The Faulkner County Cooperative Extension Service will host a panel discussion in January with the goal of connecting local farmers to restaurants and food vendors.
The aim of the connection, termed F.R.E.S.H. Foods, Farmers and Restaurants Eating Sustainable Healthy Foods, is to streamline the process of integrating locally raised, processed or grown food into restaurant menus.
"This is a huge movement right now," said Kami Marsh, cooperative extension agent. "People are wanting that fresh produce when they go to a restaurant. It’s also a good marketing tool. When you’re eating potatoes at a restaurant and there’s a sign up front that says they came from Mr. Smith today, people make that connection. People want to know where their food comes from, and this creates the relationship between farmer, food and customer."
Marsh said incorporated foods could include fruit, vegetables, meat, cheeses and value added products.
A value added product, she explained, could be blackberry jam processed locally by Maria Bradbury using blackberries grown at Phyllis Strack’s farm on Lower Ridge Road.
A number of restaurants in Conway have used two options already in place to incorporate local goods into menus. Conway Locally Grown, an online market, and the Conway Farmer’s Market, in season May through November, have been resources for restaurants.
Kim Williams, executive director of the Conway Downtown Partnership, said Oak Street Bistro, Mike’s Place, Michelangelo’s, JJ’s Grill, Cross Creek Sandwich Shop, and ZaZa’s have been local customers.
Cross Creek Sandwich Shop owner Chris Jennings said she uses the farmer’s market in season for her recipes.
"I get whatever I can. I get any fruit, tomatoes, zucchini. It’s wonderful to use fresh and local when you can, and I advertise it when we do so people know it’s from the farmer’s market," Jennings said. To people who love tomatoes there’s nothing like a home grown tomato. If there’s a home grown tomato on your sandwich, it’s going to taste really good. It’s just delicious."
Jennings said her customers are excited to see fresh, local produce on the menu.
"You do pay more for it than you do from the store or from food reps, but you know you’re getting good quality," she said.
John McNamara, general manager of Mike’s Place, said the restaurant gets local products from Conway Locally Grown and the Conway Farmer’s Market.
Free-range chickens and locally grown lettuce have been integrated into specials, he said.
"The customer base isn’t quite yet understanding of the extra cost. Local lettuce costs twice as much, and less than I hope for picked that option because it’s an extra dollar," he said. "We’d love to do more but there’s an availability issue. They can’t always supply us with what we’d use."
The larger scale effort will take some planning, Marsh said.
"For example, if we pair a farmer with a restaurant, we’d need to know what the restaurant wants and the quantity. The farmer may have to change the way he grows to meet the demand, but it should be doable. It will just take planning, and that’s why we want to get these people together to figure this out," she said.
Benefits are for the customer, the farmer and the restaurant, Marsh said.
Customers eat fresh, restaurants capitalize on the items, and farmers move more of their products.
"It’s another avenue for our farmers to sell. We don’t want farmers throwing produce away. Restaurants are another outlet, and we also want farmers to take their fresh produce to food banks to have it distributed," she said.
Members of the panel, slated for Jan. 22 at 1 p.m. at the Faulkner County Extension Service office, 110 S. Amity Rd., Suite 200 in Conway, are those from other communities around Arkansas who have already implemented a program like F.R.E.S.H. Foods.
Marsh said the cost effectiveness of incorporating fresh, local goods will be discussed by the panel.
The meeting is not limited to farmers and restaurant representatives, and all are invited to attend.
(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1236. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)