Restaurant Rewards Program Encourages Restaurants to Buy Local Ingredients

Article by: Cathy Lockman, farmflavor.com

Since the day Jeremy Ashby opened the doors of his restaurant seven years ago, he has engaged in what he calls “enlightened hospitality.”

“It’s a commitment to the strong, growing tradition of our Kentucky agricultural heritage,” he says. “That’s where enlightened hospitality starts, and it ends in the support for the local food movement, for the small family farming operations in the state and for the use of more Kentucky Proud ingredients.”

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As chef and partner of Azur Restaurant in Lexington, Ashby puts his money where his mouth is, buying and preparing a variety of local foods for his customers. Depending on the season, Azur’s menu could include free-range chicken, farm-raised fish, local beef and pork, and a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables from local producers like Duncan Farms, Aquaculture of Kentucky and Food Leaf Farms.

Local foods provide the inspiration for the Azur menu. Ashby and his staff provide the culinary expertise to create unique dishes with lots of Kentucky ingredients tossed with an international flavor and served with contemporary flair. The Department of Agriculture provides some help, too, through Restaurant Rewards, a program that reimburses restaurants and other food service providers up to 20 percent of the cost of the Kentucky Proud products they purchase each year.

“It’s a great incentive,” says Ashby. “Local farmers work hard, and the hard work is reflected in more expensive prices for their products, sometimes 20 to 30 percent more. The rebate program really levels the playing field for the farmer and allows us to support the local food movement without bearing all the cost.”

Eating It Up

Heirloom Restaurant in Midway also participates in the Restaurant Rewards program. Owner and chef Mark Wombles is committed to supporting Kentucky family farms and fills his menu with dishes like organic roasted chicken from Pike Valley Farm, hickory-smoked brisket appetizers and pork sliders from Marksbury Farms, and BLTs featuring Kentucky heirloom tomatoes.

“The program makes a big difference in what I buy,” says Wombles. “It’s a great way to encourage the purchase of locally grown products, which benefits both the farmers and the businesses. And that helps the local economy overall, especially in tough times.”

Ashby agrees, saying Kentucky farmers are responding to the growing support of their products by producing lots of interesting varieties and working with restaurants to provide what chefs want. At the same time, they’re doing it with a nod to the past.

“This is what food used to be,” says Ashby. “Small family farms in Kentucky and Appalachia have been untouched by GMOs and fertilizers and unscathed from cross breeding, which means we have access to some truly heirloom products.” It makes what might be considered “old” production methods “new and hip,” Ashby adds.

Heirloom and Azur are just two of the more than 200 restaurants and food services participating in the Restaurant Rewards program today. Angela Caporelli, the program’s director, says the approximately $125,000 in reimbursements, which come from the Kentucky Proud marketing program, translates into more than $1 million in direct farm gate value.

“It’s an investment that provides a great return for the local agriculture community,” says Caporelli. “Everyone benefits really. The restaurants get a fresh product and don’t have to store a lot of inventory. The public gets flavorful, locally grown food. And the farmers get more than just business; they develop relationships with the chefs that can open up additional opportunities to grow new products or different varieties.”

According to Caporelli, those aren’t the only benefits of the program. “Recently, we’ve had a big increase in school and hospital food services committed to buying local. That adds another dimension to the program, because it allows schools to educate students about both local foods and healthy eating.” Caporelli also says the idea is catching on with health-care food service providers, too. Some are even giving incentives to workers who order the local foods on their cafeteria menus as a way to encourage healthy choices.

A Recipe for Success

What started in Kentucky may well be duplicated across the country in the near future. Alaska is developing a Restaurant Rewards program, after hearing about Kentucky’s success. Caporelli says Hawaii and Wisconsin have expressed interest in initiating a similar program.