When Technomic released a study last year that researched transparency in the supply chain, Garden Fresh Restaurant Corporation CEO John Morberg took the data seriously. The study found that most consumers want restaurants to be more transparent about ingredients, and Morberg knew customers at Garden Fresh’s Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation restaurants were no different.
“Guests ask us all the time, ‘Where does this come from?’” Morberg says. The answer is that the brands’ ingredients come from local farms and ranches—no middlemen involved—but Morberg believed the company wasn’t doing enough to share that story with customers.
Inspired by Garden Fresh’s recent “Discover Fresh” campaign, which is a store remodel and marketing program focused on the brand’s dedication to farm-to-table food, Morberg developed what Garden Fresh calls “Farm Teams.” The Teams are employee duos in each store that serve as brand ambassadors, sharing the company’s authentic story of healthy, sustainable foods.
When the company launched the endeavor in November, it also invited Garden Fresh farmers to one of the chain’s 12 San Diego locations to converse face-to-face with transparency-hungry guests.
Bob Campbell, a fourth-generation grower at Campbell Ranches in Lompoc, California—also known as “Broccoli Bob” to the Garden Fresh family—spoke with consumers about the importance of generating appeal for healthy foods.
“I think the more people you can introduce to freshness, good quality, and a more flavorful product, then the more people are going to be attracted to vegetables,” Campbell says.
And he’s willing to take the transparency process a step further: Campbell invites customers to his farm to show them exactly how the broccoli they eat at Garden Fresh restaurants makes it to their plates. A few days after the initial event, one family took Campbell up on his offer.
“This family drove up from San Diego to see how we grow broccoli,” he says. “It was a great experience for me.” Campbell took the family on a tour of the entire ranch, allowing them to experience first-hand the growing, harvesting, packing, cooling, and delivery processes for broccoli production.
But not all customers can afford to make the five-hour trip from San Diego to Campbell Ranches. That’s why Garden Fresh’s Farm Teams provide customers with a smaller-scale version of the farm-to-table experience, Morberg says.
“The intention of the Farm Team is to help teach [guests], enlighten them, and let them know what we’re doing with our partner farmers that are out there, and the type of quality produce that we receive from them,” he says.
Sustainability innovation advocate Nancy Himmelfarb says the Farm Teams are a great direction for a restaurant company.
“They certainly are capitalizing on consumer interest in local foods,” Himmelfarb says. She points to the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” trend list in its 2015 Forecast as proof that these types of campaigns are what customers are interested in. The chef survey found that locally sourced, environmentally sustainable, minimally processed, and healthy foods were in the top five food trends chefs expected this year.
The Farm Teams test phase is underway in San Diego, consisting of six brand ambassador teams that rotate weekly throughout Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants at peak hours. Team members wear bright green T-shirts to stand out among restaurant visitors. Some teams meet and greet patrons at the door, while others chat directly with guests via table-to-table interactions.
Without millions of dollars to spend on advertising and public relations, Morberg says, these word-of-mouth interactions are cost-efficient ways to spread the Garden Fresh story. The Farm Teams also publicize the Garden Fresh story via radio advertisements and through informative coloring sheets for younger restaurant guests.
“A lot of kids are saying they want to be part of the Farm Teams,” he says. “We’re thinking it could go in really great directions. I’m going to send busloads of kids to see Bob.”
Based on positive guest feedback thus far, Morberg feels optimistic about expanding the program. He aims to plant Farm Teams in locations in Los Angeles and Orange County in the coming months. If efforts continue to prove successful, the company will expand the Farm Team concept across the U.S.
As Garden Fresh expands its Farm Team reach, Himmelfarb says, the company must continue to practice what it preaches. “There is nothing to lose and everything to gain from being open and honest about what’s in your food,” she says. “If they’re saying, ‘We’re fresh and we’re doing all this great stuff,’ that is fantastic. But then they need to be able to back it up.”
Morberg is more than ready to heed Himmelfarb’s advice. “All we have to do is just authentically tell the story,” he says. “We have nothing to hide. We only have great things to tell, and we think that’s the best way to serve the freshest meal and experience we can for our guests.”
Consumer demand for ‘real foods’ grows
Fresh, seasonal and less processed ingredients sought after by Millennials and baby boomers alike
Consumer expectations of food have been in a state of flux driven in large part by dramatic demographic shifts. The huge baby boomer cohort is being supplanted by the massive Millennial generation, and both groups are forcing a reconsideration of issues relating to health and diet. Boomers seek to maintain youthfulness and vigor as they age, and Millennials seek to do the ethical thing for their bodies and the planet. The net result is a steadily growing demand for so-called real foods, a term that is difficult to define and not governed by any formal standards of identity. Real foods do have certain hallmarks in common: They’re typically perceived as fresh, seasonal and less processed. Beyond that, their definition is fluid and evolving, and they afford operators a number of opportunities to address patron demand.
Real foods are clean. A growing focal point of customer concern is food treated with antibiotics or hormones or containing artificial ingredients, and many operators are moving to allay their guests’ fears. Early in 2014, Chick-fil-A announced a five-year phase-out of all poultry raised with antibiotics. While Panera Bread has been serving antibiotic-free chicken for a decade, the chain recently declared that it would remove all artificial additives and preservatives from its menu by the end of 2016. Last December, Starbucks leapt into the fray by asking suppliers to halt the use of artificial growth hormones. Quick-service hamburger chains, often a lightning rod for criticism, have also jumped on board. Carl’s Jr. grabbed headlines by introducing the All-Natural Burger made from grass-fed, free-range beef that has been raised without added hormones, antibiotics or steroids. The burger, which carries a premium price tag and scored extremely well in test markets, is being considered for sister brand Hardee’s.
Real foods are classics. Concerns regarding the health consequences of trans fats, which are in hydrogenated vegetable oils used in many processed foods, led the Food and Drug Administration to outlaw their use and led restaurateurs to search for alternatives. Beneficiaries include animal fats in general and butter in particular, which has seen consumption jump to a 40-year high as consumers demand wholesome foods with easy-to-understand ingredient lists. Of course, many chefs and bakers never turned away from the product, but others are moving to capitalize on its resurgence. Jack in the Box, for example, introduced the Classic Buttery Jack, in which the beef patty is topped with melted garlic-herb butter, a treatment typically reserved for steaks; and Epic Burger, a Chicago-based better-burger competitor, promotes non-processed, all-natural food and touts its buttered buns.
Like butter, lard never truly lost its luster as a cooking agent of choice in professional kitchens and bakeries, despite being shunned by fat-phobic consumers. Also like butter, it’s undergoing a revival. Chicago’s Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits proclaims that it “proudly uses leaf lard,” the milder fat found along the pork loin. Nearby Honey Butter Fried Chicken has generated publicity with Schmaltz Smashed Potatoes, using chicken fat left over from the whole Amish chickens butchered there, and in Los Angeles, Top Round Roast Beef, a roast-beef sandwich specialist, cooks its hand-cut fries in 100 percent beef fat.
Real foods are beneficial. Greek yogurt, with its amped-up protein content, has taken grocery dairy cases by storm, and protein-rich quinoa has swept menus. Riding on the wave of these better-for-you powerhouses, broth has broken out all over. Prized for its restorative properties, broth has become the “it” beverage at independents like Brodo in New York City and Red Apron Butchery in Washington, D.C., which offer it as a convenient, nutritious pick-me-up. Sibling chains Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation featured Asian Ginger Broth as a January special, and Panera Bread has launched a line of Broth Bowls that includes a Lentil Quinoa Bowl with Cage-Free Egg.
Looking ahead, the concept of real food will continue to gain currency as an umbrella term encompassing a broad range of product promises, including sustainably grown, organic and farm to table, as well as fresh or freshly made local and seasonal foods. Understanding their patrons’ expectations of real food will enable operators to successfully address the trend.