Hyper-Local Sourcing: What You Need to Know about This Restaurant Trend

Chris Rumpf

Founder and CEO, 15+ Years of Restaurant Technology Innovation

Hyper-Local Sourcing: What You Need To Know About This Restaurant Trend

It’s no secret that customer demand for organic and local food has been on the rise for years now. People are increasingly concerned with where their food comes from, how it was made, and by whom, and hyper-local food sourcing is how the restaurant industry is meeting that demand.

What exactly is hyper-local food sourcing, you may ask? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like: food grown, processed, and consumed at the neighborhood level of a community. Take that concept and apply it to restaurants, and you have the kind of hyper-local food sourcing we’re talking about.

What once was a novelty supported by specific chefs has become a consumer preference more and more restaurants are beginning to cater to. These “roof-to-table” restaurants are taking the concepts of “fresh” and “local” and raising them to a whole new level, offering dishes that have a majority or all of their ingredients grown, raised, or otherwise cultivated by the restaurant itself, either onsite or from a nearby farm.

So what exactly does this look like in a restaurant setting? Well, the forms of hyper-local food sourcing restaurants decide to implement vary, but we’re seeing everything from house-made items like sauces, sides, marinades, and garnishes to onsite beer brewing and restaurant gardens.

For consumers—and those restaurant owners who have already dived in—the trend goes beyond healthy food that tastes good. People want to know that they’re supporting the community they live in and that the money they spend on food is going to contribute to the local economy in the form of new jobs, better environmental practices, support for American agriculture, and improved treatment of animals.

What is Hyper-Local Sourcing?

You might be wondering how the term “hyperlocal” differs from “organic” or “local,” and the answer is quite a lot.

The official definition of “organic” as it relates to food production describes agricultural practices that do not use synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms (GMO), eg. seeds. This is according to national standards set by the USDA National Organic Program, which governs the production, handling, and processing of organically grown agricultural products, and meeting these standards is what earns producers the “USDA Certified Organic” sticker.

The term “local,” on the other hand, has more to do with proximity than production standards—more specifically, the distance between where the food was grown and where it is sold or consumed. Opinions vary, and there is no official definition, but food labeled local should originate anywhere from 100 miles to 400 miles from where it is consumed.

“Hyperlocal” takes these two concepts, combines them, and improves on them. Not only is hyper-local food organic by the nature of its mostly on-site production, but it’s also more local than anything marked as such in a grocery store.

How exactly are restaurants achieving this level of quality and localization? With advanced technology perfectly suited for the purpose, namely two soilless growing methods called hydroponics and aeroponics. These methods are ideal for restaurants implementing hyper-local food sourcing, as they allow for indoor food production and experimenting with new types of plants.

Hydroponics is the most common and longest standing of soilless growing methods. Rather than relying on the soil to grow, plants grown with hydroponics depend on water and mineral nutrients alone. Plant roots are suspended in a water solution enriched with nutrients that are added by the grower. Oxygen levels are controlled through aeration of the water, thereby reducing the development of pathogens, and a variety of organic and inorganic materials—soilless substrates like perlite—are added to support the plants.

This is where aeroponics, the other popular soilless growing method being used by restaurants, differs. Considered the most high-tech form of soilless plant growing, aeroponics doesn’t use any substrates to grow plants. Instead, a dense foam is wrapped around the base of leafy vegetables and herbs, while larger fruits and vegetables are grown on trellises.

The goal of aeroponics is to create the most aerobic environment possible, so water and nutrients are delivered to plants via mist rather than enriched water solutions. This makes aeroponics more environmentally friendly than hydroponics, as it uses much less water and nutrients.

It might seem unlikely that a restaurant would take on the lofty task of learning these technologies and growing their ingredients in-house, but many of them are, and one restaurant, in particular, has done so well that it has become the poster child for hyper-local food sourcing.

Who Is Embracing This Restaurant Trend?

Bell Book & Candle in Manhattan’s West Village, which generated buzz as far back as 2011, has hyper-local food sourcing built directly into their philosophy, stating that “The food program at BB&C revolves around local, organic, sustainable and overall responsible procurement. The menu cycles are seasonal and heavily influenced on production from the aeroponic rooftop tower garden.”

The rooftop garden they’re referring to features an array of vertical aeroponic towers, which Chef John Mooney relies on to grow more than half of the produce served in the restaurant’s seasonal dishes. The fruits and vegetables harvested in the garden feed the restaurant’s patrons nearly year-round.

The current menu at Bell Book & Candle features a roasted heirloom butternut squash soup with fried sage and toasted pumpkin seed, stewed seasonal vegetables with romesco broth, and a revolving selection of other dishes and drinks. Chef Mooney says that he strives to use up everything he grows, and while certain ingredients are seasonal, some items are produced throughout the year, such as herbs, tomatoes, lettuces, and peppers.

Breweries, too, are flipping the script on production and sourcing hyper-local ingredients to better support small-scale farmers and showcase regional flavors and tastes. Milkhouse Brewery in central Maryland is one such establishment, growing the Cascade and Chinook hops that go into making their European-styled beers in their one-acre hopyard. The brewery also sources local grains, fruits, herbs, and honey for their signature Stillpoint Reserve series, and has plans to expand operations.

Challenges of Hyper-Local Sourcing

With many restaurants boasting success stories, are there any major drawbacks to going hyperlocal? As with most new trends and technologies, there are challenges.

Besides being subject to the changing tastes and demands of consumers, hyper-local food sourcing can be both labor-and-resource-intensive, demanding a considerable initial investment to design, install, and operate a soilless garden or greenhouse in your restaurant. The proper equipment is especially important to create ideal growing conditions and control such factors as lighting, insulation, and humidity. Once installed, the growing system must be carefully monitored and maintained, requiring both expertise and time.

It’s also extremely difficult to be 100% hyperlocal, as it is not feasible for most restaurants to keep livestock. Some ingredients will have to be outsourced. But most customers are okay with that, so long as you use local and organic sources to supplement the ingredients you produce in-house.

Despite the challenges, the interest in hyper-local food sourcing is growing, and the number of restaurants investing in it is, too.

Getting Started With Hyper-Local Sourcing

Considering opening or converting your business into a hyper-local restaurant? The good news is that you don’t have to go all in right away. Here are just a few options to consider as part of your business plan:

  • Start small: Many restaurants start with little touches here and there, incorporating seasonal house-grown ingredients, like vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices, one at a time.
  • Stay simple: Focus on localizing specific menu items first, like drinks, salads, appetizers, sides, and desserts.
  • Tap your community: Utilize local farmers markets to source fresh regional ingredients and combine them with the hyper-local ingredients you grow in-house.
  • Research equipment: Look into soilless growing systems and tools, like Urban Cultivator and Tower Garden (Bell Book & Candle uses this one).
  • Consider your location: Are you located in an urban environment? Is a rooftop garden feasible? Is there space for an on-site garden, or one nearby? What kind of seasonal weather factors do you need to consider?
  • Be patient: You’ll need to practice and experiment in the beginning. Don’t expect superior results right away.
  • Consult an expert: Consider reaching out to someone else in the business who has experience. You’ll gain valuable insight from someone who’s has done or is already done it.

No matter how you look at it, consumer demand for locally-sourced, organic food is here to stay. Everyone has to eat, and even people who prefer virtual dining to traditional dining in restaurants want to see more local ingredients on your menus.

If you’re thinking about opening a restaurant or looking for a way to innovate an existing restaurant to meet consumer demand, then hyper-local food sourcing is a promising investment to consider. It’s not only a way to incorporate fresh, locally-sourced food into your menu, but also a way to match the values of your restaurant to the values of your community.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”It is no secret that customer demand for organic and local food is on the rise. People are increasingly concerned with where their food comes from, how it is made, and by whom. Hyper-local food sourcing is how the restaurant industry is meeting that demand.” quote=”It is no secret that customer demand for organic and local food is on the rise. People are increasingly concerned with where their food comes from, how it is made, and by whom. Hyper-local food sourcing is how the restaurant industry is meeting that demand.”]