Are your claims that you source products locally as accurate as your marketing suggests? Emily Manson examines what local sourcing really means and how to ensure your purchasing decisions are sustainable
What does local actually mean? Even dictionary definitions are confused, mentioning both the concept of a small area and the limitations of country boundaries.
Beacon Purchasing's recent survey of its 2,000-strong membership found that 60% of its customers took "locally sourced" to mean within 20 miles of the operation. Conversely, the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) defines it as within 100 miles for London businesses or 50 miles for the rest of the country.
So when we talk about local sourcing, it's easy for the term to become meaningless - another greenwash word being bandied about that has no specific frames of reference or clear parameters for customers to instantly understand.
As Mark Linehan, managing director the SRA, says: "‘Local' is a complicated and too often misused term when applied to restaurant sourcing."
It's clear there are different perceptions of local. So what are the differences and how do they all fit together?
Ideally, local sourcing starts in your back yard. If you can grow your own in your garden, field, farm or allotment, that's pretty much as local as you can get. Failing that, in your town, village or suburb you may have producers or farmers who can provide you with products. From there the circle widens to your region or county and from there to within the country and the UK as a whole.
Given these differing levels of local, what do you need to consider when sourcing "locally", what issues are really involved and how can you make it work for your business?
All businesses need to factor in quality and consistency with whatever they source. John Dyson, food and technical affairs adviser at the British Hospitality Association (BHA), advises businesses to look at what will suit them, depending on the size and scale of the operation.
He says: "The type of business will dictate what kind of sourcing and purchasing you can sustain. Multi-site operations will have different needs from an independent restaurant who can use the local dairy, veg man or butcher. Conversely big hotel groups often use the UK as ‘local' to achieve a consistent supply and capacity."
And if your operation is sourcing locally for environmental reasons, there are further issues that need to be taken into account, not least of which is food miles.
Paul Connelly, director of purchasing at Beacon, says: "Sourcing a lot of different products from individual regional suppliers can result in 10 separate deliveries but it may be possible to source those products in a more efficient way - say, from a distribution hub a little further away but from one hub rather than lots of different trips and the food miles that incurs. It's not as simple as just supporting local."
He suggests that different food categories lend themselves to being sourced locally, such as dairy products like cheese using locally sourced milk, or meat from a local field and abattoir. Other types of product such as fish become trickier, depending on a business's location.
Connelly says: "Operators need to consider whether something is caught or grown locally, just distributed from a local depot or processed and packaged within that region."
He explains that fish from Grimsby can often be taken down to London markets and distributed back up north by a national or smaller supplier. "It's essentially locally sourced but has gone through quite a process and a lot of food miles to get to your kitchen."
Purchasing consortia And national suppliers
Of course, between producers and operators sit suppliers and purchasing consortia - some of whom are national, some regional. Many of these have recognised operators' changing needs and are trying to make sourcing locally easier and more practical through their channels.
National supplier Brakes takes a UK-wide view of local sourcing and now has more than 800 British products on its list; 70% of its prime meat is British and 50% of its lamb is Welsh. James Armitage, marketing director at Brakes, says: "Where feasible, Brakes will source products from the UK."
But increasingly smaller consortia are springing up with a more regional approach. Four Seasons Foods is a family-run company which supplies hotels and restaurants throughout Cumbria and south-west Scotland, It sources the local products and producers, and then offers operators more of a one-stop-local-shop to tap into.
Sales manager James Daniels explains: "We have built up a network of local producers whose products we stock. But we won't use local products for the sake of using local products or producers. The product has to be of a high quality, right for our customers and there needs to be some demand."
But there is often a disconnect between operators' desire to source locally and artisan producers' ability to deliver goods. Other solutions are associations such as Produced in Kent, which provide a direct link between producers growing or rearing raw products and the hospitality industry.
Membership services adviser Jill Sargent says: "Logistically Kent is a huge county. We try to join up the dots so that those operators who want to source locally can also cut food miles by consolidating deliveries with others in the area or dropping products off at halfway points, thereby saving significant delivery costs through economies of scale and reducing environmental impact."
However, Connelly points out: "Don't forget that a national supplier could happen to be your local supplier also, in which case by supporting them you're supporting that business in employing local people and the infrastructure of your region."
So what's the answer?
"The most important reason for sourcing locally is supporting and developing relationships with businesses in the surrounding area - in particular artisan producers that rely on local customers," Linehan explains. He adds that the environmental side and carbon footprint, which may or may not be smaller, and the demand from consumers, should be secondary considerations.
However, Dyson admits that while quality, safety, security of supply and of course price will always be key, "If it is part of your marketing strategy to support local businesses there are good opportunities now to do that and to tap into the increasing consumer demand for those products."
Claire Beard, sustainability manager at leading eco-hotel the Scarlet in Cornwall, knows these dilemmas well. She advises operators to stay true to their values. "It's all about what fits your business," she says. "Your decisions will be different from those of your neighbour but you have to ensure your staff are aware of your business philosophy and make judgement calls based on that. As long as sourcing decisions fit with your philosophy and can be justified within those values then it's the right decision for you and your business."
Take into account the entire life cycle and consolidate orders
As a UK-wide company, Macdonald Hotels' purchasing strategy is for the whole 45-strong chain. Catering director Alan Swinson says: "First we identify a great product - that's the first reason to buy anything. I think the best beef is from Scotland as it's hillier and rains more, producing more natural feed, but pork on the other hand is better down south where it's not so cold and salmon is best from the Shetland Isles. It's about the weather, the climate and the land, then we share that produce across the whole company."
Swinson believes that local can be misleading, and is determined to take into account the whole life cycle of products - including food miles, extra feed or fertilizer. He uses a national fruit and vegetable supplier which has direct relationships with many UK producers, and stipulates purchasing criteria including sourcing and ethical work practices.
"We empower and trust our suppliers to buy from the best source that they can consistently get from," Swinson adds. "Smaller suppliers may also buy from the markets or it may go to a regional hub. This can end up losing quality, compared with the big supplier who has a direct relationship with a British producer."
He is also aware that although little delivery vans may look better than a big lorry, they're not necessarily greener. "Consolidating the orders may be better than a van two or three times a day."
Macdonald's customer policy is not to use the word "local". Swinson says: "It's misused and essentially meaningless as everyone has their own interpretation. It's much better to just say where something comes from, then customers know exactly what you're doing. Where we can, we want to reflect regionality but we won't compromise on quality."
10 local issues to consider
Localism If you're using the term "local" on your menus determine what this means to you - be it a 30-mile radius or within the UK. Tell staff and customers and stick to it.
Quality vs locality Is the best product really the most local product?
Consistency of product Can your local supplier guarantee you a consistent quality?
Quantity required Can your local supplier produce the quantity of goods needed by your operation?
Terrain Local growers producing crops that are not suited to the local soil will need to add fertilizers.
Seasonality Your menus must run with the seasons and be aligned with your growers' crops. Remember that crops can fail.
Flexibility If you want to source from your own locale, be prepared to be flexible and have a quickly changing menu with back-up options if supply can't meet demand.
Regional and national suppliers Don't forget to look at what can be sourced from local producers through national suppliers, regional hubs and consortia.
Life cycle If you're sourcing locally for environmental reasons, don't forget to factor in the whole impact. If fertilizers are needed for crops they also incur food miles.
Umbrella sourcing Don't be afraid to think out of the box. Consider local barter schemes, ethical purchasing consortia, local associations or allotments to help reach your "local" sourcing goals.
Ask the right questions
Elliot's Café near London's Borough Market is not a local-resource restaurant in terms of sourcing from the local area but it does buy all its food produce from the market.
"We try to keep it as local as possible," co-owner Brett Redman explains. "To say you buy from Borough means nothing, as within every market there are good and bad products. You have to go in and use your skills to ask the right questions - for example, about breed and production process - to make sure you're buying the right thing."
The fruit and veg all comes from a farm in Kent but the meat comes from the Ginger Pig in Yorkshire. "It's the best we can get and still from the UK, which is better than buying imported meat," Redman says. Although he accepts that there is some great meat imported from other countries, he has made a point of trying to support British produce as much as possible.
This means first and foremost buying what's in season in the UK - looking for Jersey Royals and asparagus now, and not going for mangoes. "When you can't get things in the UK, you just have to let the net slip a bit wider and look to the European season to fill the gap."
Eliot's doesn't use any big delivery companies, preferring to source from smaller independents. They get their dry stores from a small organic company, their fish from fishermen in East Sussex and Morecambe Bay, while the in-house bakery uses flour from Dorset. "We've gone back as far as we can go with our products' provenance. The sourcing and quality is better once you've established those supplier relationships," Redman adds.
The benefits of buying local
Carl May, Catered4 As a judge of the Flavours of Herefordshire awards, I find it truly inspiring when you see operators take the local product idea and turn it into a successful marketing tool.
But like most trends "going local" has been exploited and the true benefits are rarely experienced. It has been used by many operators as a marketing tool on the covers of menus, with no real substance.
Many clients say "there are not enough local suppliers in my area to make it worth my while", but this has been proved wrong on nearly all occasions.
It's true local producers cannot supply you with all your produce. National suppliers have a place providing branded dry and frozen goods that would otherwise be unavailable.
However local meat, fish, vegetables, breads and cheeses add a real unique and seasonal twist to a menu. Customers want to eat off original, frequently changing menus that offer high-quality locally sourced produce.
I'd advise setting aside an area of your menu, or eatery if possible, informing your customers of your "local ethos".
The advantages are many:
â- Developing loyalty with local people
â- Bespoke products not available outside of your area
â- Freshness of produce
â- Reduced transportation and packaging creating a greener product
â- Appreciation of seasonal products reflecting in your menu
â- More frequent deliveries resulting in less waste
â- It nearly always tastes better
In essence, get out into your local farmers markets and speak to the producers. Look through local papers and magazines and search the net. Sites like www.bigbarn.co.uk will help and you will be surprised what is on your doorstep.
Responsible Hospitality online resource
For more information and advice on how to run your business responsibly visit our new online resource www.catererandhotelkeeper.com/responsible-hospitality.
The Responsible Hospitality channel, supported by Kraft Foods and Gram UK, is designed to offer all the news, practical tips and guidance you need to run your business profitably and responsibly. It offers ways to make money, save money, remain legally compliant and explains how to open new routes to market by developing your sustainable credentials.
Among the issues addressed in the channels we focus waste, recycling, energy usage, social responsibility and ethical food sourcing so that you can easily find the material you need to improve both your bottom line and social conscience.
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