Selling directly to restaurants is an awesome opportunity for farmers to diversify their sales, increase their profits, bring visibility to their farm name and brand, and bring cultural "clout" to the farm in both urban and rural markets.
Many farms who sell at the farmers market or operate a diversified CSA could be a great fit for selling to restaurants based on scale and their existing drops to the metro, but don't know where to start.
How do chefs make decisions on what to buy, and who to buy from? Why is it so damn hard to work with chefs sometimes? I thought I had a good thing going with that chef, you say. Why did it fall apart?
Here are a few considerations to make when working with chefs --
(1) Consider the needs and the wants of your buyers. Do their needs match your on-farm capacity?
KEY #1: Start your conversation with questions about their volume needs, and what their customers like best. Be realistic about the volume you can commit to every week -- if they need 300 pounds of carrots, but you can only produce 200, tell them! Don't risk stretching your abilities to promise in the off season that you can't deliver 100% on -- weather permitting, of course! If you are honest and upfront, they might still agree to work with you as you grow your business in the mid-term. Often, consistency is the most important factor for doing business.
(2) Buyers sometimes have a fear of direct relationships.
KEY #3: Chefs are used to 24/7 customer service, their SYSCO rep who they can call on the phone and address if something is wrong. With farmers, they're afraid of being that "jerk" who told a farmer they didn't like their product. Be clear with your buyer that you want feedback when things aren't right, and you are happy to make it right if something goes wrong.
(3) Buyers are introverted and sometimes want to build a relationship that’s strictly business.
KEY #4: Many farmers say things like "the relationship is the most important -- I know my buyers extremely well and that's what keeps the relationship together." This isn't wrong, but I encourage you to think of the relationship as both a foot in the door and the safety net -- not the main attraction. Many chefs do not want to work directly with farmers, because it can be hard to make sure it is a business-first relationship. Make sure you identify their boundaries, and respect their systems. offering them clear information about offer information on a need-to-know basis and identify their boundaries.
Buyers can be afraid of being wrong, because they’re new at sourcing direct from MN Farmers.
KEY: Invite buyers to ask you question as much as possible, and be specific about the differences. Not sure the differences? That’s okay, either ask a produce manager at your local grocery store or co-op, or simply be clear about the details of your own products.
(4) Buyers have the tendency to be “Minnesota Nice.” If a buyer ghosts you, call them up and ask them why. Make sure, again, that they know you’re open to feedback.
(5) It can be “confusing” and “frustrating” for chefs.
KEY: The hard truth is, when you're dealing with bigger buyers it will almost NEVER be distinctly easier to work direct with local farms -- understand what motivates your customers to work with you, and make sure you are delivering on those promises.
KEY: COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE. If you can’t fulfill an order, try to anticipate the issues and tell the buyer RIGHT away -- preferably before it becomes a problem. Communication is the number ONE complaint and number ONE compliment I hear from buyers.
As an example, if you have bug holes in the kale -- it could be totally cool. But if this is the case, check in with your buyer BEFORE you drop it off, so no one is surprised and they have time to fill in the order.
Key 2019 Strategies
Start small with wholesale and build gradually on your existing base. Start spending more time working ON your business, not FOR your business.
Challenge your farm to increase purchases with each existing customer you have, each year. Track this.
Develop systems that work for your farm and match your customers’ needs.
Ask for help!! Use your existing customer base -- Do you have folks in your network that are skilled at something other than produce harvesting? Tap the folks in your customer network to help you with specific projects that align with working on your business, especially in the off season. Your customer base might even be willing to spread the word to their industry connections.
Ask for help!! Set up a one-on-one meeting or phone chat with Katie to talk about your 2019 farm marketing plans. Katie@redmarketmn.com, 218-721-2453, or