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Local food supply chain: Can buying local solve supply problems?

Published October 14, 2021

Restaurant owners have enough to worry about. They have to maintain a reliable team and manage their local food supply chain. They also have to come up with new menu items and deliver delicious food to hundreds of customers each day. On top of all these daily responsibilities, restaurant owners must also ensure perfectly balanced food delivery.

Nobody knows how to solve the challenges created by food supply chains. There’s a constant tug of war between shortage and surplus, and one misstep may mean the difference between operating at a profit and operating at a loss. Many see buying from local and regional sources (such as farmers’ markets or small-scale farms) as a potential solution. While this does indeed reduce delivery times, it can also create plenty of challenging logistical factors.

We wanted to learn more about this delicate process, so we asked two restaurant owners in the Atlanta area how they deal with food-supply challenges and what practices have worked (or haven’t worked) for them.

Sean Yeremyan, HobNob

Sean Yeremyan runs a neighborhood tavern called HobNob, which also has four locations scattered throughout the greater Atlanta metro area. His wife manages the supply chain partners, which lets Sean focus on other restaurant operations like marketing. However, the effects of sourcing limitations touch every part of the business.

“You basically have to let the market dictate your menu options,” he said. In order to optimize their food supply as well as prices, Sean’s wife works with multiple suppliers, encouraging a capitalistic system that rewards those who offer the best products at the best prices.

Alex Brounstein, Grindhouse Killer Burgers

Supply has been an issue for Alex Brounstein, founder of Grindhouse Killer Burgers, since he opened the doors of his first location in downtown Atlanta in 2009. Grindhouse is a unique case study because it primarily serves beef hamburgers in seven cities throughout Georgia. This specialization lets Alex focus mainly on sourcing beef rather than fruits or vegetables. But this also means his business is reliant on product availability. Unlike Sean’s case with HobNob, Alex can’t retool his menu to exclude beef.

Alex had multiple sourcing pain points when he first opened Grindhouse. The first, and most common in the industry, was finding a cost-effective and reliable supplier who wouldn’t provide differential treatment for a brand new restaurant. He first partnered with a supplier out of North Carolina who could generally deliver high-quality, dry-aged ground beef every day. The only hiccup was that once meat has been ground (especially dry-aged meat), it spoils at a much quicker rate. Alex eventually found a supplier based out of Detroit who offered a product at a similar quality level but with a longer shelf life due to shorter supply chains.

This new business relationship worked quite well until the COVID-19 pandemic prompted beef shortages—something the federal government is working to manage even now. Alex, however, doesn’t believe this to be a problem unique to out-of-state suppliers. “I don’t want to switch from them because I think this is going to be short-lived and they’ve been so good to us. I imagine we’ll have the same issue everywhere,” he explained.

Alex leans toward using larger national suppliers over small, local suppliers. “There’s no good answer, but it helps having good vendors who understand your problems,” he said. “A big company like Sysco has a lot of options. If a smaller vendor goes down, I have no other options, but Sysco is pulling from so many different places.”

Alex’s biggest takeaway from over a decade in the restaurant industry is that no matter the size of your supplier, you must have a contingency plan.

“Your backup has to be more consistent than your main supplier,” he said. “If your backup runs out of anything then it isn’t a good backup. Find one that may be slightly inferior, but, at the same time, never sacrifice quality.”

A solid backup option is crucial to Alex—Grindhouse depends on it.

“We need a good backup because if we run out of beef, we’re out of business.” Every restaurant owner wishes they didn’t have to think twice about their food supply system, but it’s an inescapable part of the business. While most restaurant owners prefer the concept of partnering with smaller local and regional suppliers, it’s often less practical, less reliable and less cost-effective.

If a restaurateur decides that they do indeed want to support their community by partnering locally and regionally, it’s essential they have a consistent backup plan in case of any unforeseeable issues. This dynamic is of the utmost importance, as food delivery can make or break a restaurant.

Related: The global restaurant re-opening: Experiences from around the world

Why should restaurants use local produce?

Using local produce (local farmers, farmers’ markets and even grocery stores) is an easy way to support your community while developing a mutually beneficial relationship. The quality of the products is often higher and the shorter supply chains make it easier to build enduring professional and personal relationships.

Where do restaurants get their supplies?

Restaurants typically procure their supplies from wholesale distributors. These can be larger companies like Sysco or smaller, more local producers, like small farms or farmers’ markets.

What are the disadvantages of locally grown food?

Locally grown food is generally less cost-effective because it doesn’t benefit from the economies of scale that larger entities enjoy. This means restaurants will often pay higher prices. Additionally, smaller vendors are more vulnerable to external elements and may thus be less reliable, despite increased consumer interest.

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