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Lessons From a Salad Bar

July 13, 2010

Last week I suggested it was important for restaurants that use local ingredients to detail which products are actually local on their menus.  This was met with some support and some resistance.

My old friend Raf, who is the fussiest of the fussy, said:

FWIW, I find cluttering up the menu with lots of source info about the food to be pretty tiresome. It just doesn’t read well. I’d rather see a mission statement about local sourcing, a list of farms, and info from the server about specials or extra good stuff that local/seasonal/etc.

Raf doesn’t live here.  He’s still out in Northern California.  And I don’t think he quite understands the breadth of the chasm between menus here and menus there.  But I do concede his and B’s point about menu clutter, as well as NCR’s point about the difficulty of updating menus daily.

This is why I was so excited to see a solution to both problems at Sweet Green on my recent trip to Washington D.C.

I have no love of salad bars, as I prefer to eat my vegetables cooked.  But this place really seems to have captured the zeitgeist of making healthful food choices for a healthy body and a healthy planet.  And they have done it with a quick service restaurant where the menu caps out around $10.

They have a printed menu board that is impossible to change on a daily basis.  Still, not only do they pledge to support local farms and use seasonal ingredients, but they actually list which ingredients are coming from which farms on any given day.

Their simple yet elegant solution is a prominently displayed blackboard.

Granted, this may not match up with every restaurant’s look and feel.  But that is not to say that there couldn’t be a supplemental sheet provided to diners in some way or another that contains this changing daily information.  Not that I think it needs to change every day, but dealing with small suppliers has its challenges.

Prominently displaying which ingredients specific local farms are supplying is fundamentally different from relying on a server to relay this information.  And maybe this has to do with my advertising and marketing background.  But the printed word has a lot of power.  It’s static.  People can linger over it, and go back to it.  Having a waiter mention a specific farm in passing is less likely to have the same lasting impact on the diner.

Naturally all of this information should be listed online as well, since that is where many diners go to examine restaurant menus before deciding where to eat.

Part of the importance of restaurants’ using local food is to illustrate to consumers how delicious it can be so they might be inspired to buy locally themselves.  Seeing the names of farms and the ingredients they supply on the menu of better local restaurants is a big part of educating consumers about where to find the good stuff.

Another important part of seeing the local ingredients change from week to week is that the restaurant is helping their customers learn about what food is actually seasonal.  And it can do it without changing the menu.  Maybe, just maybe, diners will be inspired to start eating more seasonably if the menus or menu supplements provided a guide of what produce was actually in season. If that happens, perhaps we will start seeing an end of caprese salads on the menu in December and pear salads on the menu in June.

I do believe these things are connected.  And I would like more restaurants to get on board.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Raf permalink
    July 14, 2010 11:32 am

    I think we’re in agreement – I suggested three things, two of them in powerful, static written words:

    1. a mission statement about local sourcing (local, organic, sustainable, tasty, whatever)

    2. a list of farms

    3. info from the server about specials or extra good stuff that local/seasonal/etc.

    The third is important. A server excited about the product can explain why the diner MUST, right now, try vine ripe, dry farmed amazing tomatoes because the season is short.

    Writing too much about the virtues of food can come off as pretentious. Simply being excited about how amazing a perfect peach tastes and wanting other people to experience it is much more accessible.

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