Today’s consumers expect fine-dining menus to boast locally sourced ingredients and change with the seasons, and now the locavore trend is fueling changes at less-pricey fast-casual chains such as Mad Greens, Salata, Sweetgreen, and Tortas Frontera by Rick Bayless.
Fast casual continues to grow, even as overall restaurant traffic has remained flat for more than five years, according to recent NPD Group data. A key trend driving that growth is the rising demand for fresh ingredients, and the willingness to pay a premium for them. And, if the food is locally sourced and comes with a backstory, so much the better.
Colorado-based Mad Greens has increased the amount of locally sourced items on the menu in recent years, and there’s a strategy for expanding that when the 13-unit chain expands beyond the Centennial State’s borders, said founders Marley Hodgson and Dan Long. “The plan is to have a dedicated portion of the menu that’s local specific,” Hodgson said.
Availability of local produce and other ingredients will be a consideration as the chain opens its first units outside Colorado, the partners said. Then when it comes time to expand to new markets with shorter growing seasons, the focus will shift to other foods the markets produce year-round, such as dairy.
Of course the fast-casual pricing structure and business model don’t allow as much menu flexibility, but creative chains are finding ways to work more local and carefully sourced ingredients into the menu.
“Customers are willing to pay more for local foods, within reason,” said Mad Greens’ Hodgson. “I think it’s a much more important trend than organic, but there’s a bifurcated customer base and you have to give them a choice. If you force them all to pay a higher price for local, that’s problematic, because there’s a portion that won’t pay. But there’s a large segment saying ‘yeah, I’m totally willing to pay more.’”
Sometimes the craving for locally produced food hits up against the harsh realities of costs and profit margins, especially in parts of the country where the growing seasons are bountiful but short. Mad Greens partnered a few years ago with Vertifresh, a startup that was growing greens hydroponically indoors. The deal promised local lettuce year-round, but the experiment proved too expensive to continue, Hodgson and Long said. Eventually, new growing technologies such as tower gardens and aqua farming will catch on and the costs will come down enough to make them practical for the fast-casual sector, they said.
Meanwhile, Mad Greens buys other local ingredients, including Haystack Mountain Goat Cheese. At the height of Colorado’s growing season, about 30% of the produce is locally grown. Much of that comes through a partnership with Golden, Colo.-based Agriburbia, which farms an acre of land to grow a long list of ingredients including arugula and other greens, tomatoes, peppers and herbs.
“When we go to other regions, that’s one of the things we will look at, having a farm of our own, to operate or contract out the operations, coupled with sourcing from a lot of local farmers as well,” Long said.
Houston-based Salata doesn’t put as much emphasis on local, but it does source local ingredients and products in the three states where it now has restaurants, said David Laborde, director of product development.
“Our goal is to provide a healthy, fresh meal,” he said. “And that’s what I look for in new products. I want to try and find the best products out there. If happens to be in Texas or locally produced, great, but I don’t necessarily look for pita bread in Houston.”
Salata operates or franchises 35 restaurants in Texas, California and Chicago, and the company strives for consistency across all three markets. That means opportunities for suppliers, he said. Lemonades and teas from local company Juiced Up, for example, proved so popular in the Houston market that they’re now served company-wide. The wheat bread and the smoked turkey served at all the restaurants also come from Texas producers.
Both Salata and Mad Greens have adopted strategies that give customers transparency about where their food comes from, a craving that may be even stronger than the one for local ingredients.
“We’re able to be completely transparent,” said Laborde. “We can help people out with information because of dietary needs or just to satisfy their curiosity.”
Is your restaurant adding more locally produced foods to the menu? Tell us about it in the comments.
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