Advice to Small Scale Farmers Wishing to Work With Restaurants

A fantastic way to earn a regular income from your produce is to establish a commercial client in the form of a local restaurant. But how do you find that restaurant, how should you approach them, how will it differ from a traditional farm gate sale and what should you expect from working with a chef?

 

Filtering The Search For a Restaurant

Just because a restaurant is local to you, does not make it the ideal commercial customer for your farm. There are a few prior considerations that you need to bear in mind before contacting all the restaurants in the area.

Depending on the scale of your operation you need to start off by finding restaurants that will use the quantities that you can supply. It is quite shocking to those not in the catering industry, exactly how much stock restaurants go through, even the seemingly small businesses. Be honest from the start about the scale of your farm and how much produce you can regularly supply (remember many restaurants have huge seasonal variances), also think realistically about how often you are able to deliver and what notice you require prior to each order.

This leads nicely on to my next point, which is to find restaurants that work with your pricing. The general rule of thumb is, restaurants charge three times the amount of what ingredients they put into a meal. The other two thirds cover profit, labour and overheads. If a restaurant’s menu charges £15 for a ribeye steak and chips but you require £10 for a rib-eye steak, then you can’t have a working relationship with them. When you are thinking about developing a price list for commercial clients, remember they are going to expect a discount from what you are displaying on your website/market stall. This expectation is not unwarranted however, due to the size and regularity of their orders you can afford to offer them a markdown on your usual prices. Furthermore unlike attending a farmer’s market for instance, you do not have the initial pitch fee or dedication of time to guarantee a sale. Generally, we offer a 10-20% discount depending on the client. If you are worried about losing money, offer buying incentives instead i.e. spend £50 and receive free delivery, spend £100 in a month and get 15% off etc.

You may think to only look at local businesses, however cities, such as London, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester, may be home to the type of chefs and restaurants that want to serve your produce. Couriers and clever packaging (mentioned in detail below) can allow you to bring your product to a different audience but be careful. Taking your produce away from a local audience can reduce the appeal of your story (discussed further in this earlier post), which is where your unique selling point a.k.a. USP is usually centred. Customers love nothing more than to eat produce grown ‘just around the corner’, ‘less than a mile down the road’, or ‘on the farm behind the primary school’. It allows the customers to feel a connection to what they are eating, it is also GREAT advertising for you if they decide they want to try more of what you produce and for a very environmentally aware audience it ticks the boxes in regards to food miles reduction.

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How Restaurants Differ to Farm Gate Sales

Selling to a restaurant is completely different to a direct sale to a member of the general public. To begin with it is important to note that most chefs will only want to work with the prime cuts, which means you are going to have to come up with a plan for the rest of the animal. Be clever with the leftovers. Mincing unpopular joints can mean they could be made into burgers, meatballs, sausages and of course… mince! Although chefs may not want these products, they will work well on farmer’s market stalls and you can sell these items to mobile food vendors.

In addition to this, chefs are extremely unlikely to collect their produce, they are busy people, so you are going to have to factor in the cost of delivery into your pricing or work out what it will cost you and be clear that it is going to be added on to every invoice. If you are considering approaching restaurants that are not within a realistic driving distance of your farm, which is likely due to the notorious rurality of most farming enterprises, or you do not have the time to be out in the van dropping off their orders, look into courier costs. A lot of UK based couriers – APC or DPD – will not insure perishable goods but they are prepared to deliver them. You could alternatively look at chilled courier companies who are used to delivering such items, but they are specialist and therefore expensive. My best advice is to invest in the packaging instead, companies such as WoolCool offer environmentally respectful packaging that will keep your package’s temperature for up to 48 hours.

Chefs will also differ from your traditional direct sale because they will require ultimate consistency and reliability. If a regular customer comes to a farmer’s market and you have sold out of sausages that isn’t uncommon, though you may have a dissatisfied customer it is unlikely to be truly detrimental to the relationship. They may even come earlier next week or ask you to put some aside for them in the future. If a chef who always orders 20 rump steaks a week from you cannot fulfil their usual order, it could mean the end of your working relationship and an extremely dissatisfied client. Similarly, if they ask you to deliver at 11am every Friday, you make damn sure you are there every Friday at 11am. It is likely that the delivery date/time is vital to their schedule and chefs are very schedule-orientated. Having good communication with your client is key here, if for any reason you cannot deliver what they usually order, tell them as soon as you know, even before they place their regular order. If you cannot make your usual delivery slot give warning and offer alternatives, be apologetic and perhaps offer a discount next week. These clients will be your bread and butter money, if you look after them they can provide a consistent income for your business.

Another change from the norm, will be the specific requests of the chefs. They may want their joint cut in a certain way, packaged in precise quantities or pre-portioned to work with their menu. Offer complete flexibility in this respect, rather than stating what you make available for everyone else is all you offer. If they are asking for something you cannot do, perhaps a local butcher can help you out, of course factor in this additional cost and propose it to the chef, the likelihood is they will choose the cheaper option anyway and you can stick to what you are used to.

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How To Approach A Restaurant

It is uncommon, though not unheard of, for anyone but the chef to make decisions about where their produce is purchased, especially in the small-scale restaurants that you are likely to be contacting. So when you are contacting such establishments be clear that it is the chef, or whoever makes the buying decisions, that you would like to talk to. Restaurants are busy places so be persistent with your calls but not annoying, choose to call at quiet times, such as before 12 noon or before 5pm. Once you get the chance to speak to someone, send out a price list and ask what free samples they would like to try. A taste test is simply the best way to show what your produce is all about.

When you speak to chefs have confidence in what you produce on your farm, tell them your story and discuss what goes into what you make – a farm tour is a fantastic way to do this. Be sure to highlight the differences between what you produce and what a chef can buy from a wholesalers, you need to make them aware of your USP and what they are missing out on. Their focus will be on quality, flavour, reliability and convenience – bear this in mind when marketing what you can offer.

It is vital to remember during the whole process of approaching commercial clients, such as restaurants, cafes or pubs, not to take rejection to heart. Of course in the small-scale farming business, a rejection or negative feedback are too often felt as a direct criticism of your farm. There are so many factors involved when a chef chooses a supplier and different chefs have different motives when it comes to their own business, there is no way you can meet all their desires and tick all their boxes so don’t ever think you can. If you are a small-scale producer, it will only take a few loyal commercial clients to provide you with a consistent income but to get those loyal few you are going to have to face a few ‘no’s first.

 

Overall restaurants and chefs can be very beneficial clients for small-scale farmers but they do require a different style of supplying and marketing that your traditional customer. The main points to take away from this post are to be brave, be confident in your farm and be prepared to be flexible to please such important customers.

Speak soon

Katie x

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