, packaging and delivery schedule
- Be truthful about product attributes and provide a critical evaluation of their quality and taste
- Build strong relationships with chefs
- Offer advance notice of what's coming up
In expanding relationships, chefs and farmers must agree upon the level of involvement that best suits their abilities, resources and preferences. However, in many instances, these grower-chef partnerships begin with joint annual planning of the growing season, choosing together which crops will be planted and when with the aim of maximizing quality.
Other issues that may be discussed in partnerships are preferences for production method, value-added or season-extending practices and more. The structure for making decisions within these partnerships will also vary based on personal preferences and specific situations. Such partnerships may be through cooperatives, formal bilateral agreements, or informal relationships.
Often times, these partnerships offer more than just financial benefits. They can be the catalyst for innovation by bringing together the agricultural knowledge of farmers and the culinary skill of chefs. Such has been the case with grower-chef relationships in New Orleans, Chicago, Cleveland and Santa Monica, among other cities (Howard, 2003), (Gordon, 2006) and (Seasonal Chef, 1996).
Entering the gourmet restaurant market can provide mutual benefits to both chefs and producers. As growers enter this niche market, they must evaluate their enterprise to identify opportunities which fit the fine-dining demand for high-quality, extremely fresh and relatively diverse or unique produce. Effectively communicating the ability to provide these attributes in a consistent manner during first contact with a potential customer will be key to successfully initiating entry into the market. Contact must be direct, targeted and succinct while understanding that chef customers have a high degree of culinary knowledge. In the Nevada market, these same customers may have limited knowledge of local agriculture and produce availability, so continued communication and education on the part of the producer helps ensure success. Maintaining a presence and positive growth within the market calls for the cultivation of strong relationships as success is driven not by quantity but by quality and trust. Over time, these relationships may evolve into closer partnerships where continued mutual benefit is found in joint planning, coordination and innovation.
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Spiegel, J. E. (2007, May 27). State Program Wrestles with Problem of Linking Local Produce to Chefs. The New York Times. Online. Accessed November 2009. Available at State Program Wrestles With Problem of Linking Local Produce to Chefs.
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