Pete Bonahoon, owner of Galactic Pizza in Minneapolis, prefers that products in his pizzas come from nearby farms. He has provided locally grown ingredients in his pizza since he opened his business four years ago.
Bonahoon uses produce and ingredients grown in Minnesota and Wisconsin whenever he can. To get started, he contacted local distributors, farmers and the Southeast Minnesota Food Network, which provides restaurants, caterers, growers and other institutions access to nearly 90 regional producers. "I had to research in my area to see how I could get locally grown ingredients," he said. "It takes a little effort, but it's worth it."
Some of the ingredients and produce he uses are typical, but at least one of his pizzas is made entirely with locally grown toppings. Because the harvest varies, he never knows what the CSA pizza, as it is known, will feature. Recently, it was topped with parsnip, arugula, garlic scape, pesto and parmesan cheese.
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. To support local farmers, the pizzeria also purchased a share in a local farm. Whatever vegetables and other ingredients are produced from that share are used for the CSA pizza. "They can end up being some weird toppings," he said. The cost of the pizza is $12.55 for a small and $18.15 for a large, about the same as Galactic's other specialty pizzas. But Bonahoon's customers who crave pies made with locally grown ingredients are not complaining about the price. Revenue at his restaurant has doubled in four years. He acknowledges that trying to use locally grown ingredients means he has to deal with the element of unpredictability. For instance, flooding in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the spring affected what local products his restaurant offered. And winters in Minnesota also mean a relatively short window for using local produce.
Bonahoon notes which pizzas are made with organic ingredients on his menus, but cannot do the same with locally grown ones. "We can't mark it as locally grown because (what is offered) fluctuates so much," he said.
Frequent deliveries a key
Nationwide, the local foods market was valued at $5 billion last year and is projected to grow to $7 billion by 2011, according to Packaged Facts, a publisher of food market research.
Although there isn't a clear-cut definition of what make a food product locally grown, the distance most food has to travel to reach the dining table is significant, according to a study done at the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. It reports that the average American foodstuff travels an estimated 1,500 miles before it is eaten.
Ashley Rathgeber, supply chain developer for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Pizza Fusion, is used to such issues. The company, which was founded two years ago, is a sustainable restaurant that focuses on natural and organic ingredients and is as eco-friendly as possible.
Like Bonahoon, she said customers appreciate the emphasis on locally grown foods and does not see the demand for these items decreasing.
"We have definitely filled a niche," she said. "But it's the way society is moving. Look at (the success of) Whole Foods. People want to know what's in their food and where it's coming from."
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Pizza Fusion buys its produce in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
"We'd rather buy lettuce grown in Florida or Alabama than buy lettuce shipped from thousands of miles away," she said.
Locally grown products have an additional attraction, Rathgeber said. They add interest and unique flavors to their pizzas. And when new restaurants open in such locations as Pennsylvania, Washington, New Jersey and New York, they also will rely on locally grown products. "It makes it our menu even more appealing when you can say you offer grass-fed New York strip steak (in New York or Pennsylvania) as a topping," she said.
Her advice to pizza operators looking to add locally grown ingredients is to start slowly. She also recommended asking someone in the business, like a natural food or health store owner, who they use for distribution.
"I like to get a personal recommendation from someone who already uses them so I know what to expect as far as customer service and product quality," she said.
But using local and/or organic ingredients means pizzaria operators may have to change other ways in which they do business, such as ordering produce.
"You'll notice peppers that don't have that wax covering spoil more quickly," she said. "You want to order less quantity, but have more frequent deliveries."
And like Bonahoon, she said one of the company's concerns is to keep the costs of their pizzas at a level that customers will still find appealing, but the trouble is worth it.
"Your customers will thank you," Rathgeber said.