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The hospitality industry is catching on to the benefits of offering locally grown food.

Across North America, consumers are realizing the benefits of eating locally grown produce.  It has become such a hot topic that farm-to-table providers are setting up shop all over the continent in the form of online shops, farmer’s markets, and community shared agriculture (CSA) groups.  The National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) “What’s Hot in 2014” chef survey found that locally sourced food was featured in four of the top ten trends of the year.  The top two food trends identified by the NRA are: locally sourced meats and seafood, followed closely by locally grown produce.  The report underscores the fact that restaurant consumers are becoming increasingly interested in knowing where their food comes from. “Consumers want to connect with their food,” says Barbara Haumann, senior science writer and editor for the Organic Trade Association. “They want to hear the story behind their food.”

This trend carries major opportunities for those in the hospitality industry.  Hotels such as Four Seasons Hampshire and Waterloo Inn in Ontario, Canada are just a few examples of hotels already featuring locally sourced food on their menus.  The Four Seasons Hotel in Hampshire, for example, has been working with local growers and producers since the hotel opened.  The hotel grounds sport a 500-acre estate where executive chef Cyrille Pannier oversees the cultivation of fruit, vegetables, and herbs served in numerous menu items within the hotel.  Pannier’s love for the outdoors, exploring, and nature-based activities, fuel his need to project those values into the food served from his kitchen.  It is expected that more hospitality restaurants will trumpet their local purchasing, and as Pannier aptly puts it, “follow the production process first-hand, from plot to plate”.

Even Hotels, a new brand from InterContinental Hotel Group, are adopting this trend into their marketing strategy.  Even Hotels Brand Manager, Adam Glickman commented on how guests at all price points seek “greater control—whether that relates to how they work, eat, communicate, or anything else.  The demand for healthier options that still taste great is key”.  Even Hotels is the first brand to offer guests “Go” options, take-out food selections that are balanced meals pre-ordered at night to be picked up the next morning as the guests leave.  Beth Scott, Vice President of Hilton Worldwide’s Food and Beverage states that “guests want to eat local and they should be able to do that right inside their hotel”.  Hilton is experimenting with a new “Herb N’ Kitchen” concept, which offers guests unique dishes which are both named after and sourced from local locations.

There is no uniform definition for local foods given that the industry is relatively young and unregulated.  “Local” can mean the food comes from around the corner or across the state. Many industry professionals agree, however, that the rule of thumb that should be adopted for local ingredients is that the items come from within a 150-mile radius of where they are to be consumed.

Local ingredients are sometimes less expensive than organic food and ingredients trucked in from different geographical areas.  The average premium for organic ingredients can be as high as 100 percent for vegetables, 200 percent for chicken, and 300 percent for eggs.  That is not always the case for local ingredients, which can cost less to transport because of the shorter distances to the stores.  Additionally, farmers are understandably excited about this movement, and will strive to provide a discount to businesses who want to be involved.

Technology mammoth Google, has also hit recent headlines for its effort to serve food prepared using ingredients sourced locally near the company headquarters in Silicon Valley.  Google relishes its food program, and the food policy aims to source food that is local, seasonal and organic.  Google employs a full-time ‘forager’ who ventures to nearby local food markets and picks the freshest produce available.  The daily menu is then created based around the forager’s selections.  Their food policy aims to prevent food containing artificial additives, pesticides or steroids from being served in Google cafés.  When it comes to seafood, Google purchases only species caught locally from independently managed fisheries.  The Mountain View campus is close to the ocean, and thus, Google has been able to forge relationships with local farmers and fishermen.

Sourcing food locally is, however, not without challenges.  It can be a major logistical problem for food service operators.  Some hoteliers feel that sourcing from dozens of local farmers and suppliers is not a cost-effective use of precious management time and talent.  They believe instead in the economies of scale derived from working with major food service wholesalers.  The establishment of new business entities known as “food hubs” aligns the demand for locally grown foods with the ease of one-stop shopping.  Food hubs are intermediaries between farmers and large scale wholesalers, operating at the center of a network of individual, small-scale farmers and producers.  They provide logistic support, marketing, and food safety expertise.  

Food hubs increase the availability of seasonal products by maintaining relationships with farmers spread over a broad geographic area.  Thus, when one farmer’s crop becomes exhausted, another farmer, located in a different geographic location, can continue the supply of produce.  Food hubs also help to reduce wastage by matching supply with demand.  If there is a surplus of a particular food item in one area hubs make the excess product available to dealers in other areas.  Additionally, by offering food safety advice, as well as owning specialized packaging facilities and equipment, food hubs play an important role in keeping locally grown products wholesome. This is done by increasing awareness throughout the food distribution system, as well as ensuring compliance with various State and Federal food handling regulations.

Through sustainable food programs such as edible gardens and community supported food programs, restaurants, hotels and organizations are achieving their goal of using local produce.  By using locally sourced food ingredients restaurateurs show that they care for the food served on their plates, where it has come from, and how it can improve both the environment and the local economy.

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