Local produce continues to be a popular selling point for some restaurants, grower-shippers say. But the concept is not without its caveats.
“It’s a great way to promote product,” said Vince Choate, director of marketing for Hollandia Produce LLC, Carpinteria, Calif.
A couple of years ago, locally grown produce characterized mostly “boutique or upscale artisan-type establishments,” he said, but today, “it’s becoming more commonplace everywhere you go.”
At least one restaurant in town promotes Carpinteria produce, he said, and many eateries and even hotels in nearby Santa Barbara talk about local produce.
Restaurants continue to tap into locally sourced foods where it makes sense on their menus, said Courtney Romano of Kirkland, Wash.,-based Romano & Associates LLC, a consulting firm specializing in food marketing.
“This will definitely continue,” she said. “Diners want to know where their food comes from.”
As popular as the idea of locally grown produce is, the concept is hard to define, said Mike O’Leary, vice president of fresh-cut for Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard, Calif.
“Everyone has a different definition of what is local,” he said.
“It could be something coming from two hours away or 12 hours away, depending on how you run your trucks,” he said.
Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill defines local produce as that which has been grown within 350 miles of where it will be served.
The company has exceeded its goal this year to use 10 million pounds of produce from local farms when it is seasonally available, said Chris Arnold, communications director.
“Our use of locally grown produce is part of our larger commitment to serving food made with ingredients from more sustainable sources,” he said.
Chipotle Grill may be the only national restaurant company with significant commitments to local and organically grown produce, he said.
But local doesn’t seem to be driving business for customers of Limoneira Co., Santa Paula, Calif.
“(Customers’) main concern is getting the best-quality fruit for the price,” said John Chamberlain, director of marketing.
The company’s customers seem more concerned about sustainably grown product than locally grown product, he said.
Everyone supports local produce to the extent that they can, said Jay Iverson, partner and vice president of sales and marketing for GreenGate Fresh LLP, Salinas, Calif., which caters to the foodservice industry. And he’s all for that.
“We appreciate that limiting food miles when possible is great thinking,” he said, “but not always realistic.”
For example, he said that even in California, local produce sometimes is not available for several months at a time.
A number of grower-shippers expressed concern about the safety of local produce and the effect it can have on the industry.
“This fall, with the cantaloupe outbreak and recalls, people are starting to take a hard look at local,” O’Leary said.
Boskovich Farms is proud of its strict food safety standards, he said.
“We have to be careful that local growers operate under the same standards as primary suppliers,” he said.
“Local might be a good thing, but it also can have its weaknesses.”
Choate echoed that sentiment, expressing concern that some small, local growers may not embrace food safety regulations like major grower-shippers do.
“We need to make sure that all the practices are there” for all growers, he said.
The Produce Marketing Association is working to see that happen, he said.
“I’m sure they’ll get there.”
If a local grower has a food safety issue, the repercussions spread through the whole industry, Olsen said.
A hole in the Global Food Safety Initiative is that it exempts small operations, he said.
“There’s got to be a standard for everyone, even if you only have an acre or two.”