Each type of customer has a different way of presenting your product to the public. Understanding the way your customers do business can help you sell more by being more attentive to their individual needs. These relate to farm branding, packaging and pricing, among other concerns. Consider their specific situations below.
Restaurants & caterers
Many owner-operated restaurants and caterers have significant flexibility with purchasing. They will likely be looking for a variety of products, though they might not be in a position to buy case quantities of an item. Restaurants who value “local” might change their menus seasonally. An increasing number of young chefs are being trained in seasonal menu planning. This trend is good news for local farms.
Most restaurants will order in smaller volumes than grocers or cafeterias, and they are often interested in a wider diversity of produce. For instance, edible flowers or microgreens are often used as garnishes. Fresh, whole produce tend to be of greater interest than pre-cut or processed options. These restaurants are selling their customers on a meal made with fresh ingredients; they might cook dishes from scratch on premises. Some chefs might adjust their dish according to what is available; others might have a particular vision for a dish that requires specific ingredients.
Cafeterias at hospitals, schools & workplaces
Cafeterias are located in places where people eat but where eating is not the primary reason they have come to the place. Shifts in the food sourcing processes at these institutions are driven by many different decision makers. At schools, it may be parents and local economic development groups. At hospitals, it can be driven by a push towards healthier food options and may be related to Community Benefits requirements in the Affordable Care Act. At workplaces, it may be Human Resources looking to make employees happier or healthier.
Finding these levers and a champion with purchasing power is key to getting in the door at these buyers. Since the constituents pushing for local food are not always the eaters, these buyers are often more interested in metrics and how to tell the story of the impact of their purchasing so that they can report back to the people driving the decisions.
Many cafeterias are no longer independently operated but turn to food service companies. The big three, Aramark, Chartwells and Sodexo tend to buy from local farmers only when it happens through their preferred distributors, like Sysco. Independently operated cafeterias and also some regional food service companies, like Epicurean Feast and Guckenheimer are much more inclined to buy directly from farmers or from networks of farmers. Flik and Bon Appetit tend to have the flexibility to work more directly with farmers, even though they are owned by the same company as Chartwells.
Many public school and government cafeterias have bidding processes and contract language that can either work in the favor or against local farmers. It’s all about who’s writing the bid language. There is no reason that the language can’t award points for local food, and that change is happening in many communities.
Cafeterias often have an interest in slightly processed foods, like veggies sliced and diced or blanched frozen greens, since they generally have less labor available to do scratch cooking. They may be willing to buy local food but they likely won’t want to increase their kitchen staffing. Newer thinking has pushed some cafeterias to respond by offering fewer entrees as a way to use local, fresh ingredients while consolidating labor needs.
Retailers, grocers & farmstands
Small, independent grocers can be great customers, buying significant volume from your producers. But getting a fair price for the farmer at the grocery store often means differentiating their products. As you add additional layers between farms and buyers, the farm brand and story usually is lost. Especially in a retail setting, it is important to make sure a farm’s story follows its products to the shelves to help it stand out among discerning consumers.
Keep in mind that even a small local-oriented grocery store is not a farmers market. Consumers don’t expect to find two-legged carrots and unusual vegetable shapes at the grocery store. They are accustomed to seeing uniform commodity carrots and might think something is wrong with produce that has an unexpected appearance. Unfortunately, if these items wilt on shelves because no one buys them, then the false perception will continue.
For example, heirloom tomatoes that are popular at farmers markets are more difficult to sell at grocery stores. Their appearance is quirky and there is rarely a chance to sample them. Customers are less likely to ask a produce manager about the item than if a farmer was available. Further, if customers squeeze fragile produce to test for ripeness, then the produce is likely to become bruised.
For grocers to sell a product like heirloom tomatoes — or other product varieties that sell at a higher price than their commodity siblings — the grocers need to be empowered with the right marketing tools to sell it to customers. Farmers’ photos, stories and recipe ideas help build trust with customers, and that trust can motivate them to buy something outside the typical commodities found at grocery stores. Certifications such as Organic can also help build trust with the consumer base.
Packaging is also important to branding, freshness and pricing. Even though you don’t want a product to sit on the shelf for too long, it is important to maximize the number of days the produce can look great on the shelf.
Here are some questions to consider:
Can the produce breath? Avoid moisture that can build up on the inside of a plastic bag.
Can customers get a sense of the produce without bruising it?
Red Tomato is a food hub that has a novel way of selling regional peaches and heirloom tomatoes in custom packaging. Their well thought out packaging allows produce to breath and gets the consumers attention without inviting them to touch it directly.
Customers have expectations about prices. So consider the price that items will move at. You might walk through the grocery store or ask the produce purchaser to learn their intended markup. Grocery stores often double the price of produce. Try asking your farmers to resize their product size to meet the cost expectation of grocery stores. Selling an item by the bunch offers more flexibility than weight-based sizes.
Larger grocery stores will be used to ordering in case quantities that may require training for smaller farmers. Be sure to look into industry standards for packing.
If any of the farms you source from have farmstands, then they are potential customers too! Sourcing through your business will allow them to offer a wider variety of local products to supplement what they are already producing, and the added sales help move great volume through your business.
Grocery stores may require food purchased in large quantities to be pre-packaged in consumer-friendly sizes and with consumer-friendly branding that includes the farm name and origin. In some cases, often depending on the cost differential, the grocery store may be willing to repack themselves. Consider also wheels of cheese, which some grocery stores will display and cut on demand to connect their customers back to the story of the product.
Evaluate whether the farmers will do this on their end or whether you’ll be repacking at your facility. Some farmers may not want to break down large quantities into small sizes due to the labor involved. When it comes to grocery stores, it may also be helpful for you and the farmers to see a photo of what their product looks like on a store’s shelf.
Artisan food producers
A jam or pie maker, an ice cream or pickle producer can be an ideal customer, and your business may be a critical link in an artisan food producer’s supply chain to source from local producers. Since these customers often need ingredients of very consistent size and quality, they may need an opportunity to sample and test a few items from producers before then committing to volume purchases. But the artisans need not just be buyers. Your business can be an outlet for their value-added products to be sold to other buyers, including farmstands of the farms they source from.