How to source sustainable produce for your restaurant

As a restaurateur, you kind of know sustainable food sourcing is here to stay when McDonald's gets involved.

Yes, it's fast food and no, it's probably not your competition, but if a fast food chain as seemingly bulletproof as The Big M suddenly goes all ethical and responsible in its produce sourcing, you're not dealing with a few discerning demographics anymore; the demand for healthy, humane ingredients extends far and wide.

Customers at all levels of the food chain now want transparency in their menus. They want to know where the ingredients came from and the exact nature of their journey from creation to table. Basically they don't just want to feel good from what they eat; they want to feel good about what they eat.

So let's go find some reliable and sustainable produce for your menu.

Try to deal with locals logically

Yes, it would be nice to say you source all your seafood from Bruce down at the pier and your meat and veges from Sally at the organic farm up the road. But seasons are seasons and some things simply won't grow when you need them. Source locally when you can as chances are it will be fresher and it's carbon footprint less pronounced.

Then again, it might not be. This may sound crazy, but the carbon footprint of a vegetable grown on the other side of the world might actually be lower than one grown next door. The environment produce is grown in can be so naturally conducive it more than offsets travel. So do your homework, but as a general rule, buy locally. Customers will thank you for it and you will be making a worthy and sustainable investment in your local community.   

Dig deep into your farmers' roots

Whether sourcing through a third party or directly, you need to ask all the tough questions. Are their farming techniques environmentally friendly? Do they use pesticides? Are they organic and genuinely so?

What are they doing to protect and sustain their land? If they are farming eggs, are they truly free range and (ideally) organic? If meat, what are the living conditions of their animals? How and where are they killed?

Be pedantic with anything exotic

Recent virus scandals caused by imported fruit have damaged the reputation of imports and the current system doesn't allow for checking of every shipment arriving in the country. So play Health Police with all your imported produce.

Exotic fruits and vegetables are attractive additions to any menu, but interrogate your sources and demand a complete disclosure of all their methods – growing, packaging, transport and working conditions – to ensure they comply with health, ethical and fair trading practices. Don't buy from any supplier where producers or workers have been compromised or exploited if you wish to keep your reputation intact.

Grow your own, grow your rep

It's certainly a good look if you can and it doesn't have to encompass all your produce to be a success. You might only grow your own potatoes and carrots, but hero that you do in your menu. The fact that you grow anything for your restaurant can create the illusion that you grow everything for your restaurant.

Join a sustainable team

Team up with other like-minded businesses to buy in bulk, keep costs down and gain a competitive edge. This isn't the easiest thing to do as it requires considerably more group collaboration and organisation than going it alone. Your chefs may also feel somewhat aggrieved if they're used to topping up on produce when they please and suddenly they have to wait for your part of a pre-ordered shipment.  

Make a song and dance about your food

You don't go to all this trouble to create a happy, hearty and humane menu, and then sit on your hands about it. Feature it in your menus and around your restaurant. Create a story for each dish. Submit articles to the local papers and online restaurant guides. Make a big thing of your efforts and customers will make an effort to fill your tables and sustain your business well into the future.