WAgN visited Churchview Farm to explore farmer-to-restaurant relationships with farmer Tara Rockacy and chef Kate Romaine.

When they first met, farmer Tara Rockacy and chef Kate Romaine swapped a lot of stories about tomatoes. Their mutual appreciation for locally grown, delicious food is now the foundation of a personal and professional relationship. Tara's vegetables and herbs anchor the Italian dishes served to Pittsburgh eaters in Kate's restaurant, E2. During a visit to Churchview Farm (Tara's farm), the two women shared their strategies to making a farm-to-restaurant relationship work for both of their businesses.

Making contact

There's no exact formula for making farm-to-restaurant relationships successful, but establishing a connection usually falls into two categories: direct relationships and social networking.

Farmer to Chef

  • Farmers and chefs are two groups notoriously difficult to get on the phone. A visit to the restaurant is a good way to make first contact, but not during the rush (avoid the end of the week and dinner time; Tuesday or Wednesday in the early afternoon are best).
  • A chef who is curious about where local food comes from should see the farm in person. A farm visit is a great way to connect chefs with unique aspects of serving local food.
  • In person conversation, regardless of whether it's on or off the farm, should always include a sample and anecdote about the farm product that relates to the restaurant's cuisine.

Person to Network

  • Social networking aims to turn one contact into many contacts. Many restaurants rely on facebook for publicity. Farmers are increasing their presence in the local food system with a following of eaters who tell the world what they are eating on blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Keep track of what people are saying in your area through these outlets and spread the word.
  • But don't rely on the word alone. Pictures are equally important as a well-crafted description. Farmers: tell your story with as many senses as possible when off the farm. Chefs: pay attention to what eaters in your area are saying about local food via events and the internet.

Cultivate Strengths

Farmers should select items to market that are unique and highlight the strength of the farm; chefs should design menus that are appropriate to the local growing context.

  • Chefs design menus that emphasize specialty products that attract an eater's attention. Standard ingredients (i.e. garlic, potatoes, onions) are generally not the champion ingredient of a restaurant's dish and therefore, do not justify purchasing at a higher price from a local farm.
  • Farms plant what will grow well, which requires that chefs become familiar with seasonality and growing conditions that influence the local products available in their area.
  • Every restaurant is different, which is a good reason to know the type of food a chef cooks before making a pitch. It's also a good reason for a farmer to draw on passion - food is an experience. A farmer can increase interest in products by explaining attractive attributes including a product's heritage, traditional and unconventional uses, and how it fits into the farm's growing scheme (not only seasonal but appropriate for climate, soil, better taste etc.).
  • Once a relationship is established, many farms and wholesale cooperatives include chefs in pre-season production planning to determine the kind and the quantity of product a chef will purchase during the growing season.

Focus on Quality

Restaurants demand high quality products, discerning for taste, texture, aesthetics and freshness. Be aware that most restaurants will not use the entire product on delivery day. Farmers and chefs should talk about what each can expect from the other in regards to food quality and maturity.

  • Farmers can work with a chef to establish how long they expect the product to be on the menu and desired maturity.
  • Farms operate under the constraints of nature and time, which requires flexibility on the part of restaurants when it comes to product availability and quantity.
  • Chefs are trained to manage food, meaning they often utilize lower quality product to decrease expenses. Many "seconds" are perfect for sauces, stuffings and preserves. Advantage the creativity of a chef to turn potential farm waste into food for people, which can generate profit for both the restaurant and farm.

Make it Last

A good farmer-chef relationship is often personal, but maintained by an explicit arrangement. Clear communication and effective systems help each person get what they need from the exchange.

  • Small farms selling to restaurants will contact chefs with how much product is available, quality and variety details (taste, texture, color, organic etc.) at the beginning of the week as chefs are planning their menus.
  • Establishing a system to track orders, prices, and deliveries will ensure that chefs receive appropriate product and farmers get paid. Many conventional wholesalers send product lists with quantity and quality specifications on a designated day and schedule deliveries accordingly - a model which may be replicated on the small scale.
  • Check regional and national price lists generated by wholesalers. Know how much a product is worth in other markets and determine price points based on regional prices and farm production costs. The Rodale Institute makes this easier with their Organic Price Report.
  • Deliveries are time consuming for farmers and costly if the volume of product being delivered is small. Some farms charge a delivery fee which covers transportation cost and encourages restaurants to collect their order from the farm if they have a small order. Farmers around the country are also aggregating their product and sharing delivery services in farmer co-ops.

Good Food

Food safety and storage is an important consideration when food is handled on the farm and transported to a restaurant.

  • Farmers and chefs should discuss on-farm post-harvest handling (i.e. cleaning protocol, storage, presence of pests etc.).
  • Farmers must be familiar with food handling regulations specific to food service industries, which stipulate temperature, transportation, and food hazard precautions (go here for PA regulations on food safety)
  • Farmers and chefs will get more from their relationship if they work together to design a system that moves a product from the field to restaurant safely and quickly.
  • Cooking with fresh ingredients delivered from the farm requires that chefs be attentive to how they wash, store and care for such high quality products compared to conventional ingredients.

Additional Resources

Selling to restaurants from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA): https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=266

Local Food Connections: From Farms to Restaurant from Iowa State Extension

Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network


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