How to… build partnerships with sustainable suppliers

29 September 2011
How to… build partnerships with sustainable suppliers

Nothing beats having a good relationship with your suppliers. Sourcing from farmers who are producing food to your own high environmental standards can initially take time and effort, but restaurants that put in the legwork at the beginning find it pays dividends in the long run. After all, it's what consumers want. Done well it means you'll be serving them the best ingredients at the right price.

A great first step is to visit potential suppliers. Seeing where the produce comes from, understanding how it's produced and discussing the supplier's sustainability standards helps you understand each other's needs and start on the right footing.

Inevitably, restaurants are concerned about welfare and other sustainability certification. So when trying to identify sustainable suppliers, looking for the well known marks like the Soil Association is an excellent starting point.

However, many producers now work to their own high standards without accreditation. A site visit will give you the reassurance you need.

As the relationship develops many restaurants find they can start to plan their menus on the basis of up-to-the minute product information from their suppliers and, in some cases, they can agree months ahead what the producer grows.

Local supplier guides are becoming more common and farmers markets can be a good way of spotting sustainable local producers too.

The Sustainable Restaurant Association will shortly be launching its own supplier approval scheme on its website.

five ways of working with suppliers

1 Get to know your suppliers. Ideally arrange to visit them so you can see where the produce comes from and agree on sustainability standards and expectations

2 Plan ahead with your supplier. That way they can provide what you want when you want it

3 Market your sustainable suppliers on your menus and websites. It's what customers want and it is good for your suppliers

4 While sustainability certification is desirable, trust your judgement and ask producers questions about their practices, as many producers voluntarily work to their own high standards without certification

5 Strike a fair deal on payment terms

The Sustainable Restaurant Association is a not-for-profit organisation helping restaurants become more

sharing the same values

When Rob and Victoria Shenton were setting up Due South in 2003, developing close working relationships with local suppliers was at the heart of their plan.

Eight years on and at least 80% of ingredients are supplied by independent artisan producers within a 35-mile radius of the Brighton beach eatery. "That was our mission statement when we started and continues to be absolutely central to everything we do. We went round identifying suppliers, meeting them and discussing our philosophy with them," says Victoria.

The Shentons still deal with many of those original suppliers, and are now working with other local producers who share the same values. "As well as implications for good farming, it is reassuring to do business with people you know and want to support and help them keep going. We are also finding that our customers are increasingly aware of the importance of local sourcing and expect it from us," Victoria adds.

From experience, Victoria would say that working with local suppliers is a two-way street and in return for her regular custom, suppliers will be receptive to suggestions about different varieties to grow and may well provide the pick of the crop.

Logistics and availability can be a downside. On occasion, Victoria finds herself driving around Sussex collecting produce or biting her nails worrying that the asparagus is not ready to pick. "But it's what keeps the business fresh, alive and exciting and we hope customers are happy to wait with us and gorge on produce when it does come in," she says.

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