Local-grown or not?


The “tractor-to-table” (or farm-to-fork or whatever else you call it) movement attracts restaurants and grocery stores to adapt to guests wanting locally grown foods that may be looked as more “natural.”  Food establishment operators may forget that several factors make food commodities from small local suppliers a possible source of brand protection risk, especially for quick-serve and fast-casual operations.

Factors for the operators when “tractor-to-table” movement is added:

All food establishment operators know about these risks and this is nothing new.  The operators and decision-makers must focus on how the “tractor-to-table” approach makes business sense so long as these risks are identified and remedied in a systematic way, and not just being part of a standard operating procedure (SOP) document. Unless operators manage risks with a layered approach and building food safety into daily culture, there are more chances of failure.

  • Employee knowledge and food-safety awareness.

Operators attract transient workers like students, workers that are searching for any job, workers that are retired and someone who is simply new to workforce.  They lack a background in food safety. Their leader (supervisor) may also be new to their responsibilities. The risk elimination and management is a must.

  • Brand protection and regulatory compliance.

In a social media dominant world with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Yelp – bad customer experience or an alleged foodborne illness linked to a particular location/brand or food supplier can go viral—pun intended—in minutes.  Public health department and consumers will know about the problems instantly. With the federal, state and local regulatory workforce being at more aware-level, operators and risk management officials need to know how to assess and remedy each situation very quickly. These so called challenges go beyond the regulatory compliance level. The media and guests will demand to be informed.  Enhanced and efficient crisis communications strategy can be very useful in preventing severe damage to brand identity and overall reputation if rumors and wrong information is shared and re-tweeted by the consumers.

  • Farms – Supply chain issues.

The recent Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires monitoring and inspection for farm operations. Smaller food suppliers, which are not covered by FSMA, are less scrutinized. This doesn’t mean local suppliers don’t follow proper food safety and sanitation procedures. They are less regulated, which could increase the potential risk of tainted foods entering the supply chain.

How do we address these factors?

  • Being Proactive

Revise and modify training to ensure essential practices are included and related rationale is clearly explained and continuously refreshed.  This training is for everyone, not just new hires.  Review every step in food handling to document potential gaps. Where are the more transient food handlers? Where the most significant turnover? Every vendor in supply chain is visited to check their food safety and sanitation practices.  If FSMA rules exempt the vendor, the review and visit become even more important.  A crisis response plan is included in training so that food handlers know their roles before any critical event happens.

  • Timely Identification

Establishment operators must have proper system(s) in place to identify issues quickly. Example: Storage facilities are continuously monitored for safe holding temperature and sanitation. Invest in technology so that temperature monitors provide 24/7 coverage and alert you when critical issues occur.

Let the guests and customers alert you to major concerns that they experienced during their visit. Monitor these hotlines and email ID to resolve as they are reported. Most social media will display a “trending” item/topic. Have dedicated staff member monitor web-based activities.

  • Quick Remedy

Take immediate corrective actions in conjunction with senior management personnel.  Launch the crisis response plan as soon as possible.  Consult legal authority, crisis communications team or outside agencies and others who need to weigh in and manage the crisis. Identify the root cause for the problem and how it can be prevented in future.  Learning from a successfully managed crisis, update food safety and sanitation processes.

Reach out to the guest as soon as possible and inform them that the crisis has been resolved. Let them know that they should feel confident in a positive future dining experience.

I am hopeful that this will help you decide whether you want to go “local” or not!