Hyper-local is the buzz word of the moment, and we think it is exciting! Is this something you need to consider, and if so, what does it take to make your food service business offer hyper-local cuisine? What is the culinary experience you can create for your customers from hyper-local food, and how interested do you think your customers will be on menus based on this trend?
What is hyper-local food? As we know, local food is that which is sourced near the place where it is consumed. Local, however, does not necessarily mean in the immediate environs of the consumer. There are definitions such as the one from the United States Department of Agriculture that a local product is one that comes from no more than 500 miles away, while other definitions suggest food from100-150 miles away. Either way, this is not exactly ‘next door’ and can take several days to reach the destination, impacting the freshness of the food and possibly requiring artificial means to preserve it.
Hyper-local, on the other hand, is exactly what the name implies–extremely local–to the extent that the produce is cultivated or grown on the premises of the restaurant offering hyper-local cuisine.
An extension of this concept, ‘locally-sourced’, is food sourced from a place close to the restaurant or grown exclusively for it in an environment which the restaurant can control or verify.
Globally, ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ is becoming a common sign around stores that sell locally sourced produce and perishables. Food trends over recent years have veered towards food labelled according to its source and method of cultivation – organic food, locally sourced food, farm to table, farm to fork, organic, and so on as customers become more and more conscious of the nutritional value of food as well as the perceived impact of transporting food over long distances, both on the environment and on the quality of the food itself.
The interest in sustainable development, i.e., food produced with an equal importance to responsibility towards the environment as well as economic growth and viability, further created a demand for locally sourced and hyper-local food. Customers are looking for food – produce, meat and poultry, seafood and other perishables that are fresh and grown in sustainable conditions, and this in turn, has impacted the restaurants patronised by such customers.
Some restaurants around the world have started growing at least a part of their ingredients on their own premises, depending on space and infrastructure available to them. Kitchen gardens, backyards, window sills, rooftop and terrace gardens are now used for growing herbs and plants which do not need too much space and are low-maintenance.
Hydroponics is another trend that is spreading: soil-less gardening, where healthy plants are grown without using soil or dirt as a medium and instead cultivated with the help of sunlight and nutrients such as a mineral-rich water solution. These plants are grown in any available space including walls or suspended from the ceiling, with the roots hanging in the enriched water or set into gravel.
Space, efforts and time for gardening are a constraint in a restaurant invested in hyper-local cuisine. It is also a fact that not all the ingredients required by a kitchen can be readily grown on the premises, and the next best solution has been locally sourced food.
Small farms are coming up in and near urban areas, to cater to this requirement. The produce and meat take less time to reach the restaurant and hence are fresher, tastier and cultivated to manage the demand. Produce can be harvested and delivered the same day or the next day at the latest, similarly, butchery items may be supplied fresh, depending on the delivery schedule.
Restaurants with more resources at their disposal have their own ‘home-farm’ which supplies most of the ingredients required, and though not on the same premises, is under the control of the restaurateur.
Why go hyper-local? What are the benefits?
Many restaurateurs are beginning to feel a responsibility to have an in-depth understanding of the food that is served to the customer – the source, the conditions under which it is grown or developed, whether pesticides are used, the freshness and other such matters. Chefs around the world are consciously promoting locally procured food on their menus.
1. Due to hyper-local sourcing of food, there is vertical integration and the restaurant is more in control of the entire chain, right from raw materials and production to the condition in which the food is transported to the end user.
2. The middleman is kept out, in most cases, and the proceeds go to the development of the local community and its economy. Hyperlocal and locally sourced food contribute to a sustainable agricultural economy.
3. The food supply is seasonal and hence offers the Chef more variety in taste and flavor, to offer to the customer. Produce is more likely to be harvested at peak quality.
4. Locally grown food reaches the customer sooner than that procured from elsewhere, and is by and large, more fresh and nutritious than ingredients which come from further away. It thereby promotes good health, which is why customers are looking at the source of food supply to the restaurant.
5. Purchase options from local growers on small landholdings are more likely to include heirloom and non-GMO varieties than when purchased from bulk and corporate suppliers, though of course there are now corporate farms making a name for themselves by the quality and origin of the produce. Heirloom and native varieties are usually tastier and more nutritious apart from being fresh as they have traveled shorter distances.
The best reason of all? It’s what many customers are looking for, and the concept is marketing itself with its popularity, especially among health conscious customers.
There is a downside though!
A restaurant cannot usually run on local supplies alone for its perishables, through the year. Locally sourced or hyper-local ingredients generally tend to be more expensive than bulk purchases. Purchase quantities may be lesser and hence discounts availed from bulk purchase may not be possible. Some items which are required regularly may not be available due to seasonality and need to be procured elsewhere.Local suppliers may not consistently generate the volumes required by the restaurant. The menu may require more variety than is available from the produce of the locale.The menu will fluctuate based on the seasonality of ingredients and needs to be structured accordingly and take into account possible delivery or quality failures.
A judicious mix of hyper-local, local sourcing and purchase from various other supply points may be needed to cater to all the requirements of the restaurant.
Authentic tastes and culinary experiences inspired by local cuisine:
Building a menu around local and cultural cuisine can be an interesting experience.
Combining culinary tourism with an authentic food experience, there are restaurants which offer a day’s fishing, after which the customer gets to taste his own catch served up to him for dinner.
Some restaurants in the USA and the UK have gone completely hyper-local, with food served to customers only from their own home-grown produce, seafood, meat, and poultry, or with a combination of their own and very local sourcing.
One restaurant advertises its ‘Two Hour Salad’ made from ingredients which reach the customer’s plate within 2 hours from being harvested from the restaurant’s own farm, that raises vegetables, fruits and herbs. Items such as cheese, fish, meat, poultry and wine are locally sourced.
Another has done away with the fixed menu and instead offers the customer a unique dining experience with dishes from ingredients harvested each day from the farm or farmers markets.
Yet another restaurant started as a trailer with a wood-burning grill. As it grew and acquired fame, meat, grains, cheese, fresh produce, honey and even olive oil as well as flowers for decorating the restaurant were sourced from about 50 local producers, making it a great community effort.
It is not just fresh produce and eggs which are sourced locally. Restaurants are procuring seafood from sustainable fisheries, meat from pastured meat producers, as well as bread from local bakeries who source the wheat again from the locality.
Beehives are set up on rooftop gardens for producing honey for use in the restaurant in soups, salad dressings, pastries, ice cream, desserts and even in cocktails. Jams made by members of the local community find their way into desserts. Table and kitchen scraps are used for composting for the plants grown in the home farm.
One enterprising restaurateur in the USA offers a menu of items such as pork chops, steaks, country fried quail and glazed chicken breasts, all from livestock from their farm on a piece of land adjoining the restaurant. Fresh produce is grown on the land while some of it is used for grazing for the farms cows.
Another restaurant managed farm has its chefs and farmers planning together for specific crops for scheduled periods of the year, such as brussel sprouts grown in time for Thanksgiving, root vegetables to cater to the offseason when green vegetables are scarce and onions for onion soup on the menu in winter. The farm even grows some specialised grains for adding variety to the menu.
With the growing interest in local sourcing, many chefs are creating menus on cuisines defined by the ingredients locally available and this encourages ethnic and cultural cuisines to find their way back to the table.
Some chefs use the local ingredients for dishes inspired from global cuisine. So you have the Rhubarb Lassi and Smoked Bourbon with rose, pomegranate, star anise, and orange infused ice cubes. Or Baked Potato skin stuffed with curried rice.
As customer tastes and culinary expectations move towards food grown locally in sustainable environments, the restaurant menu looks more and more interesting with options for more variety and mix of flavours.