Capitalizing on a trend is a risk if you haven’t thought it through. The farm-to-table movement has been flourishing for years, but that doesn’t mean that it will work for every restaurateur keen on opening a business. For Saginaw, Michigan, locals Scott and Lisa Kelly, however, there’s a good chance it will.
The Kellys plan to open Bradley’s Bistro in the heart of the sleepy city’s downtown area next month. The seasonal menu will emphasize local and regional ingredients and products. But here’s the rub: winter. Not much grows in a harsh Michigan winter. But couple was savvy enough to develop a network of local farmers and others who have hoop houses (similar to greenhouses), so they expect a steady stream of local produce throughout the year. They anticipated a problem and fixed it in advance.
If they’ve chosen the right location--and they think they have, the bistro is near a theater and other businesses--the Restaurant Association’s 2014 Forecast puts good odds on the Kelly’s success. It lists localism, sustainability, and handmade as the top influences again--these concepts have made the list for several years in a row.
People want to feel connected to their homes and pasts.
The anti-consumer-culture movements that have caught on (DIY, Maker culture, artisanal foods) in recent years have struck a fundamental insight about people: They want to feel connected to hearth, home, and heritage.
Glenn Albrecht, professor of philosophy and sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, might explain this need to connect to a sense of home as an example of our "place pathology." When you separate people from their land, as our hyper tech and mobile society has done, "they feel the loss of heart’s ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life."
Not a lot of artisanal foodmakers or restaurateurs are thinking about "place pathology" when they follow their love of sustainable of cooking or Slow Food and turn it into a business that consumers can’t get enough of. But they know, on a gut level, that people want local, handmade food.
Even the fickle fashion world has demonstrated a perennial interest in beautiful things with a hand crafted or local flavor. "We do five big trends every year and even though there are style shifts there is always something artisan-related on this list," says Lauren Parker, editor of Accessories Magazine. "It may shift from region to region or country to country, this year it’s gypsy traveler with lots of velvet and embroidery and tassels."
Despite the exotic-sounding nature of this style, Parker says the category is like fashion’s version of comfort food. "Something that looks handmade, whether it is a hammered bracelet made in Brooklyn or something embroidered by master craftsmen in India harkens back in time, to something your grandmother did," she says. It’s a feeling of heritage--it may not be your heritage, but it’s someone’s and that can be enough to evoke a feeling of intimacy and connection.
How do you make "local and handmade" work for your business?
First ask yourself if this gives you a recognizable edge in the marketplace. Bradley’s Bistro will be the first of its kind in Saginaw.
Is it compelling? If it isn’t big enough, then it isn’t game changing, and it won’t be enough to be scalable. It has to have commercial appeal, not just a personal application. With fashion, Parker sees accessories as an easy way for women to experiment and add to their collection, so mixing last year’s Southwestern American turquoise with this year’s Eastern European embroidery isn’t a big leap. As for the commercial viability of sustainable eating, the local, organic, and Slow Foods movements have taken care of that. "Local foods are perceived as fresh, nutritious, and supportive of the local economy, which are key motivators for today's consumer," confirms veteran restaurant consultant Jon Taffer, host of the show Bar Rescue.
Finally, does the idea propel you? Innovation is hard work, and even if the insight makes sense, you still have to be excited enough about it to do the hard work of following up. The Kelly’s are renovating a building in downtown Saginaw, creating a menu from scratch, working with local farmers, and even crafting beers to serve at Bradley’s Bistro. They’re also helping to spearhead an effort, through the eatery, to revitalize the downtown.
It adds up to a massive amount of work. If the farm-to-table concept wasn’t exciting enough for them, they’d have given up by now. Can you sustain that kind of enthusiasm? If so, follow your insights and your instincts.