Shoshanah Inwood answers the questions farmers want, and need, to know about connecting with local retailers and restaurants.
Q. What’s the first step a farmer should take to sell to a restaurant?
A. The best way to start is by doing a little research.
You can find out which restaurants would be most interested in purchasing your products by reading the “dining section” of your local paper. Look for restaurants that change their menus often and feature a wide variety of specials.
Restaurants often post their menus in their window. Reading a menu can help you get a good idea about the types of foods a particular chef is interested in, and can help you decide if he or she might be a good person to approach.
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Q. How should a producer approach a restaurant/chef?
A. The best time to get a hold of the restaurant is after lunch and before dinner, between 2-5 p.m. It’s best to call ahead (always ask to speak to the chef) and set up a 10-minute appointment to introduce yourself and your products.
The kitchen is a hectic place, chefs have limited time – so come prepared with your sales pitch and don’t be offended if the chef continues to cook while they’re talking to you. If available, it’s best to bring a sample of your product, or a photograph.
Bringing a sample and price sheet is a good way for a chef to get to know what products you offer and provides a mechanism for instant feedback and negotiation.
Also remember to bring a business card or something with your contact number on it.
When you leave, establish if you or the chef will make the follow-up call.
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Q. Do farmers need to have the capability to produce huge quantities?
A. That depends on the specific item and on the restaurant.
For example, one restaurant might be OK with garden variety corn, beans and tomatoes, but having unusual or heirloom varieties (of produce and/or meats) sets you apart in the market, especially if you’re looking to enter the upscale market.
Generally, restaurants will want a large supply of staple items, while products that are more unusual are generally ordered less and therefore require a lower supply.
Also, most restaurants have limited cooler space and may not be able to handle large quantities at one time.
The best way to figure out how much you need to grow is to ask your chef what he or she needs and to define “large” and “small” quantities.
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Q. How might a farmer have to alter his/her production methods to suit a restaurant?
A. Knowing the cleaning and post-harvest handling techniques for your specific product to ensure a shelf life as long as possible is key. Also know how to package your product.
Chefs don’t usually order by pounds, they order by boxes. Asking chefs to show you their idea of a “box” or other unit of measure is helpful.
Chefs may be interested in having you grow specific items for them. Bringing in your seed catalogue or list of livestock varieties is a great way to keep the lines of communication open.
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Q. What do restaurants and retailers want?
A. Restaurants and retailers want to work with someone they can trust and rely on. They also like having the most products with the least number of bills.
If your neighbors have complimentary products to yours, you might consider carpooling and creating a joint distribution route.
Even after you start a relationship with a buyer, don’t stop doing your research. Always ask how they liked a specific product, its appearance, taste, and the way it was packaged.
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Q. What about contracts?
A. Formal contracts are not necessary but there does need to be a mutual understanding between the buyer and the seller.
Defining delivery days, times, payment schedules, packaging, and approximate quantities upfront help to avoid misunderstandings and confusion later.
The key to maintaining an account is a personal relationship based on trust. Calling once a week or visiting with your buyer during deliveries is both professionally and personally rewarding.
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