Locavore-Friendly Restaurants: The Evolution of the Farm-to-Table Movement

farmer with cows
Farm-to-fork, Locavore, F2T.

Whatever you call it, farm to table — a concept that highlights locally grown, in-season produce — is nothing new. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t innovation and growth around the concept. In fact, the movement is evolving more than ever, and bringing economic growth, delicious food, and innovation in its wake.

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Early beginnings

The farm-to-table movement first became prevalent in the mid-twentieth century, as chefs began to rebel against the burgeoning fast food market. In Berkeley, Chef Alice Waters founded Chez Panisse in 1971, where she championed local, sustainable food that “invited diners to partake of the immediacy and excitement of vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight from the sea.”

In Italy, farm to table developed as the Slow Food movement. Founded in 1986, the Slow Food movement protested a franchise of fast food chain McDonald’s, instead encouraging “slow” food that is sustainably and fairly produced. Today, there are over 150 countries with Slow Food chapters, and over 200,000 members worldwide.

By the early twenty-first century, farm to table become more mainstream, as concepts like The Kitchen in Boulder and New York’s Blue Hill gained momentum. Now farm-to-table restaurants can be found around the world, and locavore restaurateurs are constantly pushing the envelope of sustainable produce and meat.

And the movement has had a positive impact on communities: A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture points to production of local produce and meats in areas with thriving local food systems (which includes farm-to-restaurant sales) as a positive impact on produce sales, improving the local economy.

A hyperlocal movement

As farm to table has expanded, restaurants have started looking even closer to home than local farms. They’ve begun growing their own food. While in-house produce is not new, it has previously been reserved for high-end, Michelin-starred establishments, or restaurants in rural areas with more resources.

Now an increasing number of quick-service or casual restaurants have begun to grow their own produce. California salad restaurant Tender Greens, for example, utilizes hydroponic towers to grow produce on its patios. Chefs can harvest the produce and feature it on the menu as a true “straight to plate” dish.

The rise of urban gardens

Seasonality is often a barrier for restaurants that want to source local produce. A recent study of farm-to-table supply chains conducted in Columbia County, New York, determined that New York restaurants purchased from local farms for an average of only 20 weeks per year. It’s difficult to go totally local when your nearby farms can supply you for less than half the year, while California producers can distribute food to restaurants year-round.

To combat seasonality, some restaurants are turning to urban gardens, and some have even created their own.

Urban gardens can be created in any size or type of space. Urban farmers commonly use hydroponic, aeroponic, or aquaponic technology, and natural or LED lighting. And urban gardens can use up to 95 percent less water than conventional growing methods. With stacked or vertical planting, farmers can increase yield while harvesting all year long.

For example, one shipping container’s worth of plants can produce as much as two acres of land year-round. This creates sustainable produce with less water and no need for pesticides or herbicides.

In Malibu, Square seller Malibu Farms uses produce from its founder’s farm. In Minneapolis, The Bachelor Farmer grows its own produce and herbs on its rooftop garden in the summer and sources local produce and meats throughout the year.

How to get local at your own restaurant

The trend toward locally sourced, seasonal food continues to be a big opportunity for businesses. Here’s how you can begin to implement farm-to-table practices into your own business.

Start small

Forge connections and work with local farmers and suppliers. While it is not always easy and takes quite a bit of effort, demand for local and regional food continues to grow, and restaurateurs feel the effort put into maintaining those relationships is worth it.

Think local

Even if you don’t have a full-service restaurant, you can still participate in the farm-to-fork movement. Coffee shops may pull in pastries from the bakery down the street or bring in local honey for tea. Retailers can include locally purveyed items, whether it’s food or otherwise.

Local items present an opportunity for you to bond with local businesses, and studies show that consumers prefer to frequent local businesses over national brands, so it’s a win-win for everyone.

Have a shop-and-sip

Bring local farmers and purveyors into your restaurant or retail store to sell their products and meet your patrons. This provides a new opportunity for your suppliers and consumers to interact. Provide drinks or snacks to create your own elevated farmers market.

Be a multi-hyphenate

Multipurpose businesses are on the rise. Consider offering local produce at your retail store, shop, or restaurant, so customers can grab some groceries or a coffee while shopping, or restaurant patrons can take their favorite bread home after a delicious meal.

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