The restaurant chalkboard, formerly a vehicle for listing daily specials, has evolved beyond menu and marketing to become a powerful communication tool to illustrate a restaurant's sustainable practices. Walk inside any Sweetgreen, a national fast casual salad chain, and you'll likely be met with an enlarged chalkboard listing all local and seasonal purveyors. Customers can see a list of the exact farms and locations where their ingredients hail from. This commitment to transparency and local sourcing has increasingly become commonplace for restaurants across the country, building a sense of trust with customers by offering narrative on the “who," “what" and “where" behind their food.
And now, the “how." Today, chefs and restaurant owners are not only responding to consumers' appetite to understand where their food is coming from, but are also finding innovative ways to welcome them into the process and break down barriers to food production. Greecologies, a grass-fed Greek yogurt cafe in New York City's Nolita neighborhood, made the decision to open up their production to customers by building a large window into the onsite yogurt lab. Perched up on a counter stool, customers can watch large vats rumble and fresh yogurt being strained as if enjoying a culinary documentary, of course accompanied with a ceramic bowl of yogurt, figs and honey in hand. Further supporting its transparent and sustainable approach to production, Greecologies uses its yogurt's byproducts to create some of its signature beverages, like a re-imagined summer staple: probiotic whey lemonade.
Creating real-time conversations around sustainability and food production was just one of the missions behind smart indoor farm startup Farmshelf. Partnering with restaurants, food halls and corporate offices, Farmshelf is transforming the growing process by positioning automated indoor farm installations prominently front-of-house for all customers to engage. These refrigerator-sized mobile shelving units grow plants and herbs two to three times faster—and use 90 percent less water—than traditional agriculture. Counting restaurants and food halls such as Beefsteak in Washington, D.C. and Great Northern Food Hall in New York City as customers, Farmshelf affords renowned chefs the opportunity to broker new dialogues around food sourcing and production. “Customers want to know the story of where their food comes from," says Farmshelf co-founder and chief revenue officer Jean-Paul Kyrillos. “Farmshelf helps tells that story. It's being grown right in the restaurant, moving feet, not miles."
Launched in 2017, Farmshelf is already seeing early restaurant partners order additional units. Beyond the benefit of having access to greens on demand, Farmshelf offers chefs and restaurant owners new visual cues to illustrate their commitment to hyperlocal sourcing and create deeper connections with their diners. Kyrillos remembers one customer musing about Farmshelf units: “There seems to always be forehead marks on the glass."
For Dock to Dish co-founder, Sean Barrett, having direct access to the food source is key. “Nine out of 10 seafood products in this country are imported," says Barrett. “A lot of fish operations today are opaque, with the process being hidden from the public."
—Sean Barrett, co-founder, Dock to Dish
As a way of pulling back the curtain on seafood production and re-establishing a “know your fishermen" culture, Dock to Dish, based in Montauk, New York, is committed to selling seafood that can be traced back to a licensed commercial fishermen and a specific vessel. It does this by not only selling direct to member restaurants, shortening the supply chain, but also leveraging live tracking technology, allowing restaurants to monitor their catch in real-time, from fishermen at sea to dock to doorstep. The company works with partner fishermen and member restaurants, who subscribe for weekly fresh catches.
And member restaurants aren't the only ones with access to Dock to Dish live tracking events. According to Barrett, “We had this kick the door down mentality, that if this was going to work, and we were going to create a truly transparent and traceable marketplace, we had to make it 100 percent open to the public." Now anyone who follows Dock to Dish can sign up for alerts and tune in to watch a livestreamed tracking event, which happen periodically.
For those who miss out on events, Dock to Dish still offers robust details on each catch, generating QR codes for both restaurant members and their customers to scan and access information on the fishermen, vessel, gear type and species of fish.
Already working with restaurants and food halls like Blue Hill Stone Barns, Gramercy Tavern and Eataly in New York City, Dock to Dish is fast expanding across the world, serving up local, traceable seafood in markets like Los Angeles, Vancouver, London and even Fiji. Barrett and the Dock to Dish team are committed to transforming the seafood marketplace and how we as consumers relate to the purchasing and dining experience. “In the future, it's going to be commonplace to say, if you can't track it, don't buy it."
Global restaurant, cafe and grocery chains seem to be following suit. Leveraging traceability technology, Starbucks has announced Bean to Cup, a program intended to help create transparency around its supply chain. Sharing real-time information on the coffee bean journey, Starbucks is working to unite its customers with coffee farmers and invite them into the sourcing and production process.
Customers today crave narrative. We seek to develop connections to the growers, makers and producers behind our food, to better understand their stories and support a more sustainable food community and ecosystem. And if we can participate in the storytelling, and help create impactful change as part of exposing and celebrating the production process, well, that would be a delicious dish indeed.