Buy Fresh Buy Local: Building Marketing Opportunities for Local Foods in Restaurants and Institutional Food Services

Final Report for LNC06-269

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $108,750.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Rachel Armstrong
REAP Food Group
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Project Information

Summary:

This project was intended to strengthen the agricultural economy of the seven county “Capital Region” of Wisconsin through development of the restaurant and institutional market for fresh, fresh-processed, and locally produced products. This was accomplished by fostering connections between farmers and chefs via individual consultation, events, and training of buyers and sellers. Facilitation of local food purchases was complimented by a branding and marketing campaign, utilizing a customized graphic developed in partnership with FoodRoutes national “Buy Fresh Buy Local” program. The marketing campaign allowed the value-added concepts of “fresh” and “local” to be captured by both farmers and institutional food services. Businesses that partnered with us in our Buy Fresh Buy Local (BFBL) program experienced increased demand from consumers and significantly increased their purchases of local products during this two year period.

Project Objectives:
The following were established as preformance targets at the outset of BFBL

Research and Relationship Building

1. Project staff will attain comprehensive understanding of the constraints and opportunities for increasing purchases of local farm products by restaurants and institutional food services.

2. Farmers and farm groups in the region will become aware of restaurants and institutional food services that are interested in purchasing locally.

3. Restaurateurs and institutional food service buyers will become aware of the farmers, farm groups and brokering mechanisms available to them.

4. Effective purchasing relationships among farmers and farmer groups and institutional buyers (grocers, restaurants, institutional food services) will be established.

Education and Outreach Campaign

1. Restaurants, institutions, farmers and farm groups will find the outreach materials appealing and persuasive and will see the value of becoming part of a campaign.

2. Capital Region consumers will gain awareness about the campaign and about the benefits of supporting “Buy Fresh Buy Local” partners.

3. Two hospitals, twelve restaurants, one government food service provider, and one university food service will commit to purchasing local foods and branding themselves as part of the campaign.

4. Consumer demand for local foods at participating food service establishments will increase.

Brokering Mechanism Facilitation

1. Two hospitals, twelve restaurants, one government food service provider, and one university food service will have the resources, knowledge and skills to implement order/procurement processes, buying from 10 individual farmers and/or 1 farmer cooperative and/or 1 brokering enterprise.

2. Two hospitals, twelve restaurants, one government food service provider, and one University food service will increase orders of local foods from ten individual farmers and/or one farmer cooperative and/or one brokering enterprise

Research

Materials and methods:

Drawing upon experiences in working with restaurants through the Southern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas publication, we understood the need to achieve greater visibility for restaurants buying locally and better facilitation of farmer chef relationships. Before articulating best practices for our program to achieve its goals, we researched the details of other farm-to-restaurant programs around the country. Fellow Buy Fresh Buy Local chapters coordinated by the Food Routes Network were an especially valuable resource. These initial conversations shaped our strategic decisions. One message we heard frequently was that effecting purchasing behavior change from chefs requires strong personal relationships. Printed materials, such as availability lists or farm directories on their own would likely not be terribly effective and would not be the prudent place to devote energy in the beginning.

After researching similar programs we began networking with business and non-profit organizations in our region. We met with many environmental, food and farm-based organizations to discuss our initial strategy and solicit input. We interviewed chefs that had some experience buying local products or expressed interest in our program for their ideas of how best to achieve program goals. Likewise, we initiated conversations with key local farmers and producers who already wholesale to this market, and held a focus group meeting with a larger set of farmers to seek their interest and capacity to sell to restaurants and institutions in the region. These conversations provided good insights, but more importantly served to build community awareness and support of the program, and trusting relationships with all the stakeholders.

Based our initial research, we outlined a pilot program to be conducted from April to October of 2007. A program brochure and mailing was developed to introduce the program to selected restaurants. We invited restaurants to participate based on personal contacts, farmer leads, community involvement, and expressed interest in local foods. The pilot program focused on gathering data from participants regarding their needs, available resources, purchasing habits and marketing desires.

The pilot program included 13 restaurants, one health care facility, and one university food service partner. The program structure and benefits were loosely defined and largely depended on the needs of individual chefs and managers. Feedback from our pilot partners helped refine the program so that in October 2007 we reopened enrollment with the launch of the full program. Our precise offerings and abilities continued to emerge through the first full year of the program. BFBL Partnership required each restaurant to commit to expanding their purchase of local foods as defined in a yearly goal. We also required restaurants to contribute local food purchasing data and communicate regularly with the program coordinator.

BFBL program partners were reached through a single informational packet. Around 40 packets were sent to restaurants, food service operations, and hospitals. All pilot participants with the exception of our single institutional food service partner chose to renew as regular program partners. In addition, eight new restaurants joined as BFBL partners. Demand for our consulting and marketing services was high enough that vigorously pursuing partners was not necessary. They were eager and willing and largely came to us asking to join. We conducted the first BFBL program beginning in October 2007, but decided to extend the agreement period 6 months longer than we planned to April of 2009 to better correspond with REAP Food Group’s other programs.

Managing 25 partners required refinement and efficiencies within our consulting program, as well as development of new resources over the winter of 2007-8. From our pilot program conversations we learned that an event to connect farmers and chefs, as well as an online directory of farms would be especially useful. The expense required for a print guide, and the obsolescence of such a product, persuaded us to produce an online-only guide. Through consultation with a software trainer, we settled on utilizing SharePoint software to create a low-overhead guide to farmers and chefs seeking local buyers or sellers. This development effort was subsidized by the donation of our software trainer’s services in adapting SharePoint to our specific needs.

Our farmer relationships were established and maintained without formal partnership agreements. We already had extensive relationships with farmers through the Southern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas, a consumer resource for farm-direct local foods in it’s 8th year of publication. These farms, plus selected producers with restaurant-exclusive marketing strategies, were informed of the program. For the most part, those farmers with the greatest need for assistance received the most benefit from the program. We created a farmer consulting program that offers guidance on marketing to restaurants, packaging requirements and techniques to maintain restaurant accounts.

In addition, BFBL hosted several events to connect farmers and chefs. “Farmer Chef Speed Dating” was held in late October of 2007. This rapid-speed event introduced buyers and sellers to a diversity of potential business connections. During the summer of 2008 we held a casual social networking event for producers and a farm tour for chefs, both of which were well attended and reviewed positively.

Corresponding to the start of the regular BFBL program, our consumer outreach program launched in September of 2008. REAP’s strong volunteer base and extensive experience in planning and hosting events led us to focus on events as a base for our outreach program. Drawing on our established media contact base, to reach consumers about the benefits of local food and the businesses making them available. We created multiple opportunities for the BFBL partner restaurants to publicly showcase their commitment to serving locally grown foods. “Burgers and Brew: The Taste is Local” was held on May 31st, 2008; Local Night Out was September 9-11, 2008. BFBL partner chefs served burgers at REAP’s Food For Thought Festival September 20th, 2008. We participated in the 2008 Wisconsin Eat Local Challenge and several other events hosted by REAP and other community organizations.

Research results and discussion:
Results and Discussion: Research and Relationship Building

1. Project staff will attain comprehensive understanding of the constraints and opportunities for increasing purchases of local farm products by restaurants and institutional food services

This milestone was reasonably met as part of the one-on-one consulting process at the core of the program. Each partner restaurant’s restrictions and opportunities were discussed, leading to comprehensive understanding. Without a formal partnership program for farmers, an understanding of farmer abilities and desires has been more incidental, although complete.

2. Farmers and farm groups in the region will become aware of restaurants and institutional food services that are interested in purchasing locally.

We created an online guide, offered individual sales leads and hosted two events to guide farmers to restaurant opportunities. These resources were accessible to any interested farmer. Networking led to sales in situations where the needs and desires of the restaurant community matched those of producers. Because we focused on one-on-one contact with our buyers and sellers, this method did not promote broad awareness of restaurant opportunities within the farmer community. However we also believe restaurants do not present positive sales opportunities for all farmers so self-selection was appropriate.

3. Restaurateurs and institutional food service buyers will become aware of the farmers, farm groups and brokering mechanisms available to them.

This objective was reasonably met. A few of our restaurant partners have staff or time dedicated to buying local products so they do not need regular updates on new producers or product availability. We utilized our consulting session at the beginning of program partnership to provide chefs and buyers with specific, relevant contact information about products they could take immediate action on. We chose to make additional information available as requested to avoid overwhelming our partners with information desensitizing them to our communications.

4. Effective purchasing relationships among farmers and farmer groups and institutional buyers (grocers, restaurants, institutional food services) will be established.

This objective has been met. Over two years, thirteen of our 25 partner establishments began new purchasing relationships with local farms, (in addition to existing relationships.) Twenty-seven new farm to restaurant purchasing relationships began. These relationships have been sustained and regular, lasting a minimum of three months of the growing season or of the year for non-seasonal products.

Results and Discussion: Education and Outreach Campaign

1. Restaurants, institutions, farmers and farm groups will find the outreach materials appealing and persuasive and will see the value of becoming part of a campaign.

This objective was met, especially with regard to restaurants. The program coordinator did not have to undertake an outreach campaign to inform restaurants of BFBL program benefits. Our brochure and earned media coverage were sufficient to attract more than 30 inquiries about program participation. Farmers, farm groups and institutions were more hesitant to incorporate the campaign graphics but with such success in attracting restaurants to our marketing and consulting resources, there wasn’t sufficient time to appeal specifically to those sectors.

2. Capital Region consumers will gain awareness about the campaign and about the benefits of supporting “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” establishments.

We have achieved this objective through earned media. The BFBL program was mentioned in at least 49 times in local newspaper, radio, television and newsletter outlets from June 2007 to December 2008. Of these, 28 featured the BFBL program or events exclusively. BFBL event attendance exceeded 1000 guests in total, not including the many reached through events at which BFBL/REAP Food Group had a presence. The BFBL program coordinator gave six presentations at community meetings and conferences in 2008. Our BFBL website hosted around 3700 unique visitors in 2008 with at least half visiting multiple pages.

3. Two hospitals, twelve restaurants, one government food service provider, and one university food service will commit to purchasing local foods and branding themselves as part of the campaign

Twenty-five restaurants have committed to expanding their purchase of local foods and branding themselves as part of the BFBL campaign. Our efforts in reaching restaurants were more successful resulting in greater sales than outreach to hospitals and government or university food service operations. This is a result of our supply base. Most food service operations use processed product such as peeled garlic and washed lettuce. Our local farmers offer almost entirely whole, unprocessed product. Although we have ready-to-use meats and cheeses, the price point food service directors need to meet on these items is well below what local producers need to charge.

4. Consumer demand for local foods at participating food service establishments will increase.

Eighty percent of partner restaurants responding to our survey indicate greatly or slightly increasing support among their customer base for local foods. All respondents see the work of Buy Fresh Buy Local as important to continuing consumer support for local food. BFBL hosted events that have begun, and will continue to build a base of customer support for restaurants that buy local foods. In the past two years we laid the necessary groundwork for an expanded marketing campaign highlighting individual establishments in 2009.

Results and Discussion: Brokering Mechanism Facilitation

1. Two hospitals, twelve restaurants, one government food service provider, and one university food service will have the resources, knowledge and skills to implement order/procurement processes, buying from 10 individual farmers and/or 1 farmer cooperative and/or 1 brokering enterprise.

Although, as outlined above, we worked with twice the number of restaurants and no food service operations or hospitals, we achieved our goal of fostering the knowledge and skills to purchase from individual farmers or brokering enterprises. In an open-ended questioning, the majority of surveyed chefs indicated they received sales leads from the BFBL program, either through our events or one-on-one consulting. We established a website directory of farmers prepared to make restaurant sales. Although survey respondents indicated the website was less useful than program staff for finding local foods, it may take additional time to catch on. In the meantime, it is an excellent tool for the program staff to direct buyers to sellers of requested products.

2. Two hospitals, twelve restaurants, one government food service provider, and one University food service will increase orders of local foods from ten individual farmers and/or one farmer cooperative and/or one brokering enterprise.

During the first two years of the Buy Fresh Buy Local program, partner restaurants spent a total of $1,830,568 on local foods. Local food purchases rose by 42% from $756,130 in 2007 to $1,074,438 in 2008.

Research conclusions:
Significant Outcomes
  • We created a replicable farmer/chef consulting program that emphasizes long-term relationships between buyers and sellers. Our framework for farmer consultation orients the producer to suitable markets, production standards, permitting requirements and marketing. Chef consulting involves assessing the suitability of various local products for the operation according to kitchen procedures, menu items, staff skills, customer base, and other concerns. The goal is to set reasonable expectations and establish connections most likely to result in sales.

    We built a partnership program with clear expectations and deliverables for restaurant, retail, distributor, farmers’ market, and farmer/producer categories. Our partnership program provides consulting and marketing benefits in exchange for a commitment to expanded purchase of local foods.

    We explored the use SharePoint software to create an interactive, searchable website for business-to-business networking that’s easy to use and easy to maintain. SharePoint’s primary advantage is as an affordable data management tool that’s accessible over the Internet. We are unaware of anyone else using this software in this manner.

    We established two new community events that have potential to significantly expand outreach of the BFBL program to new constituencies, while fostering stronger farmer-chef relationships. As fundraisers, these new events will also contribute to the financial sustainability of the BFBL program.

    We successfully fostered increased capacity in distribution of local foods. We facilitated relationships between an existing food distribution company and select local producers in an attempt to begin a local foods division within the distributor’s operations. This work has led to the formation of a new entrepreneurial business (LLC) which will combine the capacity of the existing distribution company with two local foods specialist partners. We likewise have provided consultation for the formation of another farmer owned distribution company. This second enterprise seeks to create efficiencies in distribution for his own products as well as several neighboring farms. These businesses will expand in the future, providing positive opportunities for farmers, chefs and grocery stores to expand production and purchasing.

    The BFBL program was established as a media and consumer resource for information on the benefits of local foods and the businesses utilizing them. This foundation will continue to grow into a broader marketing campaign.

    We explored various mechanisms to educate farmers and chefs regarding their shared needs including tours, networking events and social events. We better understand our constituents’ flexibility.

    The primary goal of the BFBL program- to expand the purchase of locally grown foods in Southern Wisconsin- has been met. Consistent, stable farmer/chef relationships have been established and more local food is being purchased as a result of the BFBL program. We believe we can continue to be a great catalyst toward continued expansion of these markets.

Economic Analysis

Restaurants play an important role in the local food system of Southern Wisconsin. During the first two years of the Buy Fresh Buy Local program, partner restaurants spent a total of $1,830,568 on local foods. Local food purchases rose by 42% from $756,130 in 2007 to $1,074,438 in 2008. Although this increase is partly due to more accurate tracking of purchases, several partners have begun substantial new purchasing relationships since the beginning of the BFBL program. The eight BFBL Partners with little to no local purchasing before connecting with the BFBL program spent a total of $444,900 on local foods in 2008 alone. This represents a significant portion of total 2008 purchases. These relationships were directly supported by BFBL. The BFBL program indirectly supported other local food purchases by making producer contact information more widely available and hosting events to connect producers and consumers to restaurants.

Farmer Adoption

Farms involved in the BFBL program were small to mid-sized farms marketing their products to restaurants. We worked directly with producers to help them connect with buyers, package and list their products appropriately, and provided information on how to maintain restaurant accounts. Farmers increased their sales to restaurants, some quite significantly. Although an accurate survey of farm receipts from restaurants was not feasible, anecdotal evidence indicates farmers have been pleased with their restaurant sales and hope to increase the number of accounts and the volume they sell. A small survey of farmers who were willing to share sales data indicate that our restaurant purchasing data may only be capturing a fraction of the actual farm to restaurant sales occurring in the region.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

In outreach to restaurants and chefs we primarily used existing relationships through the Southern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas and the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch projects of REAP Food Group. We worked with the Dane County Farmers Market and the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition to broaden our outreach. We employed existing networks to reach chefs about the project. Information was sent via email and postal mail.

Consumer outreach was conducted through earned media. This method was successful with 49 media stories resulting, 28 of which were exclusive to the BFBL program.

We published our farmers’ profile guide (containing listings farmers prepared to make restaurant sales and restaurants interested in local products) online.

We published a guide to our BFBL partner restaurants and distributed it on line and in print. Beginning in 2009 the restaurant guide will be built into REAP Food Group’s “Southern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas” which is distributed to 45,000 area consumers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.