Where you source meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, bread, coffee, wine, gin, eggs and cheese has never been so important, and so is the ability to prove it. Being able to trace produce and the journey it undertook to get onto the plate puts restaurants in good stead with customers who are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from.
This has undoubtedly stemmed from previous revelations and scandals such as the use of horse in supermarket meat products and the fipronil contamination of eggs. As a result, transparency is key in order to gain consumer trust in what you’re serving and in your overall brand.
Certain accreditations can help with this, as consumers recognise the associations and symbols that they need to look out for. These include the Red Tractor for meat and the Marine Stewardship Council marque for fish, as well as the Soil Association for assurance of sustainability. So, what do they all actually mean?
“Red Tractor Assurance ensures full traceability back to the UK farm where the animal was reared, as well as adherence to rigorous food safety guidelines,” says Creed Foodservice executive development chef Rob Owen. “RSPCA Assured products are also UK-traceable and ensure animals have received high standards of care. Quality Standard marks indicate the country of origin of both beef and lamb so meats carrying the mark have a fully assured supply chain and undergo a strict selection process to ensure quality.”
Some operators delve into the inner workings of their business and review their approach to sourcing and traceability. For example, Casual Dining Group has recently re-evaluated its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) stance, looking at areas such as animal welfare, sustainable sourcing, ethical trading, and nutrition and health. Drivers for this include customers, employees and general society, with efforts that were likely to benefit the brand.
“We have been able to quickly transform our supply chain practices to drive transparency that builds customer trust, enhances our brand reputation and supports our core business strategy,” says Simon Galkoff, group procurement director at Casual Dining Group, which worked with business partners such as SAI Global to achieve its goal. “We have now established relationships with key suppliers who can support us in developing policies and solutions for future supply that will build on our CSR commitments.”
Detailing where produce comes from is one of the key ways that operators can appeal to customers, as the desire for knowledge and reassurance grows ever more intense. However, there is one specific location that is being focused on within research, insight and advice from the industry that is arguably being driven by recent events and politics.
Best of British
The demand for the use of British produce on menus continues to grow. Reasons for this, which most restaurants are probably aware of, include the petition for food to have a smaller carbon footprint, the support of local farmers and growers, and the ability to feed ourselves after the UK leaves the EU. It’s pretty much agreed that the bulk of the pressure comes from consumers, even if it’s just down to perception rather than reality.
“It’s important for operators to consider their customer’s perspective on provenance,” explains Brakes marketing manager Becky Hover. “Many consumers want to know that their money is staying in their local area/county/country and provenance also helps connect them with the produce they purchase. Many associate animal welfare, quality and flavour with British provenance, even though they do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, and this is making provenance increasingly critical, particularly when it comes to meat and poultry.”
While customers do seem to be drawn to British produce, which should, in turn, attract them to operators that shout about it, one restaurant’s approach can differ greatly to another.
“There is now a ‘balanced’ approach with the majority of our mid-level customers wanting high quality, in-season products at a great price,” continues Hover. “Premium-end customers want all of this too, but place a greater focus on locally sourced, as opposed to generic British, produce and make it a USP of their menu, regardless of the cuisine type.”
This suggests that there are some operators that are going British, and others that are going regional.
Last autumn, Craft London celebrated harvest time and its British suppliers during its Thursday Feasts series. Dishes named specific farmers and their locations within the UK, including Good Earth Growers in Cornwall, Manyards in Kent, Forge Farm in Oxfordshire and Swaledale Foods in Swindon. By using such local producers, Craft London also supported the idea that sourcing in this way means seasonality is achieved. This resulted in ingredients such as fermented plums, pickled damsons, red cabbage, beetroot and gooseberries.
The championing of British produce is clearly at large. And why shouldn’t it be? There are some truly amazing things being grown and made in this country, that are often not being given full credit. That being said, operators may need to be cautious about putting too much emphasis on local produce and overdoing the British message.
Quality over locality
Serving British produce can certainly boost a business’ profile with customers. However, while it is so often drenched in positivity, restaurants need to ensure that it doesn’t end up being detrimental to their offering. How many times has something become so common and in-your-face, that it actually falls out of favour with consumers?
“Just because meat, for example, is billed as ‘local’ or has a farm name attached to it, does not guarantee its quality,” warns Owen. “This is something of which casual dining caterers should be wary.”
According to Hover, most of her customers do keep this is mind, as she explains that, while British is a great additional message, quality is the number one priority.
The fear is that the extreme belief in this ‘message’ has created a problem in itself. When pushing it in the marketing of their menus, operators can be found guilty of overusing terms such as ‘local’, ‘fresh’ and ‘seasonal’, so that they almost lose all meaning. Furthermore, when saying that something is ‘local’, how local are we talking? It seems to now refer to anything that originated on the British Isles, but is this expressed to customers? At the other end, convoluting the description of dishes with too much emphasis on their specific local element may only confuse customers.
“It’s important for chefs to use storytelling intelligently,” advises Owen. “An over-the-top dish description such as ‘Roast Cotswold white chicken from upper Kemble, Old Walls Farm purple sprouting broccoli with crushed heritage potatoes from Lincolnshire, and hand-picked Evesham asparagus veloute’ can be simplified to read ‘Cotswold white chicken, local purple spouting broccoli, heritage potatoes and asparagus veloute’. The second description still tells a story and credits the consumer with an understanding of local sourcing without being excessive.”
With this in mind, operators may be better off educating staff on the specific origins of products so that they can inform the most intrigued of customers. Perhaps better yet, they can combine a handful of truly local producers and celebrate these on the menu, with a wholesaler that has the team and logistics to offer complete traceability and produce insight. This way, there may be less pressure to exclusively use small, local producers, and ensure complete transparency for an ending where they all live happily ever after.