Chain restaurants are predicated on standardization.
Cheryl Wilson

So, I spent part of my career recently in the produce industry, with a national, corporate produce distributor. My job was actually to conduct outreach with small farms, and try to fulfill our customers stated demand for “locally grown” food. I found that restaurants and institutions love to talk about buying local, but have trouble walking the talk. Chipotle is no different.

I have helped create bids for Chipotle, and I can tell you that their claims about using locally grown produce are complete and total b.s. As for their claims about “sustainble” meat — the total U.S. supply of such meat is such a tiny percentage of overall production, there is no way that Chipotle can use all, or even mostly, sustainable meat for their restaurants. The supply simply does not exist.

The reason aggregation of local small-farm produce won’t work for chains like Chipotle is because chain restaurants have very rigid guidelines for quality, grade and pricing. Essentially, they think of vegetables and fruits the same as widgets.

For example, every bell pepper must be the same size, shape and color, and they will reject the product if it is inconsistent. In the industry, this is referred to as “quality” — and it has everything to do with cost. Chain restaurants have these rigid standards because they have to be able to control the cost, which has to do with yeild (i.e.: how many ounces of sliced peppers can you get from one bell pepper). What’s more, prices are negotiated and contracted on a mass scale, long before the product is ever harvested and packed. If you as the grower can’t promise the volume and specifications the buyer requires, you can’t do business. And, for you as the grower, the buyer is not Chipotle, it is the distributor, who is simply working on behalf of their customer, Chipotle.

Chain restaurants also demand perfect produce for aesthetic reasons. They set expectations in the minds of their customers through marketing, and marketing is based on appearances, not taste. At the individual restaurant level, kitchen staff are not allowed to make decisions about presentation. They have to make the food look like the picture. And yes, there are actual pictures of the dishes in the kitchen to help the staff acheive consistency of the presentation.

I have seen thousands of pounds of strawberries rejected due to a condition called “white shoulders” — this is where the little area around the calyx didn’t turn red. At home, you might cut that portion off (or even just eat it). But the kitchen staff at the restaurant is not allowed to do that. They are taught that the berry must be perfect. It has to be a certain size and color, and has to be positioned a certain way on top of the cheesecake slice. Cutting it, or hiding the white shoulder in the whipped cream is not an option. So, imperfect berries don’t even make it through the back door. When the distributor can’t sell them, they’re often dumped, but sometimes given to a food bank — either way, a loss.

The grower will generally eat the cost of substandard product, one way or another. If the distributor accepts the product in the first place, it will likely be for a rock-bottom price.

As for institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.), the quality and appearance guidelines for produce are not as rigid; however, price becomes super important. Institutions require even cheaper food than chain restaurants. And frequently, they cannot afford the labor costs involved with processing. That means that they will only buy lettuce if it is washed, chopped and bagged; and, they use lots of frozen products (corn, peas, etc.) because it is cheaper and requires no labor. Institutions do buy produce that retailers and restaurants would reject — like the smallest apples and oranges — but they want it dirt cheap all year long, and they don’t care where it comes from.

As a practical matter, aggregated product from multiple small farmers cannot meet such rigid standards of consistency, much less price. Food hubs are a great idea if they can operate as non-profits or farmer-owned cooperatives; however, they are still just basically distributors, and will be subject to competition from large distribution companies that already know how to serve chain restaurants and institutions.

I love local farmers, and I believe that we need many, many more people to grow their own food, whether in container gardens, market gardens or small farms. I’m just under no illusions about adapting that model to corporate chains.

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