Diners’ expectations have shifted
In the past, local and visiting diners would search out exotic ingredients and meals. Local products were for home, not dining out, and certainly not a priority. Restaurants made names for themselves on providing diners with meals full of imported ingredients. A couple of big shifts have reversed this, with people now placing a higher value on local products.
One of these shifts is an increased understanding of the environmental impacts of producing food. After years of excessive monocultures, breeds inherently belonging to a given ecosystem have been gradually reintroduced. Protecting biodiversity has become a well-known necessity which can be noticed with the reappearance of some ‘forgotten’ varieties which used to be grown in the area. As a result, more local specialities can be found in the menus, which is also advantageous for the local economy.
Another shift is because of the ease of travel. In the past, there was very little chance of many people travelling to the source of exotic ingredients, so the restaurant industry was responsible for introducing new flavours and cooking styles to local customers. Now, many people would prefer to have meals based on typical local ingredients of the area they visit.
What local products can you offer your guests?
What is the focus in your local area? Does it form part of your restaurant experience? This depends on your region. Some areas have obvious links to produce and any restaurant would be ill-advised to ignore them. A prime example is Tuscany – could you imagine going to a restaurant in Tuscany and having Australian wine on the menu?
There are many regions which have signature products and have built their tourism on promoting these products. But there are also many areas which do not have a defining food industry. Where do you start then, to promote local produce to your restaurant guests?
An easy place to start is to remove imported bottled water from your menu, instead offering local spring, filtered or tap water.
Another great start is to look at your menu. Do you have seasonal menus with local products? Do you clearly display the regional certifications and logos guaranteeing that the product has been grown and harvested in harmony with nature?
Help is available
There are a number of organisations in Europe that will help restaurant owners by putting them in touch with local producers. If you are in the UK, Sustainweb can help. Across Europe, Slow Food can help with local information. Many areas also have regional food groups, which can be great sources of information and assistance.
However, remember that sometimes local does not mean eco-friendly. If the product has to be grown in heavily heated greenhouses, it may mean that it does more harm than actually transporting it from its original place! So do not go extreme in sourcing all your menu with local products. Keeping some imported goods on your menu because you know they are more environmentally friendly is actually a sign of environmental maturity.
It is good to add information to your menu about your providers and showcase the labels and certifications your food has been awarded. It is a way of educating your diners about the environmental impacts of food and promote the local products which are truly beneficial for your region. It is a sign you support local farmers and producers and care for the environment.
Shifting to local products in your restaurant can have so many benefits…linking farmers with diners in the fewest possible steps, promoting local strengths and promoting your restaurant as an environmental leader and valued contributor to the success of your region.
Spread the news
Educating your staff on local products, and any stories surrounding the source of the products they can share will engage your diners with the movement of food from farm to plate. Inform them that not only ‘food miles’ matter (i.e. the distance the food is transported) but the conditions in which the food is produced. They should feel proud of supporting agricultural practices that preserve biodiversity and minimise emissions to water and air, as well as respecting the seasons of each type of product. And when these can be coupled with local production, even better.