Marketing to Professional Chefs

Recent statistics indicate that marketing to restaurant chefs is a viable option for growers.
Marketing to Professional Chefs - Articles


One of the first questions that growers should consider when deciding which crops to grow is "Who should I market my product to?" Understanding your clientele's needs and wants is the best way to determine what to produce. A potential outcome of growing what you think will be in demand, rather than what your customer truly wants, is having an abundance of produce, but with no one to purchase it. In addition, by talking with potential customers you can learn about the quantity of product they demand and whether or not they would be interested in additional offerings, such as partially processed or value-added products. Professional chefs, who work at restaurants, are one potential market for produce.

Why Market to Professional Chefs?

In 2004, the average amount consumers spent, per person, on food eaten outside of their home was $974. Several consumer generations reported that they ate at restaurants more than once a week in 2004. 'Baby Boomers' (born between 1946 and 1964) ate at restaurants an average of 1.6 times each week, while 'Echo Boomers' (born between 1982 and 1995; also referred to as 'Generation Y' and 'Millennials') visited restaurants more frequently, with 2.4 visits in an average week. Recent statistics indicate that marketing to restaurant chefs is a viable option for growers as consumer spending at restaurants is expected to increase by 5.1 percent in 2006, compared to 2005. Industry experts continue to report that prepared foods and restaurants offer consumers convenience and that this audience is continuing to incorporate restaurant meals into their weekly schedule.

Chefs not only directly influence customers who enjoy meals while dining at the restaurant, but they may also inspire them to recreate the restaurant meals in their own home. When reproducing the meals, customers will likely shop for ingredients to make the meal as authentic as possible. In doing so, they may search for the same brands and local growers who supplied product for the original restaurant entrée. Growers who market to both clientele groups, chefs and consumers, can potentially benefit from this strategy, and may even build a consumer clientele group based on their primary interactions with professional chefs.

Identifying Professional Chefs You Could Serve

Several sources are available that can help growers in their search for potential restaurant clientele. Simply looking through a telephone book is one way to learn about restaurants in a certain area; however, it is not an inclusive list. In combination with this type of search, growers can consult several restaurant organization web sites, such as: the National Restaurant Association, the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, or the American Culinary Federation. These sources contain information that may be useful to growers and provide general information about the restaurant trade.

When contacting restaurants be aware that certain restaurant chains have set menus that cannot be altered. Marketing to these restaurants may be more difficult than marketing to independent restaurants, which have more freedom with creating meals for their patrons. In addition to being aware of the type of management/ ownership involved, a good idea is to contact chefs who currently use product similar to what you offer or who serve cuisine that complements the produce you grow. In addition, consider offering produce that may correspond with an emerging or growing consumer trend. For example, with the increasing demand for ethnic food think of fruits and vegetables that are commonly used by ethnic restaurants that you could realistically grow and offer.

Some Professional Chefs' Needs

As with any clientele group, chefs have specific needs that growers must meet in order to establish a relationship that is mutually beneficial for both parties. Menu offerings may change seasonally, or more often, and a chef's reputation is dependent on the quality of the ingredients they use, how the meal tastes, and overall presentation. Each chef will have their own level of quality expectation and it is important that growers offer samples of what they can provide, as a way to demonstrate how the produce item will look and taste in the final dish. During the meeting, growers should clearly understand how much product a chef will need each week (allowing for some waste), when the product should be delivered, (including day(s) of the week), and delivery time.

Chefs depend on suppliers, brokers, and growers to be reliable and deliver quality product when they need it and in the quantities they require. If growers provide services, such as delivery, they should discuss the necessary details and charge accordingly. As with all perishables, if a grower is concerned about being able to meet demand for a certain quantity of a product, an option is to combine their harvests with another grower's and supply the amount needed. At any time, if a grower is not able to supply product for an order he should offer to find an alternative supplier. Such actions demonstrate to the chef that the particular grower is reliable and committed to fulfilling their responsibilities.

Growers should discuss with chefs how products should be handled before delivery, for example whether the chef would be interested in and willing to pay for the product to be partially processed before delivery. A smaller restaurant or a restaurant with a large menu selection might be interested in products that arrive in "ready to use" condition. This could include supplying chestnuts or beans that have been shelled or other items that need to be processed to some extent before they can be used in a meal. Being able to take an item from the shipping container and add it directly to a mixing bowl, roasting pan, or even a dining plate or platter could be considered a valuable benefit, and one that the growers should charge for.

It is often the case that growers will work with chefs who have prior knowledge of and have worked extensively with produce offered, therefore their need for information on how to prepare and store the item would be minimal. Sometimes a chef who is unfamiliar with a produce item or who has had no experience with preparing it may welcome some information and insight from the grower. Chefs unfamiliar with using edible flowers as an ingredient, or as a garnish, may not realize that it is best to just serve the flower petals (except for tiny flowers such as lilac), as stems and pistils may be bitter and detract from the pleasant taste of the petals. Offering fact sheets created by Extension, or other reliable sources, is a reasonable solution to this potential problem.

It is highly reasonable for chefs to coordinate with growers as to what produce they would be interested in for the future. Such an arrangement has benefits for both parties, with growers having the opportunity to introduce new offerings that chefs might not have known could be grown locally or even considered. Along with being able to supply chefs with new products, growers should be realistic in offering produce during the seasons that it can be truly grown, either in a field or in a protective structure. If a chef is interested in a seasonal item either before or after this period and requests it, it is necessary to inform the chef that the request can not be guaranteed. The chef can then choose to find a supplier to fill the void when the product is not available locally.

Understandably, chefs have many demands on their time and growers will need to learn how to work with each chef's personality and mannerisms. Though establishing a relationship with a chef may seem like a daunting task, the outcome may yield a working partnership that results in stable demand and an appreciation for the grower's products. Certainly growers will need to take the initial steps and investigate potential chef clientele and make certain that these customers completely understand what can realistically be grown, while charging prices necessary for them to become sustainable and profitable. With the restaurant industry reporting positive trends concerning the number of meals consumers are eating outside their home, it is possible that marketing to professional chefs will yield many additional opportunities for local growers for years to come.

Suggested Further Reading

  • Anonymous. 2006. Restaurant industry facts. National Restaurant Association, Accessed January 5, 2006.
  • Brooks, S. 2005. What's so special about echo boomers? Restaurant Business, Accessed January 5, 2006.
  • Kelley, K.M. and B.K. Behe. 2002. Chefs' perceptions and uses of 'Colossal' chestnuts. HortTechnology 12(1):172.
  • Kelley, K.M., B.K. Behe, J.A. Biernbaum, and K.L. Poff. 2001. Consumer and chef perception of three edible-flower species. HortScience 36(1):162-166.
  • Montri, D.N., K.M. Kelley, and E.S. Sánchez. 2006. Direct marketing edamame (Glycine max [L.] Merrill) to professional chefs. Journal of Extension 44(1).