How to Create a Farm-to-Table Program for 1,200 Guests

By Chris Ferrier Executive Chef, The National Conference Center | August 13, 2017

Many hotels are overwhelmed by the thought of putting together a ‘buy local’ or ‘farm-to-table’ culinary program when they also have to serve many guests. Where do you start? Should chefs contact all the local farms, breweries, wineries, fish mongers, meat and poultry farms in their area? Should they visit each farm? Many years ago, this was what we did; but with 1,200 meals to prepare, often we would clear out the farmers’ goods and still not have enough for what we needed.

Today, Loudoun County boasts more than 40 wineries, cideries, distilleries and even a meadery. In addition, it has 20-plus breweries and over 40 meat and poultry farms. Visiting each farm would be time consuming and inefficient. But how can a chef be confident of the quality and quantity otherwise? There is a huge amount of planning that goes into this process, but the first step, for us, is to contact our Local Food Hub.

The Local Food Hub forges close relationships with local Virginia farmers, and provides the infrastructure for distribution of fresh, high-quality produce. It is a regional leader in ensuring that small farms gain an economic foothold in the marketplace, and that the knowledge and choice of local food becomes the norm, not the exception, for all segments of the community. Local Food Hub’s 60 partner farms represent the bounty and diversity of the Virginia food shed. They offer fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and poultry, eggs, honey, grains, and more, to hospitals, retailers, restaurants, schools, and food banks, and partner with distributors like Sysco, a major food and beverage hotel provider.

Besides the Local Food Hub, Visit Loudoun sponsored a Restaurant & Producer Market Place in the spring. Loudoun food and beverage establishments were invited to meet Loudoun County agricultural farms, breweries and wineries. This year, 30 establishments and approximately 20 producers attended. The purpose was for chefs and producers to meet and greet and discuss how they can help each other sell products, learn what will be available throughout the growing season. This cut down on visits to farms throughout the county and enabled chefs to sample products.

Two years ago, we started our own garden, right off the kitchen. It excited the staff about developing the farm-to-table program. We grew the basics – tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, green beans and herbs – but nowhere near what we needed to feed 1,200 guests. Mary Watson-DeLauder is the keeper of the garden and our CWO (Chief Wine Officer). She uses the herbs in a wine tasting workshop where she pairs wines with herbs to see how herbs change the palette. This is a big hit with our groups and a great team building event.

We often create large events with a local flavor by practicing this purchasing process. Here’s how we at The National Conference Center purchase and cook for 1,200 with a farm-to-table mission. Experience, learning by error, experimenting and basic math calculating are all involved. This is the process we teach all of our staff as they price out menus.

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Coming up in February 2018...

Social Media: Engagement is Key

There are currently 2.3 billion active users of social media networks and savvy hotel operators have incorporated social media into their marketing mix. There are a few Goliath channels on which one must have a presence (Facebook & Twitter) but there are also several newer upstart channels (Instagram, Snapchat &WeChat, for example) that merit consideration. With its 1.86 billion users, Facebook is a dominant platform where operators can drive brand awareness, facilitate bookings, offer incentives and collect sought-after reviews. Twitter's 284 million users generate 500 million tweets per day, and operators can use its platform for lead generation, building loyalty, and guest interaction. Instagram was originally a small photo-sharing site but it has blown up into a massive photo and video channel. The site can be used to post photos of the hotel property, as well as creating Instagram Stories - personal videos that disappear from the channel after 24 hours. In this regard, Instagram and Snapchat are now in direct competition. WeChat is a Chinese company whose aim is to be the App for Everything - instant messaging, social media, shopping and payment services - all in a single platform. In addition to these channels, blogging continues to be a popular method to establish leadership, enhance reputations, and engage with customers in a direct and personal way. The key to effective use of all social media is to find out where your customers are and then, to the fullest extent possible, engage with them on a personal level. This engagement is what creates a personal connection and sustains brand loyalty. The February Hotel Business Review will explore these issues and examine how some hotels are successfully integrating social media into their operations.