2011 April: SOURCING FRESH INGREDIENTS

When Chris and Kate Saville opened The Flatz Company in Wyckoff, New Jersey, about a year ago, they knew they wanted to use fresh ingredients. They just didn’t know where to find them.

“It took a lot of trial and error and calling people,” says Chris, who is from England and did not have foodservice experience in the U.S. “It was a puzzle in some ways.” He quickly found that he needed more than one vendor. Food distribution giant Sysco could source tomatoes, lettuce and other fresh produce from California, where certain items are available year-round. Seasonal fruits such as berries for smoothies would come from New Jersey. For gourmet items, The Flatz Co. buys from a specialty vendor.

Saville says he juggles various vendor contracts because offering fresh ingredients fits with the eatery’s mission to offer high quality, healthy, thin-crust pizzas. If people are going to spend $14 for a single serving pie, they want organic exotic mushrooms and bacon from heritage breed pigs. Also, he says, there’s a practical reason for offering fresh ingredients. “We have a tiny freezer space, and we can use it only for ice cream and frozen yogurt.”

As more customers demand fresh ingredients, even in the off-season, operators are responding. That means they have to look for the right vendors, get creative with the menu, and become experts at ordering.

For some, the challenge is not only how to buy fresh ingredients, but also how to find produce that is grown locally, answering another important consumer trend. Renee Kreager, who with her husband, Steven, co-own Eclectic Pizza in Tucson, Arizona, says they buy tomatoes from a supplier in Wilcox, Arizona. “They have a greenhouse, so we are able to get their tomatoes year ‘round,” she says. She buys soy organic cheese from a small business in Tucson and coffee from a local roaster. Another giant distributor, U.S. Foods, provides other ingredients.

Tomatoes aren’t the only ingredients that are grown indoors and are available year-round. Rob Beall, CEO of 100-unit Ledo Pizza, says the Annapolis, Maryland-based company buys mushrooms from a family owned farm in Pennsylvania. “We are family owned, we sell franchises to local families, and many of our vendors are family owned companies,” says Beall, who is third generation at Ledo Pizza.

Some operators change the menu as the seasons change. Troy Mains, executive chef at No. 10 Water Restaurant in Brunswick, Maine, says he buys produce locally. In February, for example, potatoes are available, as are brussels sprouts. So Mains, who offers Gourmet Pizza Night every Tuesday, offers thinly sliced potatoes and truffle oil on pizza. Another topping option is pickled brussels sprouts. “You have to get creative during winter,” he says. He adds that walking through the farmers market is also a good way to get information and recipe ideas.

Mains estimates that the fresh vegetables cost about double what the canned versions cost. His food costs at the high-end restaurant are 28 to 33 percent. “It works because of menu incorporation,” he explains. “If I buy 100 pounds of potatoes, we are using potatoes for other things on the menu.”

Expensive ingredients don’t always lead to high food costs. One way to keep food costs down is to limit waste. Kreager uses tomatoes in more than one recipe. Perfect-looking tomatoes are sliced for salads, where they can be showcased. “We really pride ourselves in our salads being super fresh,” she says. The less beautiful tomatoes are chopped as a topping or diced for salsa.

It helps to have a limited menu, says Saville. The Flatz Company offers 14 different pies, or customers can create their own from a short list of gourmet toppings. “It’s not like we have to order a vast array of different things,” he says. “It allows us to make sure we use everything, and not have anything laying around and not ever being used.” He offers one type of lettuce, romaine, for salads and as a pizza topping. (Yes, he says, lettuce is a popular topping.) Other ingredients that work well as pizza toppings and for salads include cherry tomatoes, bacon and fresh mozzarella.

Another way to reduce waste is to place small orders with vendors and have food delivered a few times a week instead of one large weekly order. Eclectic Pizza places orders to be delivered Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. If it looks like they still have a large amount of an ingredient heading into the weekend, Kreager calls and revises the Saturday delivery. She also makes sure she sees the orders when they arrive. “If I can see one tomato busted open, I know it will affect the tomatoes around it. So I can say, ‘these four are bad,’ and I either get a refund on them or they bring me new ones.”

If, after all the careful planning there is still too much of one ingredient, she finds a way to repurpose. For example, red peppers are not exactly the most popular pizza topping. So if Kreager ends up with too many, she roasts them and adds them to salads.

She says customers will pay more if they know the ingredients are fresh and high quality. “People do understand it is a costly thing,” she says. “What you’re paying for is great organic food for less than $20 dollars a head.” u

Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in food and business topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado.