How to Sell Produce to Restaurants: 11 Tips for Modern Farmers

What Chefs Want…Besides Your Farmed Food

Knowing how to sell produce to restaurants is another part of farming, says Wendy Baroli. “If you’re in the business of farming, you also have to be in the business of marketing. And that’s what a lot of farmers are really bad at.”

Wendy is owner at The Farmer’s Table at Girlfarm. She, along with farmers like Craig Frezzette of City Green Gardens, comprise a network of individuals driving northern Nevada’s local food movement. Whether they have Wendy’s acreage, or less than an acre like Craig’s farm, they have one goal: grow and sell to chefs within the area.

And the chefs want their products. Fine establishments such as Washoe Public House and 4th St. Bistro offer seasonal menus rotating around what is available locally. Diners want handcrafted creations that may have been picked from a garden just that morning. Operating within the locally sourced model — bringing in products … slicing and cooking … and serving it under high standards — requires that farmers amplify business tactics before jumping into the circuit.

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Have a Business Plan

Craig and his wife had gardened for 20 years, but going commercial required learning how to sell produce before competing within the market. They hit the internet and made a plan.

“I’ve watched small farmers. 10 new farms pop up … two or three years later, they’re not there. It’s more than just enthusiasm. You need to have a plan, even if it’s a small plan,” relates Wendy.

Do Market Research

“You have to be super nimble.” Wendy says, “Shishito peppers were the hottest thing on the market, but next year it might be those little piquillo peppers. Know where to get the seed and know what your chef’s market is.” Wendy picks up magazines and reads food blogs to get a head start on trends before growing bell peppers that might not sell well.

Craig added, “Kale was huge in early 2000s … and now it’s cauliflower. All different colors of it … purple, yellow, and orange.”

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Salad at 4th St. Bistro with City Green Garden’s baby kale. Photo credit: 4th St. Bistro

Have Standards and Be Professional

In the “what not to do” category of how to sell produce, the chefs supply quick answers.

“The product needs to be presentable,” says Natalie Sellers, chef and co-owner at 4th St. Bistro, “not just ripped out of the ground with clods of dirt on them. That’s happened. But it doesn’t need to be triple-washed … I can prep them. But understand that they need to take pride in their product.”

Craig confirmed, “We pride ourselves on a high-quality product because the restaurants I sell to are on the higher end of the scale, so what I sell has to reach certain requirements. It’s much better quality than what you can buy from distributors.”

“It helps if you’re certified in what you’re doing,” says Brett Moseley, chef and owner at Washoe Public House. He explains that, if a farmer raising beef cattle sells to a local meat packing plant with USDA approval, the chef doesn’t have to worry about any of that. He recommends researching USDA certification. “My buddy can’t just bring out a flat of produce that he grew in his backyard.”

Know Your Product

Is it organic? Choice or prime? And are you charging a price that also allows the chefs to make a profit?

Natalie says, “I have farmers come and they don’t know what to charge, if they are going to sell it by the pound or by the bunch, prices at the store, what it costs to grow … certified organic or not? Do you use pesticides? These are all things that I ask them. And, ‘Why should I buy something from you?’”

Many of the higher-end restaurants only buy certified organic.

“I approached the first restaurant, 4th St. Bistro,” relates Craig, “with the knowledge that she only bought organic. I went through the process of becoming certified, strictly so I could sell to people like Natalie.” He adds, “Some restaurants really don’t care if you’re organic or not. And some do.” Once you show that you can use these organic methods, you can establish a certain trust.

Also, says Natalie, “Look on the internet to see what things are going to cost.”

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Craig Frezzette with a superior head of lettuce. Photo credit: City Green Gardens

Hit the Pavement

Brett tells farmers to just get out there and start selling. “I think the biggest thing is to find those restaurants that would be willing to purchase from them beforehand. But there is also a market of just showing up at a restaurant.” Farmers will show up with extra melons, or make calls stating they have more produce, and Brett always says yes. “Not all restaurants are going to say yes when you walk in the door with a bunch of produce.”

That was how Craig began. “It started with a lettuce mix. Because I figured that every restaurant serves a salad. I sent Natalie an email and she said, ‘Sure, I’m interested.’ I said I would bring her a sample and she said bring it to the back door. Then I had enough lettuce to make a regular delivery.”

“You need to know the menu before you walk in to introduce yourselves,” warns Wendy. “Farmers say, ‘You know, I can’t sell anything.’ But part of building a relationship is knowing the menu.”

Respect Their Time

“Sometimes I’m busy and I can’t react to them in the way that they think I should,” says Natalie regarding that moment a farmer walks in with fresh produce. “They’re busy and so am I.”

Natalie recommends having a sales pitch ready. Brett recommends arriving with an invoice in hand.

And Wendy reminds farmers that chefs, “…Are menu planners, nutritionists. When you come in as a farmer, recognize those different hats so you’re speaking their language and they understand that you care about their business, as well.”

… And Yours

That invoice? For six years, Craig used hand-written carbonless slips purchased at office supply stores. When he discovered software that invoiced for him, he was amazed at the hours he saved. “I was spreading myself too thin by doing everything. Write down all of the tasks you are doing and see if there’s a way you can divide that out or make it more efficient.”

Because of time management, Craig only sells to a few restaurants within a three-mile radius of his farm. He will get requests from Carson City, 30+ miles away, and turn them down because travel would undercut his profits and result in substandard produce. He also used to run a CSA but gave that up because it was too labor-intensive. When he focused on how to sell produce to chefs, business took an upswing.

“Value your time,” says Wendy. “You wear many hats, too. When you figure out if you’re making money, are you legitimately counting your time for what it costs?”

But also, be available. Brett says, “I could plan all my produce ordering at the beginning of the week, but then I book an event I wasn’t planning on.” Farmers get the sale when their products are easy to order.

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Farmer, Wendy Baroli, on her acreage. Photo credit: Girlfarm

Streamline the Modern Way

“Organization is super important,” says Wendy. “There are lots of resources available. You do not have to spend thousands of dollars to set up your website to sell your product.”

At Girlfarm, Wendy puts all her available products online so chefs like Brett and Natalie can order without hassle.

“The older farmers are either afraid of the technology or the new, young farmers are so caught up in the technology that they overdo it.” Wendy says, “Everything should be simple and streamlined. So, when you make a relationship with any of your customers, make it easy because their lives are jammed all the time.” Wendy says that farmers that can use modern technology, even just a smartphone, and use an app to send an invoice and it’s all integrated.

Be Consistent

Once you have that account and you’ve mastered how to sell produce to those chefs, don’t waiver.

“If you have a product one week, and the next you’re out, that is going to put sour grapes in their mind,” says Craig, “It’s easier for chefs to shop where they can get products consistently. He also says, “Don’t go in with a list of things that you think you can grow, and it turns out you can’t.”

Part of consistency is choosing products that are easy to grow and can be done well. For Wendy, that product is flat-leaf Italian parsley. It grows in a broad range of temperatures, is easy to pick, and easy to send out samples. “Pick something inexpensive that you know you can do 100 percent every single time.”

When learning how to sell produce, keep in mind that establishing standing orders and weekly drops also helps streamline business because customers only need to call if they don’t need more of your product.

how-to-sell-produce

Have Multiple Markets

Craig warns that things may change. “These chefs come and go. I might have a chef that I’m working with, who is wonderful, and the next day they change chefs. You are at the mercy of the chef or the restaurant owner. That’s just part of the market.”

Wendy experienced that firsthand when she profitably sold Berkshire pork to a local chef who runs several restaurants … and then another farmer offered it $3/lb. lower. It wasn’t the chef’s fault; he had to run his business. “But don’t put all the eggs in one basket. Have multiple accounts. Have direct buy, do farmers markets, have three or four restaurant accounts.” Those things keep her financially stable.

Also, she says, you can’t be everything to everybody. She will never grow bushels of carrots for pickling but she can sell bunches of different colored carrots to the specialty market.

Sell Produce to Chefs

Nurture Relationships

Though markets and trends change, all four professionals emphasize that building a relationship with the chef is crucial when learning how to sell produce to local venues. Natalie, who works with perhaps three farmers in the winter and 10 or more in the summer, states that farmers need to let her know what they have, and at what prices, so she can respond. Emails, texts, smartphone apps, and online networks allow that to happen during times when the farmer may not be out working the farm. “I order food online. I also order through DROPP (Distributors of Regional, Organic Produce and Products) through the co-op from various farmers. There are different ways that people can go about doing that.”

Craig recalls that when he first started out, he consulted with a farming couple that pioneered the area’s local food industry. “One of the tips they gave me was … when you go in, make conversation with the chefs. That’s how you find out what they want.”

Research trends and how to sell produce to chefs … streamline to make it easy for both of you … make that contact … then be consistent.  One or two accounts will grow into a flourishing business that benefits both parties.

 

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