Americans are voicing increased concerns about the foods they put in their bodies, a message that is being heard — and responded to — by chefs and restaurateurs across the country.
Menumakers are striving to render the dining experience more transparent by addressing such consumer queries as where does their food come from, what’s in it and how is it made. At the same time, many are modifying their menus and purchasing strategies, and stepping up the use of ingredients that are of superior quality, locally sourced, pristinely fresh, free of additives and generally perceived as being more healthful.
Industry experts regard this intensifying focus on ingredients and sourcing as the direction many more restaurateurs will be taking in the future. “It’s not a fad, it’s a long-term trend,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president-foodservice strategies for WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio. “We will continue to see [the use of] better ingredients and more transparency as to where these ingredients come from.”
Local ingredient sourcing — which also encompasses the burgeoning farm-to-table movement — is gaining traction throughout the industry. Many chefs and restaurateurs are purchasing their produce, meats, dairy products, seafood and alcoholic beverages from area farmers and other local suppliers, often emphasizing the provenance of such foods and beverages on their menus or via their serving staff. A growing number of consumers have come to associate the trend with the serving of fresher, more wholesome and authentic ingredients, and now expect to find it in certain dining experiences, most notably in higher end restaurants.
“It’s increasingly important,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. in Chicago, “especially to the Millennial generation.”
Technomic cited “micro-local” as being one of 10 foodservice trends to look forward to in 2015, while “locally sourced meats and seafood” and “locally grown produce” ranked in first and second place, respectively, in the National Restaurant Association’s Top 20 trends for 2014. Hyper-local sourcing — such as from restaurant gardens — was No. 6 and farm/estate branded items was No. 10.
Datassential also finds that Americans are warming to the idea of local sourcing and the focus on better-quality products. The research firm says 84 percent of consumers believe it is increasingly important for chains to offer fresh, local, organic, and/or natural ingredients. “Instead of basics, we’re seeing more premium, interesting ingredients and flavors showing up on menus,” says Datassential senior director Jana Mann.
However, Technomic’s Tristano maintains that the local sourcing trend must gain yet even more traction before it seriously impacts most consumers’ ordering behavior. “It’s important now, but when it comes down to changing the behavior of the majority of Americans, it’s not quite there yet,” he says. “Only 40 percent of consumers indicate that local sourcing influences their behavior. It’s three to five years off before local goes from a ‘nice-to-do’ to a ‘must-do.’
“But, yes,” he adds, “we expect to see more of it.”
The trend — whose influence varies depending upon the type of restaurant — is being fueled by an increasingly food-savvy public that wants to know more about what is being served to them and is prompting chefs and restaurateurs to trade up to better-quality ingredients.
As part of the movement, some chefs have aligned themselves closely with suppliers and products they believe reflect their restaurant’s philosophy and commitment to quality food preparation. Restaurants like Savory Maine in Damariscotta, Maine, and Farmhouse Tavern in Chicago make local products the stars of their menus. Savory Maine, for instance, says 90 percent of its products are state-sourced, while FarmHouse Tavern sources its ingredients from farmers, brewers and suppliers in states along the Lake Michigan shoreline, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois.
Stephanie Izard, executive chef and co-owner of Girl & The Goat and Little Goat Diner in Chicago, is a long-time advocate of farm-to-table dishes. She has partnered with Kraft Foodservice’s Philadelphia Cream Cheese and showcases the versatile dairy product in a range of sweet and savory dishes. Izard won a James Beard Award in 2013 as “Best New Chef: Great Lakes,” and is the winner of the fourth season of Top Chef, Bravo’s cooking competition show.
While local sourcing and the trend toward menuing authentic ingredients has already spread throughout the higher end restaurant community, it also is making itself felt among chain operators as well. Ype Von Hengst, co-founder, executive chef and vice president culinary operations of Silver Diner, the 15-unit regional casual-dining concept based in Rockville, Md., says he makes his menu as local as possible.
“It supports the local economy, creates jobs and often gives me a fresher, better product,” he says.
Von Hengst purchases produce and fruit from nearby suppliers in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, dairy products from Pennsylvania, flat iron steaks from Maryland and Virginia, and fresh lamb burgers from Pennsylvania. Since Silver Diner began emphasizing better-quality local ingredients, Von Hengst says the concept has enjoyed 57 months of increasing sales. “That tells you the consumer appreciates what we’ve done with local products,” he says.
He says the public’s growing knowledge of food also is impacting the trend toward the use of “real” ingredients. “People don’t want to see food additives or artificial chemicals or flavorings,” he says. “So our goal is to make food as pure and wholesome as possible.”
One of Silver Diner’s top-selling dishes is a roasted vegetable salad with champagne dressing that showcases such local produce as butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and beets. “People know about better ingredients and are switching to healthier foods,” he says.
For some operators, local sourcing and the use of higher caliber, “real” ingredients can fulfill another role in a restaurant’s mission. Walter Staib, chef-proprietor of historic City Tavern in Philadelphia, says the farm-to-table movement forms an integral component in the 240-year-old restaurant’s effort to recreate authentic dishes from the American Colonial period.
“Whenever we can buy from Amish farms in Lancaster County or farms in New Jersey or other local vendors, we do,” Staib says. “Freshness and quality are very important to us.”
So is historical verisimilitude, he adds, noting that the Tavern tries to use only ingredients that might have been served in Philadelphia in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, Staib says the restaurant uses many pounds of cream cheese, which was introduced into the region by the area’s original German settlers. In addition to being featured in such desserts as cheesecake, City Tavern offers savory dishes like smoked salmon roulade with cream cheese and knishes with cream cheese and basil.
“We’re a restaurant that relies on our reputation,” Staib says, “so for us it has always been this way. I believe that the best ingredients give you the best results … and I think the consumer is aware of that, too. We always try to use fresh products and foods that are authentic. Our reputation depends on it.”