Cowee, M., Curtis, K., Gatzke, H., and Morris, R. 2009, Buying Local: Perceptions of High-End Chefs in Nevada, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension

Introduction

According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), Nevada’s restaurant industry is expected to experience the fastest growth of any state in the U.S., in terms of jobs and sales, between 2009 and 2019. Given the number of fine dining establishments in the state, direct marketing to chefs offers producers a potentially profitable outlet for products. To gain a better understanding of how high-end and gourmet chefs perceive local products, an in-person survey of 31 chefs in Nevada was conducted in the summer of 2009. This fact sheet provides an overview of the results of the survey.

The surveyed chefs represented restaurants in Carson City, Fallon, Henderson, Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada. On average, the chefs said their restaurant serves 187 meals per day with an average price of $60 per plate.

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Defining “local”

Survey respondents were asked to define what they considered “local” to mean in relation to distance from their restaurant. Nearly 41 percent of respondents indicated that they felt “local” applied to food that could be sourced within 150 miles of their operation, while 34 percent felt that definition could be expanded to 350 miles. Approximately 22 percent felt that “local” could be defined as any food source in Nevada, while another 3 percent felt that “local” could also apply to sources in California. These results are encouraging for Nevada growers interested in direct marketing to chefs, as it shows a relatively narrow definition of “local.”

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Sourcing local

Respondents were asked how they would prefer to source local products, if given an option. Forty percent of respondents said they would prefer to work with a representative from a farmer group or cooperative, while 34 percent said they would like to work directly with the farmer, 17 percent said they would like to work with a food broker, and 9 percent said they would like to purchase their local foods at a farmers market.

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These results indicate that more than half of surveyed chefs would prefer to source from someone who works with farmers as opposed to farmers themselves (57 percent considering those who wish to work with a representative and those who wish to work with a broker). This may be an issue of wishing to keep contact as simple as possible by going through one source rather than a variety of sources. Individual producers who are interested in working with chefs may consider working together with other producers to elect a representative to coordinate with chefs. However, given the small sample size for this survey, it is just as important to note that the other 43 percent of surveyed chefs wish to make purchases directly from the farmer, either through a scheduled meeting or at a farmers market.

Contacting chefs

The surveyed chefs were asked how they would prefer to be contacted by sources of local foods. Nearly half of respondents said they would prefer to be called on the telephone, 30 percent said they would prefer an e-mail, and the remaining 21 percent said they would like to be contacted in person.

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Given the responses to the previous question, these results show that when making first contact with a potential chef customer, calling the chef or sending him/her an e-mail is preferable to coming to the restaurant in person. Once initial contact has been made, producers should consult the chef about his/her individual preferences for future contact.

A follow-up question asked the chefs what time of day they would prefer to be contacted. This was an open-ended question so the responses are somewhat subjective. However, over half of respondents said that morning was best for them, with several respondents specifying that this was between 9 a.m. and noon. Twenty-four percent of respondents said they prefer to be contacted midday, and 18 percent said they prefer early morning, which was specified as prior to 9 a.m. Six percent of respondents said they prefer to be contacted in the afternoon.

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Regardless of how the definitions of subjective terms such as “early morning” are interpreted, it is very important to note that few chefs wanted to be contacted after noon and none said they wanted to be contacted in the evening. For high-end restaurants, evening is often the busiest time of day as the evening meal is when the bulk of their customers dine. Producers should make note of this and avoid scheduling meetings or making phone calls after the early afternoon. As mentioned before, once contact has been established with a chef, his/her preferences should be noted and worked around if possible.

The chefs were also asked how they would prefer to be made aware of the availability (seasonal, monthly, weekly, etc.) of local products. Sixty-nine percent said they would prefer to receive an electronic newsletter by e-mail, while 26 percent said they would prefer to consult an up-to-date website and the remaining 5 percent wanted to be contacted by phone.

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Most small-scale producers do not have the time to manage their own Web site and may not even have to time to put together a newsletter. This is another instance where combining resources might be beneficial to producers. Working together could make the cost of establishing and maintaining more feasible for producers, while working together to contact chefs and make deliveries could diminish those costs as well.

Chef perceptions of benefits of local foods

The surveyed chefs were asked whether they believed that sourcing and advertising the use of local foods provides added value to their menu or improves their business. Over half of respondents, 55 percent, said they feel that local products add value and/or improve business, while 26 percent said they agreed with the statement and are currently making local purchases. The remaining 19 percent said they do not believe that local products add value or improve business.

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Although this was a small sample of chefs, they represent the key fine-dining areas of Nevada. The fact that more than half of them indicated a belief that sourcing local products is valuable but were not currently doing so indicates that there is room for local producers to work with high-end chefs.

Chef ratings of product characteristics

The chefs were given two lists of product attributes and were asked to rate their importance on a scale of one to five where one indicates not important and five indicates extremely important. The first list asked chefs to consider how important the attributes are when the chef is selecting products for his/her restaurant, and the second list asked them to rate attribute importance when considering purchasing local products.

For attributes to consider when selecting products, both quality and uniqueness were rated higher than price, indicating that chefs are not primarily concerned with the cost of products as much as their quality and marketability. Price was given a slightly higher average rating of importance than locally grown and organic or natural production. This may be a reflection of the surveyed chefs not having a preference for these product attributes, or alternatively it could be a result of chefs not being aware of the benefits of these attributes. Educating chefs about the benefits of locally grown and differentiated products might encourage them to view these aspects in a different light.

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Personally knowing the grower was given a much lower average rating than all of the other characteristics. This is an area producers wishing to supply to chefs should consider emphasizing. Developing a chef-producer relationship is mutually beneficial in that the producer has a guaranteed buyer and chefs have the opportunity to influence the producer to try growing a newer or greater volume of products the chef wants.

When considering purchasing local products, chefs rated origin/freshness and consistent quality highest, and rated these two attributes and seasonal availability higher than price. These are the product characteristics producers should emphasize when approaching chefs about developing a relationship. Receiving product samples from growers was rated much lower than the other characteristics. This indicates that chefs will likely purchase local products that meet their other quality and preference requirements without a sample, however, samples can be used to show chefs the quality of products in the beginning of a relationship or to introduce chefs to products with which they may be unfamiliar.

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Case study: Producer Jesse Scott of Alamo, Nevada

As part of this study, an interview was conducted with producer Jesse Scott of Alamo, who currently supplies fresh local vegetables and hormone-free dairy products to executive chefs in Las Vegas. He provides chefs with samples of new products, allowing the chefs to see that his hormone-free dairy products are lighter and taste better in creams and baked goods than conventional dairy products.

His advice for producers wishing to work with chefs is to establish a relationship with them, listen to them, and watch the types of products they are using in the kitchen. Additionally, producers should always be consistent with delivery and quality of product. His main concern with supplying chefs is that the time investment and cost of delivery are higher than some chefs are willing to pay. This is another example of how producers working together could help one another mitigate such costs.

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Conclusion

A survey of 31 high-end chefs in Nevada revealed that they have a relatively narrow definition of the term “local,” they would prefer to make local purchases from a farmers’ group representative, they would prefer to be contacted by phone or e-mail, mornings or mid-day are the most convenient time for them to be contacted, and they would like to be notified of product availability through an e-newsletter or Web site. Additionally, about 80 percent of the chefs felt that serving local foods increases value to restaurant customers.

References

National Restaurant Association. 2008. “2009 Restaurant Industry Forecast.” Online. Accessed November 2009 at 2009 Restaurant Industry Forecast.

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