Marketing Local Food To Restaurants

June 18, 2019


If you've started or are planning to start a business growing or producing local food for local sales and consumption, then you've probably thought about selling your stuff to local restaurants. You may have evolved from backyard or kitchen hobbyist, to your friends' and neighbors' favorite treat provider, to serious kitchen table-top entrepreneur to the star of the farmer's market. You may even have succeeded in getting some of your best stuff onto local retailer's shelves.


And you've undoubtedly learned a ton about producing, branding, packaging and marketing your food products for shoppers and for retail buyers.


Which is why it will be hard to hear that you'll need to set aside much of that learning if you want to successfully sell to restaurants.


But you do. Selling your local food to restaurants is not just like selling to supermarkets and specialty grocers.


To successfully sell to restaurants you'll need to get inside the heads of owners, general managers and especially chefs. You'll need to understand the business of profitably running a restaurant. And you'll need to be willing to think differently about how you can build your local food brand and your business.


The good news is that partnering with the right restaurants can pay all kinds of dividends for your local food business and help position you for future growth.


I spent several months visiting with Michigan restaurateurs whose focus is on creating great cuisine with local ingredients and on supporting local food producers. You'll meet several of them here and I’ll share some of their insights about how local food suppliers work successfully with their businesses. I also met with local food entrepreneurs whose businesses and brands are at a range of different development stages and whose restaurant relationships also run the gamut from wanting to sell to restaurants to selling to hundreds of them. You'll also meet several them in this discussion and hear about their experiences and insights, their lessons learned and some of the tips and tricks they've used to overcome common hurdles to success with restaurants.


I'll also offer marketing insights gleaned from my years at Branding and Shopper Marketing agencies creating, launching and promoting local, national and global food brands.


First, some background -


Americans are evolving from a "Fast-Food Nation," where the need for speed and convenience created an entire industry of basic gut-filler roadside brands. A survey from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that between 2013 and 2016, more than 36 percent of adults – that's more than 1 in 3 – consume fast food on a given day. So we're eating our share of fried burgers, nacho grandes and pizza slices.

But at the same time, we're becoming more of a "Fast Foodie Nation," in which we crave more quality food and appreciate finer cuisine, while still needing speed and convenience.


This evolution is driven by two inter-connected and over-arching trends - both of which should benefit local food entrepreneurs:


The first trend is the Democratization of Good Food. Cheap, high-speed shipping and digital communication have made fresh-ish, high quality global market goods available just about anywhere in the first world. In Matt Ridley's book, The Rational Optimist, he compares the average Western diet to that of Louis the Fourteenth (XIV) in the 1700's - by far the richest person in the world. (We win.)


Not only do we have access to more high-quality food and to a greater variety of foods than ever before, we also have a greater appreciation for really good food than previous American generations.


You can call it the "Anthony Bourdain Effect." More than at any other time on this planet, we crave and high-quality food. Even when it's basic, we still want it special.


Fast food is evolving into fast casual. McDonald's is selling lattes and "signature" sandwiches like Pico Guacamole and Maple Bacon Dijon MADE WITH artisan grilled chicken, for Pete sakes!


And while fast feeders are reaching up, fine dining is becoming more accessible. "Fine Casual" restaurants are placing less focus on service and more on food quality and taste. Chop Shop in Denver. Martina in NYC. Barzotto in SF. ChiKo in DC.


Local food folks I spoke with reported that somewhere between fifteen and twenty new restaurants are planned to open in metropolitan Detroit alone.


With all of this interest in good food and all of this new access to good food, we must be dining out a lot more often, right?




The NPD Group reports that the shrinking middle class isn't going out as much, because they can't afford to. Baby Boomers - those folks born after WWII up until the mid-1960s make up about 40 percent of the US population. They are shifting out of their peak restaurant-going years. Millennials are the next big generational cohort, those born from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s. They are driving the trend toward more meals eaten at home (prepared at home and carried-out to home) than out-of-home. Between growing meal delivery services like Uber Eats and GrubHub and DoorDash, plus in-home entertainment like Netflix and OnDemand, and the fact that video chat, texting, Facebook and the like enable us to keep up with friends and family without leaving the couch, it's no wonder that it takes more to get us out of the house.


So when we DO go out to eat, we expect that much more.


More quality. More creativity. More adventure. More meaning. More "Instagramability." That's the second trend. And it's why more restaurants need the cache of high-quality local ingredients, now more than ever.


Because what and how we eat have become another important way we portray ourselves to the world. Like the clothes we wear and the cars we drive.


Like any other brand, restaurants are in a constant battle to differentiate themselves from all the other food choices we have. And local food can help them create differentiation better than any other ingredient partner.


Local food is made with passion and extra care. It's personal, not mass-produced. It has a story that is much more than its basic elements.


With more restaurants leaning into movements like Root to Stem, Whole Animal Butchery, Waste Reduction, Food Transparency - locally-sourced food supports and validates.


It's eating for a cause.


That's what's in it for restaurants - why should local food growers and producers want restaurants as customers?


Restaurants pay more for your food than you'll get at farmers markets or through CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs.


Restaurants provide you with guaranteed sales for your food, which I don't need to tell you is a huge benefit for perishable goods.


Restaurants also may require far less processing of your food, which can save you tons on time and labor.


For the right local food suppliers, selling to restaurants can also offer excellent opportunities to optimize your products and to intelligently expand your range of products, through partnership and collaboration.


If you can understand the goals and motivations of your restaurateur customers, then you can offer them products that add value for which they will pay you top-dollar.


So, let's explore the mind of the restaurateur.


Other businesses are about volume, or margin, or EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortization).


As several chef/owners of fine dining establishments told me - Restaurants are all about TIME.


Nothing eats into a restaurant's profit like excess labor costs. That's the whole point of the "Fine Casual" concepts I mentioned earlier. Creating more affordable fine dining experiences by cutting-back on front-of-the-house labor costs for things like table service, check-out and table bussing.


But no one has found a way to cut back on a restaurant's backroom labor - the work that goes into dish prepping, cooking and plating, without impacting meal experience, taste and quality.


Which is why every restaurant's prep stations and pantry and cooler areas are organized for proximity, speed and access.


If you can internalize your restaurant customers' need for speed, you can add value to your goods by anticipating ways to help them save time without negatively impacting food quality or consistency. For example,


Delivering well-washed produce, enables the restaurant to get away with just a quick rinse at kitchen prep (and they may not rinse at all).


Delivering pre-mixed salad greens, allows the restaurant to skip a step at salad prep.


Delivery in the restaurant's preferred serving sizes, will save the restaurant time on portioning.


Delivery in totes or racks that fit into the restaurant's storage system saves tons of re-packaging time.


Of course, you can ask your restaurant contacts how they'd like your goods delivered, but you may find that they aren't able to provide the information you need.


Several local food producers I spoke with were ingenious in how they uncovered opportunities to save their restaurant customers time and become a preferred supplier.


I spoke with growers who took kitchen jobs in specific restaurants - the places they had or targeted as customers - ideally in the kitchen, but any access will do - to learn how they could improve the fit of their products into that restaurant's operations.


Others worked restaurant deliveries - even as volunteers - for other grower and producer outfits - to learn how they could process and deliver their own goods for maximum restaurant value.


Besides backroom, processing and prep time, you can also make the time chefs, owners and general managers spend ordering and paying your accounts more efficient.


Several chefs shared examples of weekly and even daily texts and email newsletters sent to them by local food suppliers that detailed prices and items for sale. Combed with a quick response mechanism will streamline ordering make itemized invoicing easy to provide.


You can help your restaurant customers who use more flowery dish descriptions in their menus by including useful phrases in your product lists. This can be a time-saver for the right restaurant partner. Others may find your heirloom tomato poetry a hassle to read through, so knowing your audience is key.


Monthly or some other regular invoicing schedule can also benefit restaurant managers and owners who don't want to stop everything to cut you a check when you deliver. It may be hard to do when you're getting started, but the chefs and owners I spoke with said that it's appreciated when you can do it.


Speaking of deliveries - make them as frequently as the restaurant needs them and you are able. And ideally - make deliveries yourself to cement your relationship with your customers. Chefs really like this personal approach and even expect it of local food entrepreneurs. Many of the growers I met were committed to personal deliveries, especially those who are just getting started with restaurants.


If personally making restaurant deliveries doesn't make sense for your business, you should still find a way to meet regularly with customers. You physically standing behind your products says a lot. Plus - you'll be able to take comments and suggestions and deal immediately with any complaints first-hand. You'll also be able to better understand your customer's operations and how you can add value to your relationship.


I met growers and producers who are using distributors for their deliveries, but also schedule regular visits to remain in close contact with their customers. Some also use their farmers market presence to connect.


You'll need to find the combination that works best for you and for your restaurant customers, with the objective being open and active communication.


Whether you're currently selling your products to restaurants, or plan to, you should be nurturing your local food brand with restaurant business in mind. The restaurant is your primary audience and it's their needs you need to address with your brand.


Restaurants are a brand, just like a retail store is a brand. Stores sell products that help them emphasize their store brand. And the companies that want their products featured in the store will collaborate with them so that both the store's and product brand's needs are met. That's the essence of Shopper Marketing.


Local food can deliver on a huge range of benefits that positively impact a restaurant's brand imagery - like organic, GMO-free, reduced carbon footprint, sustainability, local labor support, teaching business skills, supporting challenged workers.


But it's to your advantage that you emphasize the benefits your brand delivers that support the restaurant's brand.


For example - butchery that uses the whole animal may be the most important pillar of your meat larder business, even though your operation is also committed to GMO-free products. If the restaurant you're targeting for business differentiates itself by being GMO-free, you could miss a sales opportunity if your emphasis of whole-animal butchery gets in the way of communicating the GMO-free approach you also deliver.


Many food entrepreneurs got into this business for the independence it can offer. Several local farmers I spoke with noted how challenging it can be for the grower community to sacrifice some of their control, even with the objective of improving their business prospects.


So, I get that subjugating your key brand benefits to a restaurant's may feel like a bridge too far. But it's a business decision you can make that can have real consequences.


Let's talk a bit about the care and feeding of your local food brand.


Except for those local food products that are served directly to restaurant customers with their packaging - we're mainly talking about beer, wine, spirits; most are used as ingredients and rely on the restaurant to call them out. I'll speak in a few minutes about when getting on the restaurant's menu may be important to your business.


In most cases, the target audience of your local food brand-building is working at the restaurant - usually the chef and their staff.


I said earlier that the restaurant business is all about time. Restaurants are the super-speedways of business. Everything in restaurant operations needs to happen fast and all at once. During business hours, your restaurant customers are multi-tasking at 70-plus miles an hour.


How can your local food brand be noticed and remembered in that kind of environment?


I suggest that you think about everything they see, touch and experience about your brand and your business as if it's an outdoor billboard sign.


The special challenge of billboard advertising is that it forces brands to boil-down their key selling message into something recognizable and persuasive as we race by at 70 miles an hour.


Here are four things to help you create successful brand billboards for your restaurant customers -


1. Your Brand's Essence - Decide on the one thing above all other things that your local food brand stands for to this audience. The one thing that sets your brand apart from the restaurant's other suppliers.


2. Consistency - Once you decide on that one thing - stick to it. Always support it and never contradict it.


3. Repetition - Treat everything from you that your customer meets as an opportunity to deliver that billboard for your brand. Don't miss an opportunity. You'll find that many opportunities don't cost cash, but they do require planning.


4. Multi-Media - Deliver your brand messages by whatever mediums are most likely to be seen and experienced by your target restaurant customers. By "media," I don't mean only standard communications media, like digital and social and text and print. I mean anything and everything that can carry your brand message.


Let's talk about the value of getting your food brand named on a restaurant's menu.


Generally speaking, restaurants name your local food brand on their menu to promote their own brand, not yours. That's just business and there's nothing wrong with it. Your brand supports what they want to communicate about their place to their customers. If it helps you, that's good also.


So, it's a good thing to be included on the menu, in that it validates the connection between your two brands.


Beyond that, it's mostly useful for cross-pollinating your brand for business growth.


The ecosystem of any region's chefs and restaurateurs is relatively small and competitive in a mostly friendly way. That means that most everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing. And they may share local food sources, so you it's probably not vital that you see your brand on the menu, or the restaurant's web site, in order to become known to other restaurants.


If you maintain a farmers market presence, consider cross-promoting with your restaurant customers. Restaurants will usually appreciate the support and your business will gain chef validation.


Inclusion on the menu will probably be most valuable if you have, or plan to have retail distribution, like at specialty markets and groceries.


Before I end this discussion with a list of top restaurant marketing tips, I'd like to cover an issue that's struck me as I've spoken to restaurateurs and to local food entrepreneurs.


It's salesmanship.


Several chefs told me that they've found sales skills lacking among many of the local food entrepreneurs they meet. Which to me sounds like there is opportunity for those of you who can step-up their sales game.


Meanwhile, many folks I've met at farmers markets and local food events shared that while they'd like to start selling their goods to restaurants, they weren't particularly confident in their ability to make that initial restaurant connection.


I'll tell you that every local food grower or producer I spoke with who works successfully with restaurants could tell me the story of how they began selling to restaurants.


While among that group there were those who I'd consider "natural salespeople," I'd wager that more of them had to work hard to get past initial misgivings about reaching-out and connecting with chefs.


They found a whole host of different ways to do it, but the key thing was they just did it.


That's the first restaurant marketing tip I'll offer -


Make the connection. I mentioned earlier that there are a bunch of new fine-dining establishments opening over the next year in metro Detroit alone. They and others like them around the state will need your food.


Chefs are people, too. They have hectic jobs and are constantly dealing with crises, but they do get breaks. The Happy Hour at Roast used to find many of Detroit's chefs sharing stories over an after-lunch-shift beer.


Saying "no." Sometimes, the order they want just isn't ready. There are festival planners who will ask you for free food. There are even restaurants that will want to charge you for inclusion on their menu.


Be really careful with customization. Chefs can change their mind or get fired.


Develop "Dish Vision." Understand how your food will fit into what the chef is trying to create. Understand how your food will be used by the restaurant.


It takes a team. No one is great at everything. Partner. Outsource.


If you have questions or would like to talk about marketing your brand to restaurants, contact me at