Jaemor Farms in Alto, GA, grows peaches, apples and vegetables. It planted six additional acres of strawberries for Atlanta’s Royal Food Service Inc., to distribute to schools and institutions. The GDA cites its work in building grower-distributor relationships. “Royal sold all the strawberries before it moved a flat,” says Black. “Now, students are enjoying Georgia strawberries for the first time. That’s a direct six acres of strawberries that were never planted before and had never entered the tummy of a Georgia student. We are in the stage of this program where we’re getting the flywheel to turn over. With this momentum, we will reach a point to where all we have to do is get out of the way.”
Herndon’s Williams participates in school foodservice events where cafeterias and dietitians invite growers to participate in Georgia Grown days or during times Georgia products are featured on school menus. Williams also attended a school nutritionists conference in Atlanta, which included a tradeshow showcasing the state’s many foods and agricultural products for school personnel. “We can’t do all of those shows, but we like to be a part of how they’re trying to promote Georgia products on their menus,” he says. “We love touching our customers. They seem to really enjoy meeting us and visiting a real grower who grows their food. It’s really important to them.”
Celebrating Farmers and Local
Supermarkets and chefs rely on Georgia Grown produce.
By Doug Ohlemeier
Photo Courtesy of Georgia Department of Agriculture
Supermarkets and restaurants enjoy promoting Georgia Grown product. When growers are in season, packages of Southern vegetables and blueberries, peaches and watermelon fill supermarket shelves and are featured on restaurant menus. Georgia produce provide sa great way for the stores and eateries to differentiate themselves from others.
Georgia produce is a key part of produce offerings at Lakeland, FL-based Publix Super Markets Inc., which operates from 184 Georgia stores. Signage in the produce department promotes local produce availability. Additionally, the chain’s At Seasons Peak program reminds shoppers of the seasonality of the fruits and vegetables they buy. “As consumers, we have grown accustomed to year-round availability. However, we want our customers to know the peak of season for the produce they are purchasing,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations. “Locally grown produce is very important to us at Publix, and it benefits our customers as well. ‘Local’ means something different to each person, but to us, it means sourcing as close to home as possible, within our operating areas.”
Georgia product is critical for Piglet Supermarket in Soperton, GA. The store, which is part of Cordele, GA-based RuBo’s-Piglet, runs large displays promoting Vidalia onions, watermelon and other Georgia produce, says Ricky Reese, produce manager. “If it’s a hot item, we will run it about twice as big in terms of space than we normally do,” he says. “We like to double-up on it. We try to push it (Georgia produce) more and buy more of it than we do of any other option or growing region. We want to support it and help out the local economy because a lot of them buy from us as well.”
Atlanta’s Nickey Gregory Co., LLC, which distributes produce throughout the southeast, supplies Atlanta foodservice distributors. “We send them weekly Georgia Grown pricing when in season. Georgia produce has become very popular for their customers/restaurants,” says Andrew Scott, director of marketing and business development.
Forest Park, GA-based Phoenix Wholesale Foodservice Inc., delivers Georgia produce to numerous casual and white tablecloth restaurants within a 200-mile radius of Atlanta. “Retailers and restaurants, they’re embracing it,” says David Collins III, Phoenix’s president. “We have more and more interest from people wanting to expand their programs. There’s tremendous movement in the push for local grown.”
At the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, local foods are important menu items. The restaurant promotes local produce on its menus, and chefs speak to guests about available Georgia items. A well in the restaurant’s show kitchen displays products it procured that day from the nearby Peachtree Road Farmers Market. The restaurant purchases Georgia asparagus, collards and other greens, peaches, strawberries, sugar snap peas, swiss chard, tomatoes, as well as African-style squash. Specialty items include purple and watermelon radishes, hakurei turnips and wild ramps foraged from north Georgia.
Offering local products is no longer optional, says Thomas McKeown, executive chef. “It’s no longer a food trend. It’s got to the point to where customers expect us to use as much local as we can,” he says. “If they’re not seeing it, they get concerned. It’s nice to have gone from an amazing trend to a must-have item.” Because local products offer freshness and flavor, chefs don’t have to work as much with, or mask the flavors, of items when they taste well, he says.
The local trend is increasing, observes McKeown. “Atlanta is a hotbed for sustainability and sustainable farming,” he says. “Every chef producing in Atlanta is doing local. It has become a common theme throughout the city. It’s so readily available, so it makes sense to do local.” McKeown points to the state’s many young and well-established growers.
On Georgia’s coast, the St. Simons Island, GA-based Halyard Restaurant Group, which operates Halyards, an upscale seafood place, and Tramici, a casual pizza and pasta eatery, has been promoting Georgia produce long before the trend became popular. “We try to accentuate Georgia products and serve them whenever we can,” says Dave Snyder, owner and executive chef. “If you want to serve the best, you have to buy the best. We want to make sure that people know. For some restaurants, like chains, it’s not important at all. We spend a lot of time making extra phone calls and sending emails through the week to try to see if we can get it. We can compete with other restaurants doing that. For us, it’s worth our time, energy and effort to get it.”
Halyard purchases baby vegetables, herbs, Vidalia onions, lettuces, kale, potatoes, tomatoes, field peas and corn. Four farms supply products six months out of the year while two supply throughout the year. The restaurant lists the local farms it sources product from on the bottom of the menu’s front page. Servers also discuss the local ingredients.
The three driving forces are customers who care about health, flavor and expense. Some diners feel more comfortable knowing where the food originated and if it is organic or all-natural. Others want to support local businesses and are pleased when they hear money taken from the guest is spent in the country or a surrounding county, while others prefer taste. “A vine ripe tomato just tastes better, we all know that,” says Snyder. “We are willing to spend an extra 10 percent to 15 percent above others offered by the mainstream companies that call on us.”
In southeast Georgia, in the heart of Vidalia onion country, Elements Bistro & Grill in Lyons, GA, is an upscale steakhouse and seafood restaurant. The restaurant purchases from several local growers. An area greenhouse helps provide product during the off-season. It tries to serve local Georgia products throughout the year, but that can be tricky, says Richard Nanney, executive chef. “Serving Georgia products is very important,” he says. “It keeps the community growing. It helps promote interest in the food and menus. To see people familiar with companies in the community being utilized keeps it centralized in the local area. It helps a lot with business because they’re familiar names attached to the items.”
Elements’ staff tells patrons about local foods. Notifying customers is critical. The restaurant tries to educate customers when product is available and the type of products it serves, says Nanney. Vidalia onions are popular, of course, as well as Georgia lettuce, chard, kale, spinach, beets, blueberries and strawberries. The restaurant hosts quarterly wine tastings, which include regional ingredients to support seasonal themes. Adding different twists on the food served with the libations, Elements tries to replicate cuisines accompanying the wines using local ingredients.
“I see the local trend increasing,” says Nanney. “I have worked in Atlanta and Savannah. In my experience here, customers usually respond well to it. When we do feature local, it does seem to get a better response.”