The ABCs of marketing to restaurants


By Michelle Frain
Originally posted in May 2004

As with farming in general, there is no recipe for success, so to speak, when cultivating the restaurant market. It represents a huge area of opportunity, and one that is full of risk–but only for the farmer who does not do his or her homework.  With a little self-questioning and a little bit of research, it can offer tremendous financial rewards for the right farm.

For the farmer who is not currently marketing to restaurants, and for the farmer who would like to improve his or her success rate at marketing to restaurants, one of the keys to success is understanding what the restaurateur needs and wants–what is most important to chefs and restaurant owners when buying produce, meat and other products from farmers. 

What’s important to restaurants?

• Quality and consistency:  Quality of product is paramount. This means the product needs to taste good, look good, and be good consistently.  For example, as one professional told me “The corn needs to look the same every time it is delivered.  Cut it to uniform size if you have to,” says Martin Brill, Small Business Consultant.  People, that includes chefs and consumers alike, do not like surprises.  They want to know that what they buy from you will be the same every time.

• Delivery:  Delivery is the biggest issue most farmers struggle with.  Delivery needs to be consistently on time and responsive to chef and restaurant needs.  Deliver when you say you will deliver.  Chefs want to know that when they order something, it will be there for them to use in tonight’s menu.

• Packaging:  Restaurants are used to dealing with big food suppliers with time-tested packaging that takes into account shipping and handling, refrigeration and shelf life, as well as user-friendliness.  A chef does not want to receive a trash bag full of snow peas, for example.  It will not store well, and it is too cumbersome to deal with.

• Product:  Product needs to be different, better, more dazzling than what is offered by the big food suppliers.  Most restaurants are willing to pay a price premium for local farm-fresh food, but only if it exceeds the product supply or quality of what the mainstream vendors offer. They also want the convenience of “one stop shopping,” meaning they want to buy all of their food from one supplier. They do not want to buy corn from one farm, pear tomatoes from another.

Getting started
There are two major paths you can choose:

• working with a middleman, an organization that can help you establish the relationship with a restaurant
• cutting out the middleman, and establishing the relationship yourself.

Many farmers without the money, time or inclination for the communication requirements opt for the middleman. The advantage? Fewer headaches in communicating and following up with restaurants. The disadvantage? Less profit.

For those who opt to go direct, communication, ingenuity, and relationship-building will be key to success.  It is more work, but the financial rewards can be tremendous.

11 tips for success

1. Evaluate. Ask yourself, “Do I have the resources — time, energy, labor, employees, money, equipment (truck) — to venture into this?  Look realistically at your books, your personal life, and the situation, both current and future, of the farm.

2. Evaluate, part 2: Ask yourself, “Do I like to deal with people? Am I ready to deal with people?” Communication and follow up will be critical to marketing to restaurants.  Be sure you are ready, personally, for this type of thing.

3. Network. Learn who is selling to whom, what their experience has been, what packaging they use, where they have demand they can’t meet, where you could complement their operation for a win-win-win situation to expand markets or create greater customer satisfaction.

4. Find yourself a niche. What products are the big suppliers not offering?  Are there specialty, ethnic, organic or other products you can grow that will improve your chances at marketing to restaurants?

5. Look for solutions. Chefs will pay a premium price for produce that’s ready to go, doesn’t interrupt the flow of their fast-paced kitchens, saves them steps, or eliminates cutting. So find out what chefs’ issues are and finding solutions to those problems: clean and bag spinach, peel snow peas, chop carrots, shuck corn …

6. Research. Make a list of restaurants you would like to market to, visit them, take a menu, study it, see what ingredients they use.  Know the restaurant before you try to market to them. Look on the internet, find resources that will help you market. Go to Google or some other search engine and try searching on marketing or restaurant marketing.  Read local newspapers and food reviews to get a better idea of what is doing on in the dining community. (Stay tuned for more internet and institutional resources in future articles on newfarm.org.)

7. Communicate!  Talk to restaurant owners, sit with them, offer them samples of your product, make them lunch, explain who you are and why they should buy from you. Sell your farm and your way of life. Relationship building is probably the single most important key to success.

8. Promote:  Promote yourself with fliers or business cards.  These do not have to be fancy. A simple one-page sheet explaining your product, prices, and who you are is all that is needed.  Always have a business card or small piece of paper that has your contact information, for the chef’s easy reference later. Take pictures of your farm and your family, and include them in the materials you use.

9. Keep your word:  Know what you are getting yourself into. Do not disappoint with a late delivery or insufficient product or supply. If you can’t keep your word, communicate. Call the restaurant and work something out.

10. Keeping your word, part 2: Collaborate. Work out arrangements in advance with other farmers to help you out when your supplies are short. In fact, we’d recommend going far beyond this and making cooperation on the centerpieces of your marketing effort: Work with other to develop a collaborative network: Get discounts on bags and labels through group purchases. Share the investment in a delivery truck. Work out complementary plantings that meet the needs of a wider range of restaurants, and have a standing agreement to support each other when supply is low. Working cooperatively can dramatically improve your chances of success–and it may very well be a key selling point with a restaurant owner, a guarantee that you’ll be able to meet your promises.

11. Timing: Most restaurants and farms have converse hours.  A chef is often going to sleep when a farmer is waking up.  Timing and schedule might vary from restaurant to restaurant.  Know the schedule, to increase the likelihood of your success.  An ill-timed call during the busiest lunch hour can be devastating to making the deal.

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