• Mike Hughes

The Farm to Table Movement

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Farm to Table - Trend, Fad or Forever? By Mike Hughes

It is becoming increasingly difficult to drive through a town or city and not see a Farm to Table restaurant concept. Farm to Table, Farm to Fork or Dirt to Dinner plate, are seemingly a recent idea, however, if you look not too far back in history, before the introduction of mass volume, mega producing restaurant conglomerates, fast food chains and nationwide food production facilities, pretty much every restaurant in America would be considered Farm to Table.

The idea behind them makes sense, as these concepts are touting fresh, locally sourced products that aren’t spending 12 days in a truck. It allows purveyors in each market the chance to have an outlet for their products, which not only keeps them in business, but is a great source of marketing for the farm. Farm to Table are proud that they get their produce from Farm “A”, and their craft beer from Brewer “B”, and their fresh cut steaks from meat producer ”C”. In turn, the dining public can feel better about their choice of restaurants by knowing they are supporting the little guy locally.

Farm to Table is a little more complicated than simply sourcing all your product from the local farmer, however. Plus, how do you know that the Sysco truck parked behind your favorite “Farm to Table” restaurant isn’t unloading product from all over the globe? Is there any way to REALLY know that what is on your plate, being sold as locally produced, is just that?

Let’s take a look at meats for example; as it is not a simple as it sounds. All producers of fresh meat still have USDA guidelines to follow with a high degree of standards to meet. So meat packing facilities and slaughtering facilities are federally inspected, and are expensive to build and operate. Your local farm that is raising organic, grass fed meat may not have the means to do this locally. Your meat from Bob’s cow farm, may or may not be processed at Bob’s farm. It may have to travel a ways to have this done in a federally inspected facility...So is it still considered “local” at this point, if your ribeye travelled a round trip of 600 miles before it got to you?

Fish is slightly less regulated and therefore more due diligence is needed to ensure that the catfish you are eating in New York, wasn’t farmed in New Orleans, but being billed as local.

The Chef at any local F.T.T restaurant needs to be diligent in his or her homework and forge strong relationships with local farmers. Homework leads to knowing what you are buying and that leads to trust between the farm and the restaurant.

Operating a restaurant is hard work and time consuming, even if you are running a place that gets 100% of your food and beverage from whatever 18 wheeler can get it you. The Farm to Table niche can nearly guarantee that the work, time and COST will increase exponentially.

That cost has to transfer to the guest. I am sure that if a guest frequents F.T.T restaurants, they feel better about what’s on their plates. It does come with a price tag, of course, and I am left wondering if the market-share of dining visitors will continue to “pay up” for locally sourced everything. A chef’s menu is nearly 100% dictated by what they can source locally, as well.

If you are a F.T.T in Maine, for example, and want lemon with your locally sourced lobster, you can be pretty sure it wasn’t grown there. In the Winter, and let’s use Maine again, do you close for 7 months because the growing season of, let’s say everything, is put on hold?

There are some sources that say to be “locally produced”, it has to be grown within a 100 mile radius, but the 2008 Farm Act says it has to be 400 miles or less OR the state in which it is grown and served has to be the same. An interesting statistic is that in state rankings based on a commitment to locally grown food, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire are 1, 2 and 3, according to a report from The Peter T Paul college of business and economics. The tougher question to answer is, what percentage of your product in the back door, needs to be locally produced to be considered Farm to Table? As I write this, I have no idea. One thing is for sure, it’s not everything.

As I looked through a comprehensive list of the top F.T.T in each state, there are varied amounts of “bragging” about how much of the menu is local and how far it comes from. In fact, out of 50 restaurants I viewed, only 2 claimed to be getting “all” of their ingredients locally. One in Missouri and one in Nevada. Another was 90%. The rest said things like, “as much as we can”, and “most”...

There are many benefits to this trend, however. Restaurants cite that supporting the local economy and the freshness of product are 2 main reasons. They say that people will pay more knowing that they are part of this local lifecycle of sustainability. More and more products are becoming available all the time, due to the demand from this movement, however seasonality becomes a roadblock to things like produce, while items like Dairy, Meat and Alcohol are prevalent year round.

From the guest's perspective, they enjoy knowing that they are sustaining local agriculture, the local economy and small business. They also say they can taste the difference and are willing to pay more for those factors. And lest we forget about the reduction in greenhouse gases that reduce our carbon footprint, simply by buying local.

In summary, any successful restaurant on the planet needs something to differentiate themselves from the competition. Restaurants are my thing, and they always have been.

Spending literally my entire life either working in, running, or dining in them, I can say with confidence that I am an authority on almost every moving part of the business.

Farm to Table is a movement and my experiences have been that they are creative, they have innovative menus and are usually prepared by top quality talent with fresh ingredients. So if you want to experience great food, you will most likely have success in many F.T.T concepts, but I am still left wondering if this is a kitchy marketing tactic. Unless you are dining in those those aforementioned restaurants in Missouri and Nevada, it may not be as farm to table as you think, and if you’re ok with that, Mangia!



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