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The cultural appetite for all things local continues unabated. Of interest, the ability to source local products from highly fragmented producers dotting the American countryside is increasingly moving toward a new level of aggregation and scale with Web portals like FoodHub and LocalHarvest. On the tactical front of sourcing local at scale, we were pleased to see one of the most impressive examples of local sourcing and sustainability efforts, Bon Appétit Management Company profiled recently by Mark Bittman in the New York Times
Hartman Group recently spoke with Maisie Greenawalt, vice president of Strategy at Bon Appétit Management Company.
Hartman Group (HG): Could you tell us about your foragers? How many of them are there and what are they doing?
Greenawalt: There are 14 of them across the country. They're existing Bon Appétit employees—some chefs, some managers—who had a particular interest in finding and signing up new vendors for our Farm to Fork program, the local purchasing initiative we started in 1999. The foragers also act as clearinghouses for Farm to Fork information for that region. For example, if a chef at a nearby account is looking for a Farm to Fork olive oil producer in California, the regional forager can put him in touch with a current supplier, or if there isn't one, track one down and get them signed up.
The forager is both a conduit for information and a knowledge center. They're keeping their eyes open, going to farmers' markets, looking at web sites, talking to associations, always looking for new and interesting types of products that maybe chefs haven't thought about before in terms of what might be available locally.
HG: Local continues to gather scale, with retailers and restaurants increasingly talking about sourcing locally. As a part of that, are you seeing increased competition at your locations and cafés for supply? Last time we spoke, some of the scale you described was very impressive—you were exhausting the amount of chicken in a region.
Greenawalt: Well, things are still progressing. When you talk about local food growing in popularity, there's a unique component to our Farm to Fork program, in that we're not just talking about distance, we're also talking about scale of operations. So, our Farm to Fork suppliers must be within 150 miles of the kitchen they're serving; they must be owner operated and have sales under $5 million (most of ours are way under that).
For the most part, we're not in competition for these farms' products because we're dealing with smaller-scale producers than many retailers or manufacturers would be interested in dealing with. We do have to compete with independent restaurants, which are more the scale of our accounts. But, we're a great customer; we're an established company that always pays its bills, orders consistent amounts, etc. So the farmer has a lot to gain by dealing with us as opposed to independent businesses that might ebb and flow more.
HG: So you've chosen an approach that focuses on smaller independent producers. This fits with your location-specific scheme where each location makes its own choices and acts accordingly?
Greenawalt: Right. For us, it's really about trying to rebuild the regional food system. So scale is really important — it's not just about distance. When we started talking about "local" (and by 'we' I mean Bon Appétit and the food movement), we were worrying about "food miles" — the distance traveled by our food from field to plate — and the pollution and carbon emissions that come from food miles. And what we've learned since then—we've been at this for over a decade—is that actually food miles aren't really a good proxy for sustainability.
Food miles don't translate into total carbon emissions. In fact, regional systems can be more efficient than local systems if you're looking at carbon emissions, for example. So while we can't discount food miles as a factor, it's not the only factor.
HG: Related to scale, what do you think about Web portals like FoodHub.org or Local Harvest.org as a means of consolidating and aggregating fragmented food producers?
Greenawalt: All of our accounts in the Northwest are members of FoodHub. I think that the local food movement absolutely needs aggregation, and that can either be aggregation of information, like FoodHub, or aggregation of distribution, like Red Tomato.
There have been a lot of attempts at aggregation, some more successful than others; and while I think that aggregation is critical, I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all solution. I think that in different regions, you need different types of aggregators. For example, in the Bay Area our main produce company is happy to act as an aggregator for small farmers for us, but five years ago that wasn't true. Local has become so popular that they understand that in order to keep their own business current, they need to be able to offer small-scale local products.
HG: So, consolidating local is a region-by-region situation that's evolving.
Greenawalt: Yes, it seems like this is changing quickly, and we're in an evolving marketplace for these products. That's why it's important to have these forager positions—because we couldn't possibly sit in Palo Alto and understand what's going on in each subregion in which we operate. We have to have people on the ground who are empowered and making decisions for their area. One of our core beliefs is that a group of people gathered around the same passion will make good decisions.